Parkinson's Law and Hull's Law on Agile Innovation

Parkinson’s and Hull’s Law on Agile Innovation

Working in the creative industry for over a decade, I stumbled again over Parkinson’s Law again: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” He gave the example of an old lady who can spend the entire day in writing and despatching a postcard to her niece. Meanwhile it takes a busy man only a couple of minutes. If you compare these two actions the result would be the same. Of course the postcard of the old lady would be full of love and the postard of the busy man would contain a quit effective result. That is the big difference.

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

But in the end, both delivered the postcard. If we leave out procastinators and adrenalin junkies for long time frames, there is another law worth having a look at.

The Goal Gradient Effect

The Goal Gradient Effect” was originally observed by the American psychologist Clark Hull in the 1930s. It says: Our efforts increase as we move closer to a goal. So what does it mean? It means that people are more motivated by how much is left to reach their target, rather than how far they have come. The psychlogists Ran Kivetz, Oleg Urminsky and Yuhuang Zheng monitored this behaviour during a café reward program in 2006 where customers were given a free coffee after completing ten purchases.

Fostering impact

In the experiment, two “bonus” stamps were pre-completed on 12 stamp bonus cards. Other customers received standard 10 stamp cards without pre-completion. The result was interesting: Customers receiving the 12 stamp card (with 2 stamps already populated) completed the 10 required purchases faster than those who received the standard 10 stamp card. They found out that customers purchased coffee more frequently, the closer they were to receiving a free coffee. Other experiments from marathons  (oder sports and the music industry confirmed these results. Each law delivers some exiting insights into human behaviour.

Hull’s Law

Our efforts increase as we move closer to a goal.

But what about the combination of Parkinson’s and Hulls Law for Agile Innovation?

Using the ceteris paribus clause and putting Parkinson’s and Hulls law into a framework of thoughts would mean that the effort is increasing in the last quarter of a project, no matter how much time is given. But the shorter the time, the more effectively  the work is completed. The impact to reach the goal is thus much higher in a shorter time frame. This could be a reason why timeboxing in Design Thinking or Business Modelling is so important.

Participants of my workshops often smile at this procedure at the beginning of the course. But in the end, they realise its impact. Most of the participants are overwhelmed by the outcomes they designed as a result.

Conclusions for Innovation Projects

  • Split up work into small, manageable steps
  • Display progress indicators prominent to foster effort
  • For effectivity reasons don’t breed the egg too long
  • Define and adapt criteria for feedback loops to speed up
  • Status reporting only 3 min by person to shorten time
  • The obvious for good ideas lies on the surface


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