Bikeshedding: Organisations spend too much time on trivial decisions. Parkinson’s Law of Triviality.

Decision making has always been a challenge  

Way back in 1957, to describe his ‘Law of Triviality’, Cyril Northcote Parkinson created the word bikeshedding.

Parkinson was hugely experienced in the workings of Government and Academia, and was responsible for a number of other ‘rules’ you might be familiar with such as: ‘work expands to meet the time available for its completion’. He knew his stuff.

The Law of Triviality: Organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.

You know this true. Just read through the committee minutes of many organisations (or partnerships) and you will get the point.

So what exactly is bikeshedding? The precise definition for the Law of Triviality is: … ‘the amount of time a committee will spend discussing an item is inversely proportional to the importance of that issue’.

In straightforward terms, the more complicated, costly or difficult the decision, the less time a decision making group (the committee) will spend on it. That’s quite concerning when you stop to think about the implications.

img_5877Back in 1957 Parkinson used the example of a committee spending very little time to approve the construction of a nuclear power station. The committee then went on to spend hours debating the construction of a bike shed for the staff on the site – hence the word ‘bikeshedding’.

The attached graphic is taken from a sildeshare presentation by Arthur Doler (link here) and uses data Parkinson gathered from the ‘Joint Welfare Committee’.

At the Committee meeting the £10million nuclear reactor was discussed for 2.5 minutes and the the £350 bicycle shed was discussed for 45 minutes. It gets worse… the £21 a year budget for committee coffee was discussed for 75 minutes and never resolved. The video of Arthur delivering the presentation is below. It is worth watching; for an insight into how computer coders view user experience (UX), along with possibly the best every rebuttal of a question from the audience… “that’s too meta, I reject it”, brilliant.

Why do we do bikeshedding? Some of the reasons that Parkinson attributed to this behaviour are linked to how people face up to big complicated decisions. Where things are uncertain or we don’t know the answers, we avoid exposing our lack of understanding to others. (This was 1957. There are probably other reasons, and a whole branch of Behavioural Psychology to explain this nowadays).

As Parkinson describes it, the nuclear power plant is a very complicated issue and the average committee member is likely to be unable to fully understand the issues. As a result, the item receives very little discussion and the committee ‘trusts’ the experts. There are very few questions asked about the proposal as nobody wants to appear stupid by asking something that is blindingly obvious or makes them look ignorant.

Building a bike shed on the other hand, is something we can all understand. Committee members are more than happy to contribute anecdote, opinion and sometimes ideas, usually at great length.

This was is a 1957 example, and I suspect a nuclear power plant wouldn’t get away so lightly nowadays. People seem to have become far more willing to question expert opinion and authority. The accessibility of information via the internet also means that people are (or can be if they choose) much better informed. However I think the principle of bikeshedding in decision making committees still applies to many of our complex, ‘modern’ issues.

Exploitation of bikeshedding through agenda management. Many years ago I was involved in a committee where a very experienced Chair and Committee Clerk taught me many valuable lessons. There were things like: ‘put the important decisions at the end, they will have worn themselves out in the beginning and this stuff will fly through’. Along with, ‘never provide all of the answers, leave out some obvious but unimportant material, that will keep them busy talking for ages’.

I now realised they were practicing an advanced from of ‘assisted bikeshedding’, manipulation of the agenda to ‘nudge’ the committee members in the direction they wanted. Scandalous!

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. There is nothing much new in the world when it comes to human behaviour. Bikeshedding was described by Parkinson in 1957, and was probably around for ages before that.
  2. The reasons for bikeshedding are rooted in human behaviour. Helping people to overcome the fear of looking ignorant and asking good questions is part of dealing with it.
  3. Be vigilant with agenda management. You wouldn’t want to exploit a committee’s natural tendency towards bikeshedding. .

img_5881The original version of this post was inspired by my father in law, who gave me a 1961 copy of one of Parkinson’s books, The Pursuit of Progress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picture source: http://glostransporthistory.visitgloucestershire.co.uk/images/ROD_Toucan%20Park_complete_bike%20shed_advert.jpg

Links to earlier posts:

About whatsthepont

The things I’m currently interested in are: 1.How people learn and share knowledge; 2.Social Media, Web2.0 whatever you want to call the world of the internet; 3.Better public services.

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