Monday, August 13, 2007

The Point of Vanishing Interest

Have you ever attended a meeting like this one?

(note that this was written in 1957 - 50 years ago)

Chairman: We come now to Item Nine. Our Treasurer, Mr. McPhail, will report.

Mr. McPhail: The estimate for the Atomic Reactor is before you, sir, set forth in Appendix H of the subcommittee's report. You will see that the general design and layout has been approved by Professor McFission. The total cost will amount to $10,000,000. The contractors, Messrs. MaNab and McHash, consider that the work should be complete by April, 1959. Mr. McFee, the consulting engineer, warns us that we should not count on completion before October, at the earliest. In this view he is supported by Dr. McHeap, the well-know geophysicist, who refers to the probable need for piling at the lower end of the site. The plan of the main building is before you - see Appendix IX - and the blueprint is laid on the table. I shall be glad to give any further information that members of this committee may require.

Chairman: Thank you, Mr. McPhail, for your very lucid explanation of the plan as proposed. I will now invite the members present to give us their views.

It is necessary to pause at this point and consider the various views that the members are likely to have. Let us suppose that they number eleven, including the Chairman but excluding the Secretary. Of these eleven members, four - including the chairman - do not know what a reactor is. Of the remainder, three do not know what it is for. Of those who know its purpose, only two have the least idea of what it should cost. One of these is Mr. Issacson, the other is Mr. Brickworth. Either is in a position to say something. We may suppose that Mr. Issacson is the first to speak.

Mr. Issacson: Well, Mr. Chairman. I could wish that I felt more confidence in our contractors and consultant. Had we gone to Professor Levi in the first instance and had the contract been given to Messrs. David and Goliath, I should have been happier about the whole scheme. Mr. Lyon-Daniels would not have wasted our time with wild guesses about the possible delay in completion, and Dr. Moses Bullrush would have told us definitely whether piling would be wanted or not.

Chairmain: I am sure we all appreciate Mr. Isaacson's anxiety to complete this work in the best possible way. I feel, however, that it is rather late in the day to call in new technical advisers. I admit that the main contract has still to be signed, but we have already spent very large sums. If we reject the advice for which we have paid, we shall have to pay as much again.

(Other members murmer agreement)

Mr. Issacson: I should like my observation to be minuted.

Chairman: Certainly. Perhaps Mr. Brickworth also has something to say about this matter?

Now Mr. Brickworth is almost the only man there who knows what he is talking about. There is a great deal he could say. He distrusts that round figure of $10,000,000. Why should it come out to exactly that? Why need they demolish the old building to make room for the new approach? Why is so large a sum set aside for "contingencies"? And who is McHeap, anyway? Is he the man who was sued last year by the Trickle and Driedup Oil Corporation? But Brickworth does not know where to begin. The other members could not read the blueprint if he referred to it. He would have to begin by explaining what a reactor is and no one there would admit that he did not already know. Better to say nothing.

Mr. Brickwork: I have no comment to make.

Chairman: Does any other member wish to speak? Very well. I may take it then that the plans and estimates are approved? Thank you. May I now sign the main contract on your behalf? (Murmur of agreement) Thank you. We can now move on to Item Ten.

Allowing a few seconds for rustling papers and unrolling diagrams, the time spent on Item Nine will have been two minutes and a half. The meeting is going well. But some members feel uneasy about Item Nine. They wonder inwardly whether they have really been pulling their weight. It is too late to query that reactor scheme, but they would like to demonstrate, before the meeting ends, that they are alive to all that is going on.

Chairman: Item Ten. Bicycle shed for the use of the clerical staff. An estimate has been received from Messrs. Bodger and Woodworm, who undertake to complete the work for the sum of $2350. Plans and specification are before you, gentlemen.

Mr. Softleigh: Surely, Mr. Chairman, this sum is excessive. I note that the roof is to be of aluminum. Would not asbestos be cheaper?

Mr. Holdfast: I agree with Mr. Softleigh about the cost, but the roof should, in my opinion, be of galvanized iron. I incline to think that the shed could be built for $2000, or even less.

Mr. Daring: I would go further, Mr. Chairman. I question whether this shed is really necessary. We do too much for our staff as it is. They are never satisfied, that is the trouble. They will be wanting garages next.

Mr. Holdfast: No, I can't support Mr. Daring on this occasion. I think that the shed is needed. It is a question of material and cost...

The debate is fairly launched. A sum of $2350 is well within everyone's comprehension. Everyone can visualize a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some $300. Members at length sit back with a feeling of achievement.

Chairman: Item Eleven. Refreshments supplied at meetings of the Joint Welfare Committee. Monthly, $4.75.

Mr. Softleigh: What type of refreshment is supplied on these occasions?

Chairman: Coffee, I understand.

Mr. Holdfast: And this means an annual charge of - let me see - $57?

Chairman: That is so.

Mr. Daring: Well, really, Mr. Chairman. I question whether this is justified. How long do these meetings last?

Now begins an even more acrimonious debate. There may be members of the committee who might fail to distinguish between asbestos and galvanized iron, but every man there knows about coffee - what it is, how it should be made, where it should be bought - and whether indeed it should be bought at all. This item on the agenda will occupy the members for an hour and quarter, and they will end by asking the Secretary to procure further information, leaving the matter to be decided at the next meeting.

Unfortunately I've attended far too many meetings like this.

This excerpt is taken from the essay High Finance or the Point of Vanishing Interest in the book Parkinson's Law by C. Northcote Parkinson. You can read another essay (the one that gave the book its title) Parkinson's Law or the Rising Pyramid at this link. I'm sure you've heard of the law "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion". Enjoy!

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