Bikeshedding is a metaphor that describes the tendency for individuals to spend a disproportionate amount of time on trivial matters – often at the expense of more important ones.
Bikeshedding is based on Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, named after British author and historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson.
In his description of the law, Parkinson used the example of a committee meeting discussing ways to finance three projects:
- A £10 million nuclear power plant.
- A £350 bike shed.
- A £21 annual coffee budget.
The meeting starts with members discussing nuclear energy, but most are ill-informed and the project seems too complex to facilitate meaningful discussion. The committee then moves on to the bike shed and since many ride to work, there is more animated discussion regarding its financing. Lastly, the coffee budget is discussed. Everyone drinks coffee, so the colleagues spend the rest of the meeting talking about their favorite blends and the allocation of just £21.
At the conclusion of the meeting, nothing of significance has been achieved.
Parkinson summed up the results of the meeting by defining his law. Parkinson’s Law of Triviality states that the amount of time devoted to a task is inversely proportional to its importance. In other words, organizations devote large amounts of time to tasks that bear little significance to their bottom line.
Indeed, bikeshedding is a pervasive and well-entrenched problem in most businesses. A seemingly infinite amount of time is spent replying to emails and sitting in meetings that don’t seem to accomplish much. Ultimately, these somewhat menial tasks consume resources that could be better directed to major projects with a greater potential to move the company forward.
Common examples of bikeshedding in business
Although most commonly associated with meetings, bikeshedding can occur in other scenarios, including:
- Depth of experience – where a board of directors spends more time discussing executive compensation than it does dealing with potentially damaging risks to their organization.
- Creativity and charisma – where employees spends time on creative projects or social media to the detriment of important financial or operational duties.
- Broken window theory – where a business may complain about finding suitably qualified employees instead of addressing poor company culture or a lack of appropriate remuneration.
Strategies for avoiding bikeshedding
Many advocate purpose as an essential ingredient in combating bikeshedding.
In the context of business meetings, purpose means that:
- Discussions are focused around a shared or common vision.
- Meetings are attended by those with relevant expertise. Personnel with little background knowledge should not be invited. They will have nothing of note to contribute and often distract those who do, impeding progress.
- A person is tasked with leading the committee and making a final determination. Leadership is vital because leaders decide how important a given project is and by extension, how much time or resources should be allocated. Leaders can also set time limits on decisions so that progress is made.
- Bikeshedding is based on Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, which states that the amount of time given to a task is inversely proportional to its overall importance.
- Bikeshedding is common in business. It has the potential to hinder major project development and diverts resources away from tasks crucial to company viability.
- Bikeshedding in meetings can largely be avoided by ensuring that those in attendance have the requisite experience. Leaders can also be appointed to assist in decisions being made that align with company goals and visions.
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