I learn about things that can help marketing from all sorts of interesting sources.  For example, I heard about Parkinson’s Law from Malcolm Gladwell in his podcast “Revisionist History”.  At first, I thought he was talking about Parkinson’s Disease, the progressive nervous system disorder.  But Gladwell clarified that Parkinson’s Law is the belief that work will expand to fill the time allocated for its completion.  The logical extensions of the adage are:

  • That work will contract to fit the time we’ve allotted to it; and
  • That work complicates to fill available time.

The adage was penned by British naval historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a 1955 essay he wrote for The Economist.

Parkinson suggested that for various reasons, we are all hopelessly destined to find ourselves mired in inefficiency, either by rushing through a job to meet the deadline, or creating uselessly complex process if we have time to spare.  Not a very motivational Law in my opinion.

On the other hand, a more modern and upbeat interpretation was available on YouTube by a guy who assured his audience that Parkinson’s Law explains why he was able to do all of his homework at the last minute and still ace his studies.  Thank you for that.  I’m so glad my kids never met you when they were in high school.

Do law firms fall into the Parkinson trap?  In my experience, it’s a valid concern.  Here’s a typical example of delegation of a marketing task:

  • A task is handed out (perhaps to write a blog post, or conduct a client satisfaction interview), and a deadline set.
  • The deadline generally begins with sizable lead-time in which it is expected that the lawyer will get nothing done on the task. An example might be that a lawyer is given three or four weeks to deliver on a task that will take them between 30 minutes and two hours to complete.  Everyone knows that the lawyer will not commence work on the task until the last week of the deadline.   In fairness, the lawyer isn’t playing darts during the wait period.  They are managing a busy practice (which they are also doing in the last week).  Still, at some point the task must get done.
  • Usually within 48 hours of deadline, the lawyer will commence work on the task. Needless to say, the task will not have the same degree of research and insight that might have occurred with more contemplation and action, but it is at least done. (Unless the lawyer argues that they had insufficient time to do the task due to a recent client or other emergency, and asks for another month).

Why do they wait until the last minute to get actions – especially marketing actions – done?  Is it that they believe they’ll produce superior work in the last minute?  Is it that they don’t really believe in the task?  Is it that they agree the task should be done but don’t believe it deserves their best effort?   Either way it brings me to my real concern about Parkinson’s Law: that it suggests we are destined for lower quality work.

Parkinson’s initial reference to the law was meant to be a humorous critique on the growing inefficiency of public administration and civil service bureaucracy.  But in time he used the law to point out what he saw as human tendencies to work toward inefficiency in all areas.  In other words, Parkinson’s Law normalizes our tendency to be inefficient with our time.

The fact is that great marketing isn’t about meeting the deadline; it’s about doing great marketing.  The deadline is there to ensure you take the time to get it done, as non-billable work can fall beneath “going to the dentists” for a lawyer with billable work on their desk.

So how do we train ourselves out of the Parkinson’s Law belief (or practice)?  Let’s start by focusing on the outcome instead of the deadline with two simple steps:

  1. Have a plan for your task. Great marketing probably has steps to it.  Figure out what those steps are.  Don’t just have a conversation with someone…you probably need to do some research (on them, on the issue to be discussed) first.  Don’t just meet someone for lunch: take the time to set yourself some objectives for the lunch first.   Need to write an article?  First you need to determine the hot topics for your target audience (and who is your target audience by the way?); figure out how you will approach the subject, do your research, then write the article.  Whipping off something the night before it’s due is unlikely to produce a superior project to a more considered and planned approach.
  2. Don’t tie your deadline so close to your start time. If your task has steps, they’ll need to be started well before your deadline.  One you’ve planned out how you will do your task, put due dates beside each of those steps.  Chances are you will need to start on them long before 48 hours prior to deadline.

In summary, the best use of Parkinson’s Law is to mindfully crush it.

  • Work contracts to the time we’ve allocated to do something. If we’ve only allocated the last 48 hours of a one-month deadline, we’ll cram the task into that 48 hours.  This means that we’ll limit the scope of what we could have done, and probably won’t produce a high-work quality.
  • Work complicates to fill available time. With more time to actually work on a task, we can do a much better job of it, which will likely produce a better result. By having a plan, we ensure that we aren’t just filling time but rather, are using our time and efforts wisely.

When I’m coaching lawyers, our meetings take place every two weeks.  That’s enough time to give some thought to homework, but not enough time to dither about doing the tasks at hand.  If I gave them four weeks, they wouldn’t do their tasks until the fourth week and by then, they would have lost the full context from our previous conversation and the work caliber would suffer.

My clients have the benefit of a coach to keep them on-track and disciplined.  But at some point, they need to find that discipline on their own.  It usually results from having experienced the value of doing tasks well (instead of rushing through them at the last minute).  I know it’s hard to develop the discipline required to do great marketing on your own, but Parkinson’s Law suggests that without this discipline, we slip into much lower productivity and inefficiency.

In this way, Parkinson’s law and Parkinson’s Disease might have more in common that we think – they are both degenerative conditions.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers.  She can be reached at heather@heathergraygrant.com