#877: The Laws of The Office You get what you measure. Work expands to fill the time allotted. Who comes up with this stuff? And is it true?
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#877: The Laws of The Office

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#877: The Laws of The Office

#877: The Laws of The Office

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KENNY MALONE, HOST:

Sarah, did you look up, like, the thing?

SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:

I looked up the thing. The statute of limitations in Pennsylvania for misdemeanors is two years.

MALONE: Two years. That's it?

GONZALEZ: Yeah. So can you tell us the story?

MALONE: OK, yeah. But let us not do it here.

Let us do it here.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

GONZALEZ: Kenny Malone has brought us to a drugstore that has a self-checkout.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

MALONE: I used to be a cashier at a grocery store when I was about 16 years old.

GONZALEZ: Aw, baby Kenny.

MALONE: You have no idea, dude. I looked like I was 11 years old at that age.

GONZALEZ: Aw, I can see that. I can picture it.

MALONE: It was bad. So one day, I learned that my managers have started to keep track of the performance of all of the cashiers.

GONZALEZ: Like how friendly you are to the customers?

MALONE: No, no, no, no. They were measuring our, like, items scanned per minute. And then I believe they were posting those for the other cashiers to see.

GONZALEZ: OK.

MALONE: So I'm a little competitive. I'm also a goody-two-shoes. And I'm like, I've got to be faster. I've got to be faster. I've got to get my bosses these numbers.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPS)

MALONE: And then I get this item that won't scan.

GONZALEZ: Oh, like cilantro. Cilantro never scans at the grocery store.

MALONE: There wasn't a ton of cilantro in rural Pennsylvania. I think it probably was, like, cat food. Cat food was weirdly hard to scan. The label got all torn up and crap. Anyway, I'm trying to scan this thing, and all I can think is like, oh, my God, my items per minute is plummeting - plummeting. And then finally, I just let it go down the register unscanned. And I grabbed the next item. And I move on.

GONZALEZ: So you gave the cat food away for free?

MALONE: Yes. Technically, I suppose, we would have to say I stole the cat food but to be a good employee.

GONZALEZ: That's why you asked me to check the petty theft laws in Pennsylvania?

MALONE: I was just trying to be a good employee. I was trying to get good numbers. And I got good numbers. My items per minute were, I believe, the best in the entire grocery store, so...

GONZALEZ: OK. But when your bosses said speed things up, I'm sure that they didn't mean break the law in the process.

MALONE: Yes. Yes. And that is the point of this story. I may have been breaking the normal law, but I have since learned that I was simply following a different law known as Goodhart's law.

GONZALEZ: Goodhart's law.

MALONE: Goodhart's law. It essentially states that if a company decides to measure something, the employees are going to find a way to give you good numbers. You just may not like how they do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORIAN GAZAN AND FREDERIC AUGER SONG, "BAISER FATAL")

GONZALEZ: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

MALONE: And I'm Kenny Malone. And there are dozens of these laws or rules or principles.

GONZALEZ: Like Goodhart's law - also, the Peter Principle and Parkinson's law. Today on the show, we take a look at these laws that claim to explain just about everything that can go wrong in an office - from bad managers to terrible procrastination.

MALONE: It may change everything about the way you work. Or it may just prove that people spend more time reading about productivity than actually being productive.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORIAN GAZAN AND FREDERIC AUGER SONG, "BAISER FATAL")

CHARLES GOODHART: Hello?

MALONE: Hi. Is this Professor Goodhart?

GOODHART: Yep, speaking.

MALONE: And you are Professor Goodhart of Goodhart's law.

GOODHART: I am, indeed.

MALONE: Do you proudly wear that moniker?

GOODHART: Slightly mixed feelings.

GONZALEZ: This is Charles Goodhart, economist, former adviser to England's Central Bank, professor emeritus at London School of Economics.

MALONE: And about 45 years ago, Charles Goodhart wrote a paper about monetary policy that included in the introduction a fateful, little line.

GOODHART: It says ignoring Goodhart's law that any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.

MALONE: OK. Hard to understand, but he was making a very narrow point about how measuring one tiny slice of the economy seems to mess up that slice of the economy.

GOODHART: Goodhart's law was actually a rather joking side comment. It was not intended at that time to be taken all that seriously.

GONZALEZ: But over time, it was. People took Goodhart's law out of the world of monetary policy and came up with new formulations of the law.

MALONE: For example, once you target a measure, it ceases to be a good measure, I think is one of them.

GOODHART: That's correct. The point is really fairly simple.

MALONE: Yeah.

GOODHART: Let's say that one of the measures of a hospital is that the waiting time is kept short.

GONZALEZ: This is a real example. The British government started pressuring its hospitals to see emergency patients faster - within four hours. And sure enough, wait times dropped, just not always for the right reasons.

MALONE: Hospitals started kind of gaming the statistics. And one of the most outrageous examples was this practice where patients would be asked to wait inside an ambulance until the hospital was absolutely sure that patient could be seen within the four-hour time limit. Then the patient came in.

GONZALEZ: Another way of stating Goodhart's law - be careful what you measure because your employees are going to make it happen.

GOODHART: Indeed. And they will do it by reallocating resources to achieve that one measure and fail to meet nontargeted measures because resources will have been allocated away from them.

MALONE: When you first introduced Goodhart's law, you had a very specific application.

GOODHART: That's correct.

MALONE: This is not exactly the same. How do you feel about these broader formulations?

GOODHART: Well, I'm perfectly happy with them. You know, all publicity is good.

MALONE: (Laughter) That's right.

GOODHART: But in some ways, it's a bit disappointing that I am probably best known for what is a jocular comment after some 60 years of doing more considered academic, detailed work for which I am less known.

MALONE: And so, Sarah, I feel like we should introduce a corollary to Goodhart's law here. If you decide to name a law, it will become a law, and you may not like what it does to your legacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN COLIN BURROWS AND CLIFFORD SIMMS' "CIRCUIT BENDERS")

MALONE: Hello. Hello. Check one, two. Kenny Malone here, walking up to the desk of Sarah Gonzalez.

GONZALEZ: Hey.

MALONE: OK, so it's, like - what? - 9:30 in the morning, Thursday, November 8. And we are supposed to be working on the next segment of this episode.

GONZALEZ: And we're not even close to finished.

MALONE: No. We're supposed to tell you about the so-called Parkinson's law, which states, essentially, that work expands to the time allotted.

GONZALEZ: So, for example, Kenny and I have an entire week to finish this Parkinson's law segment.

MALONE: And if we're being honest, that should really only take, like, one day's worth of work.

GONZALEZ: Probably, yeah. But we have a whole week. So that means we're probably going to spend time, like, looking for archival tape that we're probably not going to use.

MALONE: We are going to do extra interviews that, if we're being honest, there's not room for in this piece.

GONZALEZ: I always do that.

MALONE: We have a week, and so the work will expand to fill the week.

GONZALEZ: But today, we're going to try to use Parkinson's law to help get this done.

MALONE: And the reporter for this segment, though he does not know it yet, is PLANET MONEY's newest producer, Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. And we are waiting for him to get into the office right now.

Alexi.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: Yes.

MALONE: Hey, man.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Hey.

MALONE: So Alexi just got into work.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Yes.

MALONE: So - here, come in to the studio with me.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Coming. Coming.

MALONE: Come on. Come on. OK, all right. So we have a professor on the line right now who's an expert in Parkinson's law.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Hello, professor.

MENG ZHU: Hi.

MALONE: And I told you that I was going to do the interview. We want you to do the interview.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: What?

MALONE: And furthermore, we want you to do the whole segment. There's one catch. The time allotted for you to finish this work is one day. You have to finish this by the end of the day.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: All right. Let's do it.

MALONE: He's literally rolling up his sleeves.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's right.

ZHU: That's good.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: It's only way to get anything done.

MALONE: All right, you can throw the headphones on.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Professor, can you hear me?

ZHU: Yes.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Great. OK, so maybe just to start out with, if you could...

MALONE: Well, we're back in the studio. You've had a day. Your sleeves are still rolled up, actually. You interviewed the professor. Do you have a story for us?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's the key to my success. And yes, I do.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

MALONE: All right, let's do it.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So the first thing she told me was that Parkinson's law started out as a joke.

ZHU: Yes. So it all started with a humorous essay published in The Economist in 1955. The author was C. Northcote Parkinson, who was a British naval historian.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's Meng Zhu of the Johns Hopkins Business School. In 1955, The Economist published Parkinson's essay as a kind of facetious argument. In it, he talked about why bureaucracies almost always grow no matter how much work they're really doing. I actually found some archival tape of the now-deceased professor Parkinson talking about the essay.

MALONE: Archival tape?

GONZALEZ: No. You actually brought us archival tape?

MALONE: Nice, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CYRIL NORTHCOTE PARKINSON: It was unserious in form, and it might have been sent to a humorous magazine. Instead - and I think more wisely - I sent it to the London Economist.

MALONE: Somehow, you found someone that is more British than professor Charles Goodhart. This is very impressive.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That actually came off a 1960 vinyl album called "Professor C. Northcote Parkinson Explains Parkinson's Law." The blurb on the cover calls it, quote, "delightfully unprofessorial."

GONZALEZ: That should be PLANET MONEY's slogan. I feel like that's what we're going for.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Meng says that Parkinson's article was mostly about why bureaucracies grow, but the thing that really stuck with people, that really made it a big deal, was the opening line.

ZHU: So he summarized the law in the first sentence of his essay that basically says work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Meng says that even though it started as a joke, by the 1960s, people were actually treating this like a real law. So you had psychologists and economists coming up with experiments in the laboratory to try and figure out if people would expand their work to fit changing deadlines. It seemed like they actually did. And then you had other people going out and trying to find Parkinson's law in the wild.

ZHU: Field tests across a variety of contexts, such as wood harvesters, steel industry, school system.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Meng and her colleagues have actually studied this. And sure enough, they found that when they gave their subjects longer deadlines, they expanded the work to fit those deadlines. And she says that, by now, Parkinson's law has become a storied part of cubicle lore.

ZHU: It has been a main topic for management training. How do you fight Parkinson's law?

MALONE: How do you fight Parkinson's law?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Well, she says there are a few ways. First, you could shorten your deadlines. I know something about that. Second, you could offer a reward for fast task completion.

MALONE: Are you asking us for a reward right now?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: This is a holdup.

MALONE: Like a stickup?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Like a stickup.

GONZALEZ: Like, how much money do we have in our pockets?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Empty your pockets. Turn them out.

GONZALEZ: Oh, my gosh.

MALONE: I don't have any money. Oh, I do. Here.

GONZALEZ: I don't even have my wallet with me.

MALONE: I'll give you all the money in my wallet.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Oh, my God, a whole dollar.

MALONE: There's one dollar.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Thanks.

MALONE: Good work, man.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Made it rain.

This is backed up by science. Meng says that, you know, even though Parkinson's Law started as a joke, it's been documented through a lot of different studies. But more importantly, she says, it just makes intuitive sense.

ZHU: Yeah, that's the thing. I think people intuitively agree with his logic argument.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Oh, Meng? Meng? I think we just got cut off. I think that means that our interview expanded to the time we had allotted for it.

(LAUGHTER)

MALONE: Did your studio time actually cut out?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: It did.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: Alexi, you did it. You finished the task at hand in one day instead of a week.

MALONE: It was exactly as good as if we had done it in a week, too.

GONZALEZ: Better.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Hooray.

MALONE: Thank you, Alexi.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Thanks, Kenny. Thanks, Sarah.

MALONE: And, Alexi, we are going to properly reward you for this. I am going to go buy you a pint of the most English beer we can possibly find. Sarah will do the next segment. Let's go, man.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Cheers.

GONZALEZ: OK, the next law is called the Peter Principle. This one says that in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence. If you're good at your job, your boss notices, promotes you. And then if you're good at that job, it happens again. And you keep getting promoted until you get promoted to a job that you are not good at. To find out what that feels like, we asked our boss, Alex Goldmark (laughter).

ALEX GOLDMARK, BYLINE: Oh, OK. I'm going to remember this. Annual review's just a few weeks.

GONZALEZ: Just kidding. We all think Alex is really good at his job. But, Alex, we asked you to find someone who had the self-awareness to realize that they were falling victim to the Peter Principle.

GOLDMARK: Yes, and I found Stephanie Beirne.

STEPHANIE BEIRNE: This story starts almost two years ago. I was doing a job that I loved and never felt like I was even working. I loved it so much.

GOLDMARK: Stephanie was a social media specialist for a large university, and this is a kind of behind-the-scenes job, which she liked. She got to find good stories about people around campus and then figure out how to share them on social media. Took creativity. She had a lot of freedom. She got to work independently. And these were the things she was looking for in a job.

BEIRNE: I just felt it was somewhere where I was really comfortable. I really felt that that brought out a lot of strengths that I have.

GOLDMARK: Phase one of the Peter Principle right here. She is doing great. She knows that she's good at some things and not others.

BEIRNE: And then I was asked if I would be interested in this bigger role.

GONZALEZ: Right, promotion - totally normal. This is how jobs work.

GOLDMARK: Now she's in charge of web content for the university. Spends a lot of time in meetings. And part of her job is to tell other people how to do their jobs. So this is not behind the scenes anymore.

BEIRNE: I'm an introvert, so having to, like, stand up in a group of people was super uncomfortable for me, like, from the start. I had to do monthly trainings, and I just felt sick before that every time.

GOLDMARK: And she becomes the person who everyone brings their problems to, asking her to find a solution.

BEIRNE: I remember one time having someone confront me in the cafeteria about something they didn't like. Being put on the spot and, you know, holding my lunch and standing there not sure what to do or how to handle it - and I thought, I am terrible at this job.

GOLDMARK: There are millions of Stephanies everywhere in every industry.

GONZALEZ: Right. Just because you are a good teacher doesn't mean you're going to be a good principal. And just because you're a good lawyer doesn't mean you're going to be good at bringing in new clients to the law firm.

GOLDMARK: This is the Peter Principle. It comes from a bestselling book back in the early '70s by a professor, Laurence J. Peter. And it was actually, Sarah, kind of a joke.

GONZALEZ: Of course. All of our laws are jokes.

GOLDMARK: This one was satire. And the point that Dr. Peter was trying to make was, look around. This is the explanation for why so many people are bad at their jobs, why so many mistakes just happen over and over again and why so many people hate their jobs.

GONZALEZ: Like Stephanie Beirne.

GOLDMARK: And Stephanie is rare in that she is self-aware enough to know it and admit it and, also, to do something about it. Stephanie is fighting the Peter Principle by stepping down from her new, bigger job.

BEIRNE: Today is actually my very last day in it.

GOLDMARK: She isn't going to quit. She's going to demote herself. She went and talked to her boss. And she said, hey, I want a job like my old one, the one that I loved, the one that I was good at.

BEIRNE: Yeah, you know, I don't know that a lot of people will admit that they should be demoted. But I think, for me, it makes me happier, and it makes me feel like I can do a better job. And I feel smarter at what I do because I know my job so well now.

GOLDMARK: Self-demotion - that is one way to beat the Peter Principle.

GONZALEZ: OK. Nice job, Alex. Good job reporting, but don't get any ideas. I think there are some important meetings you have to go to. I think it's payroll day today.

GOLDMARK: All right. I'm going to go find Kenny, tell him to come on back in here. Thanks a lot, Sarah.

GONZALEZ: Thanks, Alex. After the break, we go searching for a law that did not start as a joke.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: All right. For this last law, we figured we need something that did not just start out as a joke about crappy management or lousy procrastination.

GONZALEZ: Our final law comes from Alice Evans.

ALICE EVANS: And I've got a long, boring title, but you should cut it. I'm a lecturer at King's College London. My title is a lecturer in the Social...

MALONE: What? She told us we could cut it. What you really need to know about Alice is that she is the kind of professor who, when a brand-new World Bank report comes out, she live-tweets her reactions as if she is watching "Game Of Thrones."

GONZALEZ: And the law that Alice told us about is pretty well-documented. But as far as we know, it doesn't have a name. But here's how Alice explains it.

EVANS: Social change accelerates when we see that others are changing.

MALONE: In other words, people want to change. They just want to see other people do it first.

EVANS: So it's this process of a snowball. But the tricky thing is, how do you get that snowball to move in the first place? So let me give you four examples.

MALONE: Four examples? This is great.

EVANS: You can pick and choose which one you like. So there was this brilliant intervention in Uganda.

MALONE: This was an intervention by Innovations for Poverty Action, IPA.

GONZALEZ: Uganda was struggling with domestic violence. It was happening at alarming rates, and people didn't seem to be reporting abuse. Something needed to change.

MALONE: But per this law with no name, you shouldn't just tell people to do something. You should show them that other people are doing it. And so IPA ran a video campaign doing essentially that.

EVANS: So the video did not tell people that gender-based violence is wrong. All it showed is people going out, reporting it and being supported by their community. And what they found within six months is this led to a rapid increase in reporting, a big reduction in gender-based violence.

MALONE: There are a bunch of examples of changing social norms this way - for example, college binge-drinking.

GONZALEZ: Instead of putting up posters that said binge-drinking is bad, researchers put up signs that essentially said, hey, actual statistics show that your classmates don't drink as much as you think they drink. And that approach seemed to work.

MALONE: So this approach - it occurred to me, I think I have a problem that this could help fix. So, Alice, I know that, typically, your job deals with very important, global, political, high-stakes issues, but would you mind talking to me about the fact that no one at my office washes dishes?

EVANS: Shoot.

MALONE: It's OK?

EVANS: Yeah, let's go.

MALONE: People in our office are leaving dirty dishes in the sink all the time. And so my idea was, like, what if we worked with the office manager to put up posters that didn't say, hey, you should do dishes. What if instead they said, hey, did you know everybody else does the dishes a bunch?

GONZALEZ: And Alice was like, no, this approach only works if you are actually telling the truth.

EVANS: So I wouldn't run a fake campaign. I think that's really dangerous because if people realize that the office manager is putting up fake posters, then that could undermine trust in the office and affect all sorts of other things.

MALONE: OK, that's a good point.

EVANS: So I wouldn't do that, Kenny. Can I draw parallels with rural Zambia here?

MALONE: Please.

EVANS: So for example, in remote...

GONZALEZ: Alice says that in remote parts of Zambia, health care workers often feel like no one cares what they're doing. This curbs worker morale - makes it hard for them to show up and to do their best work.

MALONE: But one thing that really helped was when supervisors started awarding a trophy for people's work. There wasn't even money attached. It was just a trophy.

EVANS: Just that sense of being appreciated - people seeing that you're making an effort and people rewarding that. And I think that's something that we could learn from with regards to your dishes problem, Kenny.

MALONE: You're saying I should make an amazing dishwashing trophy. Is that what you're saying?

EVANS: (Laughter) I think that could be cool, yeah.

MALONE: I 100 percent can expense a dishwashing trophy for this story.

EVANS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES DRISCOLL AND SKINNY WILLIAMS' "A MOST CURIOUS SENSATION")

MALONE: This episode was produced by Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. Bryant Urstadt edits the show.

GONZALEZ: And our competent supervising producer is Alex Goldmark.

MALONE: If you have a law that you think we should know about, email us. We are planetmoney@npr.org.

GONZALEZ: And special thanks to our intern Shane McKeon. He handled the most important part of this episode.

SHANE MCKEON, BYLINE: So I have a weird request. I'm trying to make a trophy with a golden mug on top.

MALONE: Yeah, of course, we asked Shane, the PLANET MONEY intern, to go and custom order a congratulations-the-kitchen-is-clean trophy.

MCKEON: Yeah, so all it needs to say is the dishes are all done.

GONZALEZ: Shane bought a 5-foot-tall trophy.

MCKEON: And then let's throw an exclamation point on the end.

MALONE: It had a real mug spray-painted gold on the very top.

GONZALEZ: And when the dishes were clean, this giant trophy would show up. If they weren't, the trophy disappeared.

MALONE: We left a recorder out. And we just let people figure it out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's rolling. Here. So there's this giant-ass trophy.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: It has fork and knife taped to it, so I imagine it's an award for eating of some kind.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I feel like a psychological experiment is being conducted without my consent.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, I bet this is for the PLANET MONEY podcast about office problems.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Don't you think?

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Uh-oh, there's no trophy.

MALONE: There's a dirty spoon in the sink. It's not mine, but I will wash it so that we can get the trophy back.

VANEK SMITH: The dishes are all done. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: But because I see the trophy, I feel like I'm being tricked by a trophy. Just a trophy would make me want to do that?

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: That's interesting.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Maybe I'm not going to wash any dishes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: The trophy has disappeared again.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: There are some dishes in the sink. Supervising producer Alex Goldmark is doing them.

GOLDMARK: With a big smile because I know I'm going to get a trophy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Laughter).

MALONE: This was quite unscientific, but I'm just going to say it - I think there were way fewer unwashed dishes.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, it seemed to work.

MALONE: Anyway, if you would like to see a picture of a giant dishwashing trophy, it is on Instagram. We are @PlanetMoney. I'm Kenny Malone.

GONZALEZ: And I'm Sarah Gonzalez. Thanks for listening.

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