Thursday, April 12, 2007

Homage to C. Northcote Parkinson

Over the past week, I've had occasion to talk to former and current employees of one of our larger, more prestigious animation studios. They all complained about all the damn meetings they had to attend, and all the damn production assistants, unit production managers and administrative aides they had to go through to get a meeting with their artistic superior(s). And how this slowed down their work output and generally gummed things up.

As they talked, I thought about C. Northcote Parkinson and Parkinson's Law...

C. Northcote Parkinson was a deep-thinking Brit who closely observed government bureaucracies and how they work. And he came to some pithy conclusions about bureaucracies in general, not only the government kind but the corporate versions as well. And Parkinson had some choice observations:

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

"The smaller the function, the greater the management."

"A committee is organic rather than mechanical in its nature: it is not a structure but a plant. It takes root and grows, it flowers, wilts, and dies, scattering the seed from which other committees will bloom in their turn."

"Delay is the deadliest form of denial."

"Expenditures rise to meet income."

"When any organizational entity expands beyond 21 members, the real power will be in some smaller body."

There are many other Parkinsonisms, but you get the idea. Old C. Northcote cast a classically cynical eye on the institutions in which he worked, and came to enlightened conclusions. I read PL years ago, and as I age I marvel at how true his masterwork continues to be:

A decade back, I watched the artists at the newly-formed Warner Bros. Feature Animation in Glendale grow more and more demoralized as WB honcho Bob Daley kept putting off a decision regarding what animated project he wanted the new division to make.

Parkinson, of course, knew the source of the crew's demoralization: "Delay is the deadliest form of denial."

I watched another large studio grow more and more successful, and watched its (once-small) bureaucracy metastasize like an out-of-control cancer. Naturally I thought of another Parkinson maxim:

"An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals." Unsurprisingly, when given half a chance, officials do exactly that.

The company bureaucracy didn't stop growing until the cash flow did.

Parkinson also had another ready explanation for why artists at the same studio often found themselves at endless meetings scheduled by company managers: "Officials make work for each other." (and also, sadly, the people under their control.)

Please don't think I'm trying to be snarky about any particular studio (well, besides Warner Bros. Feature Animation, circa 1995). I'm simply using some animation industry examples to get to some universal truths: Humans are territorial, and like to build empires, and want to believe they're smarter and more trail-blazing than they actually are.

But don't take my word for it. Go dip into Parkinson's Law and draw your own conclusions.


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