Quixotics Anonymous

Parkinsons laws in action

By on July 25, 2009. Filed Under: business, humour

It’s intervention time. You know on TV, whenever they show a meeting of alcoholics/gamblers/narcotics anonymous, the first thing a member has to state before they get to address the group is “Hello. My Name is name and I’m a whatever”? Admitting you are a whatever is step one of the so-called twelve step program. It’s powerful because, regardless of the story or anecdote that follows, you must begin by facing the reality of things. No excuses. You may have just had a great week but there’s no resting on your laurels because you’re still a whatever. You must never forget that because to conquer what ails you, you first have to accept that it holds something over you. Only then can you build your strategy, conscious of the fact that it, whatever it is, will always be waiting to regain the upper hand.

When I first came to the realisation that making software was the career for me I knew I needed two things: a comprehensive grasp of the science, techniques, logic and philosophies of what makes software “good”, and someone, or somewhere, with a need for good software.

Determining what makes software good is, admittedly, something of a mixed bag. It’s a time-consuming process with no perceivable end, with ups and downs, headaches and enlightenment in equal measure. But ultimately it’s rewarding in the sense that my enthusiasm for it has if anything increased over the years. Whenever there’s a hint that I may have mastered even the simplest thing and I am immediately surprised or inspired by the postings and presentations of kindred spirits from all corners of the world.

The latter has been a very different story. Despite an overwhelming, often livelihood-threatening, need for good software the corporate enterprises of this world unconsciously do everything they possibly can to frustrate the creation and exploitation of it. They whine and moan about how incompetent and inadequate their IT workforce is whilst at the same time fully insuring that there is only the remotest chance of good software being delivered. Shitty, rushed, unmaintainable software seems to be the inexorable result.

Welcome to Quixotics Anonymous.

Hello. My name is Julian ..

(“Welcome Julian..”)

.. and I’m a quixote.1 It’s been fifteen minutes since I last complained about the futility of my professional existence and yet still went into another meeting to try and change things for the better.

(General mumblings of recognition. Someone at the back says “Amen to that brother. We’ve all been there.”)

Let me put this another way. You must have noticed that many effective people in information technology, whether developers, architects, team leads, even non-technical commercial product managers, when faced with a challenging and potentially complex piece of work, will adopt a similar response:

If you want this delivered, give me a small hand-picked team and some equipment to work with then leave me the hell alone.

The hand-picked team typically contains between two and maybe ten people, depending on the nature of the work and the preferences and skills of its members, and equipment encompasses everything from hardware and software to whiteboards, meeting areas and a quite place to work. Leaving them alone pretty much speaks for itself.

Most notably, they instinctively feel all this before they know the details of what’s being asked of them. That teams are so often not hand-picked, have no kit, and are not left unmithered is the cause of many a project failure.

But why is that? On the surface it seems that we’re talking about a kind of prescient understanding of project phenomena such as Brooks’ Law, which states:

Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later

We know that new team members can take a considerable amount time to become effective and we also know that even when they have been fully incorporated you have the issue of ( N * ( N - 1 ) ) / 2 possible communication paths in any team of N members. The bigger N is, the more time you will devote to communication rather than delivery. Most us probably have a sense of the range of values for N we’re comfortable with before a project even starts and therefore at which point we might feel like making a run for it if we sensed a megaproject being foisted upon us.

I can see how good software is promoted via the hand-picked team, but why the need to be left alone? What about stakeholder management? Customer involvement? Why is it so many of us incline toward the bunker mentality of software delivery?

I used to suspect the reasons were emotional rather than logical, based perhaps on a sense of insecurity. A sense that being open and inclusive is a fast-track way to expose embarrassing gaps in the purported grasp of what makes good software. Despite including myself in this camp I wondered if it might not be a little immature to shy away from embracing all-comers of the very business that needs my help - a whole half of my raison d’être as a software person.

But it’s not me, it’s them. Or rather it’s the compulsion to make something good and useful, combined with the debilitating malaise of management, that causes all the grief.

It’s why we need Quixotics Anonymous. A society dedicated to those of us who tilt at the windmills of corporate software development, getting beaten, buggered, and bruised and still return to work each day, frustrated but unbowed and undaunted.

Our patron saint is one C. Northcote Parkinson, a man who in the 1950s and early 1960s applied his peculiar brand of incontrovertible logic and acerbic wit to the inner workings of management ego and organised bureaucracy and explained, clearly and thoroughly, why everything we ever experience is the way that it is.

So, if you feel a distinct sense of unease at the growing use of phrases like “stakeholder analysis”, “consensus-driven approach”, and “matrix management” Quixotics Anonymous is for you. Please. Have a seat. You don’t have to contribute until you’re ready. Remember, there’s nothing to be ashamed of here. You’ll soon see that we’re all just like you.

Quixotics Anonymous is based on the explanation of three truths. Truths that govern and frustrate our daily lives in corporate IT. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that IT and the business are created equal, that they are endowed by the executive board with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, delivery and the avoidance of crappiness.

Behold the Truths.

Truth 1: People Kill Projects

Parkinson is best known for his eponymous Parkinson’s Law, which comes from an essay called “Parkinson’s Law, or the Rising Pyramid”, first published in The Economist in 1955 and edited later for a book of collected essays in 1957. The first sentence of the essay (book edition) is:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

What is less well known is that he proves this by showing that, in addition to the communication overhead dictated by Brooks’ Law which distracts from the task at hand, people will generate all sorts of work to avoid the task at hand, including the begetting of other people. Here’s how it works:

All businesses, and many projects, start small (business start-ups being populated by refugees seeking asylum from the corporate world). Because they are small they are also busy. Busy people naturally feel overworked from time to time and overwork can be dealt with in three ways: leave, share the work with a peer, or hire subordinates.

Leaving is out of the question because that either means going back to corporate hell or to another, equally busy, small team.

Sharing work with a peer makes sense but, because responsibility has a relationship to power, it’s hard to stomach the creation of a rival for promotion etc.

So the third option is invariably taken. Creating subordinates also has the advantage that they represent a kind of authority in the empire building sense. Nobody likes to look idle (and therefore expendable) so the new subordinates will make themselves busy and repeat the whole process, even if all the work perceived here is imaginary.

The bigger the team is, the less likely it is that any important work will get done and the more frustrated you will feel. It isn’t your fault. Still, it will all change once a few of those big life-changing decisions are made at the top. Right? Wrong.

Truth 2: All Important Decisions Are Made Badly

In the essay “High Finance, or the Point of Vanishing Interest”, Parkinson introduces the concept of bikeshedding - a phenomenon derived from his Law of Triviality and something that affects all technology decisions to some degree but especially the really important ones.

When a committee of stakeholders gather to debate technology futures, they will naturally come to the table with differing levels of understanding. Some will have no clue as to what’s even being discussed (but of course cannot say as much otherwise they would logically have to leave the room), some will understand parts of it but have no idea of what the ramifications of any decision will be (which puts them essentially in the same position as the ones who know nothing), one or two might be in a position to add some value. The idea that all of them are clueless we can set aside as its consequences are clear. But remember, the more esoteric the technology under review (web2.0, soa, grid technology, cloud computing..) the lower the percentage of knowledgeable attendees.

The needs of the majority will steer the conversation in and around safe areas that they understand, avoiding at all costs any aspects which might expose their lack of comprehension. The minority, sensing this and reluctant to have to spend the whole meeting explaining everything from first principles, will simply keep their mouths shut. Any final decision therefore is likely to be the wrong one, or more commonly no decision will be made at all, leaving anyone dependent upon it twiddling their thumbs for another month.

However, once a genuinely trivial item appears on the agenda (Parkinson uses the topic of what colour the bike shed should be painted, or the type of refreshment to be served at the next meeting) everyone is equally comfortable and will waste as much of meeting as they dare in discussing it. Except the knowledgeable techies who will surreptitiously check their email on their iPhone and dream of working in a start-up where this sort of thing never happens.

Truth 3: Management Hates You

In “Injelititis, or Palsied Paralysis”, Parkinson explains why it is that some organisations, despite the furious activity and the intense meetings described above, appear to abide by the motto: attempt little, achieve nothing - and why those who might be vocal against this (unfortunately all members of Quixotics Anonymous) are doomed to remain in the shadows for their entire career, or until they leave which is the preferred option.

The symptoms are caused by a pernicious four-stage disease known as Injelititis, which unfortunately is often fatal. The stages are as follows:

Because of Truth 1 it is inevitable that at some point someone will be brought into the organisational hierarchy with a special blend of incompetence and jealousy. This is Stage 1. All employees carry with them both characteristics but when the ratio of ineffectiveness to resentment of the effectiveness of others is 3:5 you have something Parkinson called injelitance, which manifests itself in a primitive need to constantly undermine others whilst achieving precisely nothing and, because of truth 2, this will naturally result in promotion to a position of power.

Because of what I called the Retep Principle, you can guarantee that this person will not be technical. This is Stage 2, which leads to a steady exodus of anyone remotely capable in their work. Stage 3 is reached when all layers of management are devoid of any intelligence whatsoever, resulting in an organisational coma. Stage 4 is death.

Stage 3 is often earmarked by a pervasive smugness, created by the fact that because nothing of any importance is ever attempted, success is all but guaranteed. Cures are rare but two that Parkinson highlights are a drug called Ridicule which is fairly mild and therefore those with Injelititis may already have built up some resistance, and the insertion of an individual who can feign Injelitance just long enough to gain power and surprise everyone by admitting that they were in fact competent all along.


So this is what they meant
by 'remote working'

Life in corporate IT can be mentally very trying - just keeping up to date with current with trends (even if only to contextualise them and refute any grandiose claims of efficacy) would put off the majority of sane people, but having to do this and apply a sense of craftsmanship can send you all a bit doolally tap.

This goes double if you are the sort of person who measures their worth and happiness by what they’ve actually done, rather than what meetings they went to or how much paperwork they generated. Sometimes even the most dedicated and upbeat of us will feel like the pensive chap in Michael Sowa’s painting, “Denker”.

There are many people in IT itself who are under-skilled and inadequately equipped to face this challenge, but the majority of the issues arise in the business itself - both because many business are too immature to get the best out of their IT capability and because people do weird stuff when they gather together under the banner of a corporate enterprise. The more sophisticated and robust the organisation, the more likely it is that you will experience the weirdness. As Parkinson said “perfection of planning is a symptom of decay”.

It would be easy to see this as a diatribe against business generally, but as I stated at the beginning, without business corporate software people have no purpose. Plus of course, due to the era in which it was written, Parkinson never mentions IT at all. It is a war, but not against business, it’s a war against diversions and bureaucracy. One thing that’s always struck me is how at the very bottom and the very top of so many organisations the desires and constraints are the same. The executive board is a small team too. Sometimes a little dysfunctional, yes, but still a small team with a set of objectives. It’s all those people in the middle that you need to beware of.

Thank you for sharing.


  1. The term is taken from the famous book by Miguel de Cervantes “The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha”. Alonso Quixano, the main character, is a somewhat misguided would-be knight who undertakes a number of foolish quests, remaining irrepressible despite serious setbacks. Eventually he comes to see the world as it really is but in doing so loses his faith, which was all along an intrinsic part of his quixotic nature, and he dies.

  2. See also this Cure for Injelitance by Peter Brimelow.

  3. Copies of Michael Sowa’s paintings are available to buy online. A postcard of the work “Denker” is available from Inkognito.

  4. Finally, remember that not all failure is bad. According to Berglas’s Corollary to Parkinson’s Law much of what we do isn’t as effective as we think it is anyway, and failure therefore teaches us ways to address it.