Parkinson’s Law – What It Is, And How It Applies Today

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Written by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s law is a book that originally aimed to demonstrate the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.  Its origin can be exemplified in these corollaries cited on Wikipedia:

The first-referenced meaning of the law has dominated, and sprouted several corollaries, the best known being the Stock–Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s law: If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.

Other corollaries include Horstman’s corollary to Parkinson’s law: Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.

as well as corollaries relating to computers, such as: Data expands to fill the space available for storage.

However, the law is more commonly understood as “the self-satisfying uncontrolled growth of the bureaucratic apparatus in an organization”.  Notably, Parkinson himself applied it to large organizations and companies, and their construction of their large headquarters buildings, in the following phrase:

When a company or other organization is finally able to plan and build the perfect building for itself, the building best suited to its needs, that organization is in the throes of petrification and death.

So, how do we apply this?  Quite simply.  Parkinson’s law states that once a large organization, with a lot of bureaucracy, completes its grandiose, distinct, “perfect” headquarters building, that organization has reached its peak in its dominance over its competitors.  And, there is no single more pertinent example of Parkinson’s law than the DoD’s Pentagon.


The Pentagon first opened in 1943, but many wondered if the building would be mothballed or turned into a hospital after World War II, as it was largely unnecessary after the war.  It wasn’t until the National Security Act of 1947 when the building was first put to its true purpose, when the Navy, Army and newly created Air Force were all headquartered at the Pentagon on that date, under their new mandate of “national security”.  And 1947 is right around the time US military supremacy over the rest of the planet truly peaked.

I know what you’re thinking already, and you are correct – our military has grown substantially since then, and defense spending has gone up exponentially, but take yourself back to 1947 for a second.   America had just won WWII, and was the only nation on the planet with atomic bombs and the supremacy that goes along with them.  Not only that, nations all over the globe wanted to make alliances with the US, wary of the protection that would be provided by such supremacy.  But shortly afterwards, in 1949, the Soviet Union tested their first atomic bomb.  America now had to compete with Russia for global military supremacy.  Other nations followed (Britain in 1952, France in 1960, China in 1964).

America’s competition with Russia led both nations to nearly destroy each other in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  America subsequently went on to lose the Vietnam war, engage in countless military endevaours to extend its supremacy, and had to compete extensively with the Soviet Union, which reached its zenith in the late 1970s, arguably more powerful at the time than the United States.  Even to this date, the US  continues to be bogged down in expensive and often failed military campaigns.  And, even though the Soviet Union has collapsed, America still faces threats to its supremacy from other nations, notably Russia and China, and is still ballyhooed by their respective nuclear arsenals.  One could even put forward the argument that the Sept. 11th attack on the Pentagon itself, and the symbolism of actual damage on the nation’s military headquarters, is inherent of the beginning of the true waning of the nation’s military power.



There are other examples of national buildings marking a peak.  One is the Eiffel Tower in France, which was completed in 1889, right around France’s peak.  Another is the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, which was originally named the Burj Dubai, but subsequently renamed after Sheifk Khalifa ban Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE President, who directly allowed Abu Dhabi to bailout Dubai’s monstrous financial and real estate debt problems, which threatened to crash the city’s economy and status as a financial center.

So, how does Parkinson’s law apply to us today, and what can be inferred from it?  Well, it is pertinent to take a look at the example of Apple.  Set to open next year, its ‘spaceship’ headquarters is currently under construction for an estimated cost of $5 billion dollars.  If you take a look at the building, it is set to boast all sorts of features and energy efficiency.   I had previously told friends that I thought Apple peaked with the death of Steve Jobs, as his visionary nature and innovations were what powered Apple’s revival in the first place.  However, Jobs’ death has not led to a decline in Apple’s prominence over its competitors, as it appears Jobs was able to plan many new innovations and designs before his passing.  However, it is reasonable to assume that Parkinson’s law will apply to Apple, as its headquarters building open will be more indicative of a peak in the firm.


Similarly, I thought Comcast had peaked in 2008, with its completion of the Comcast Center.  However, the Comcast Center was merely the first of a two-building plan, with the second building due to be completed next year.  The new building, the Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, will be even taller than the Comcast Center, which itself was the tallest building in Philadelphia when it was completed.  I had thought that cable networks, television, and the control espoused by the cable companies themselves had peaked, but I think Parkinson’s law will again apply with the even larger center, marking Comcast’s zenith, which will likely be to the delight of its many customers who despise the firm so much, it is the most hated company in America.


A rendering of what the completed Comcast Innovation and Technology Center will look like, just to the right of the slightly shorter Comcast Center

Some people will  say Parkinson’s law is a poor indicator, and possibly say the example of the Pentagon shows just that, as our military has been the dominant power since WWII.  However, I’m certain that if you are honest with yourself, and look through the entire 240 year history of the United States, you will see that our military’s dominance over the rest of the world peaked in the late 1940s, right around the time the Pentagon became the military headquarters it still is today.  And, there are plenty of other historical examples where large structures mark peaks, notably the Eiffel Tower marking the peak of the French empire.

Where Parkinson’s law is most pertinent to us today is in examples that aren’t quite on the scale of nations.  The Burj Khalifa tower, previously the Burj Dubai, truly exemplified the peak of Dubai as a financial center, and exposed its reliance on Abu Dhabi and the rest of the UAE sheikhs.  Even more relevant to Americans, however, is the example of Comcast, as the completion of the Comcast Innovation and Technology Center will be symbolic of Comcast’s peak… if the cable giant hasn’t already peaked.

And, most importantly, Parkinson’s law  can sometimes even alert us to our own errors.  I was hardly alone in saying that Apple peaked with the death of Steve Jobs.  However, I think the new spaceship headquarters is far more symbolic of a firm on the decline.  I’m now on record of saying that I think Comcast and Apple will peak with the completion of their new headquarters buildings, if they haven’t peaked already with their construction.

Only time will tell if Parkinson’s law is a false indicator in the examples I’ve cited.  However, if you think the thesis is relevant, please feel free to share other examples, both past and present. 

However, I’m still searching for any indicator of Hillary’s peak in the polls.  Because, based on the chart, it wasn’t the Trump video leak.  Please share your thoughts, if you have any suggestions on what it could have been!