6 new principles for our cubicles
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Many decades ago, Parkinson’s Law entered the world of management. This famous law, discovered by C. Northcote Parkinson, simply said that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. The law remains unchanged after many years, and so many of us continue to struggle to cope with the phenomenon of ever-expanding work.
Much water has flown under rickety corporate bridges since the discovery of this very important principle. It is now time, we think, to consider many new important laws that have seeped into our modern offices since then. Reflecting on these principles will make executives more sensitive to the real issues that underpin our office lives. Here is a primer, which we hope you enjoy and internalize.
Occam’s PowerPoint principle
This is one of the most productive modern principles of our age. It states that any meaningful presentation can be reduced to a maximum of 10 slides. Of course, this requires lots of thinking to decide what the core of the presentation is, and a harsh delete button on every slide that does not serve this purpose. The converse of this principle states that the longer a presentation, the less worth your time it is. And if the presentation exceeds around 30 slides, it is best you skip it. Apply this principle in your own presentations, and watch the jump in productivity and happiness all around. This principle is named in tribute to Occam, the philosopher who urged economy in everything, and famously said, “It is futile to do with more things any act which can be done with fewer.”
Gayatri’s Millennials Law
This law simply states that if you are an adult manager (like me), you can never discover what millennials in the office really want, however much you search for the truth. So much has been written on what inspires millennials, what puts them off, what kind of work they like to do, what they know and what they desire. It turns out that lots of this is guesswork by millennial watchers who are generally adults, and the rest frequently changes because millennials themselves constantly evolve. If you don’t agree, speak to a few millennials, and we can discuss the after-effects after you have recovered somewhat from your encounters. This law is named after the millennial whom I think I know best, but then frequently discover that I am totally wrong about—my daughter Gayatri.
Alice in Digital Wonderland Rule
This rule postulates that in any meeting, at least one participant is constantly in a digital wonderland. Of course, with the plethora of digital distractions—email, WhatsApp, Facebook, etc.—around us, and our ubiquitous mobile telephones at our fingertips all the time, this rule will come as no surprise to any of us. In fact, in most meetings there will be not just one person, but multiple people who are avid followers of this rule, busy on their digital devices. If this irritates you, and you have the required powers, then you could consider the harsh but necessary counter-rule of requesting participants to put away their mobile phones during meetings. There will be some grumbling, but digital detox really helps.
MBA’s law of jargon
This law, dedicated to countless MBAs like myself, states that jargon will be generously used by managers who have been to business school. It goes on to state that there are several levels of jargon, which MBAs will progressively master during their illustrious careers. Now, jargon may be used for very different purposes. For instance, to create high-sounding statements of vision or strategy; or to say something where there is very little to be said; or to totally obfuscate the truth. An immediate corollary of this law is that all executives have to learn to cut through the jargon in their offices, and understand what any official statement really, truly means. Another useful corollary to bear in mind is that simple sentences and speeches which clearly convey their meaning stand out for being rare, and are therefore greatly appreciated.
The Friday-evening principle
This rather uncomfortable principle states that there is always a high probability of urgent work or extensive reading material landing up on your table or inbox on a Friday evening, just as you are planning to leave for the weekend. The root cause of this principle is that urgency does not respect weekends, and neither do many managers. Yet another reason is that most executives tend to finish their major project for the week on a Friday afternoon, and then they promptly email their output to other team members, such as me and you, for review and comments. The only antidote to this principle is to work very hard and smart during the week, and also have a well-understood “no-work-on-weekend” rule in offices, to be broken only in case of real emergencies.
The general theory of entropy
This is the most general of modern office principles, shamelessly borrowed from the theories of thermodynamics. It postulates that all our office accessories—work tables, computers, mobile phones, bags that we carry—will tend towards entropy, as they constantly gather more paper, more emails, more apps, and more documents. This will inevitably result in our tables being overloaded with mountains of paper, computers groaning under the weight of unread documents, and bags or office backpacks gaining weight even faster than executives do. In this glorious information age, wherever expanding bodies of knowledge constantly and steadily stream into our lives, the only reprieve from this law is to retain just the barest minimum information required, and destroy or delete everything else immediately and ruthlessly. A clean desk is, of course, the Holy Grail that we can all aim for.
Harish Bhat works with the Tata group. His new book, The Curious Marketer, has been published by Penguin Random House. He is a fervent believer in Harish’s law of simplicity, which he has named after himself in a moment of conceit. This law states that corporate life should be kept really simple, through sharp focus on the few things that really matter, and hard work.