What Is Bikeshedding And Why It Matters In Business

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.

Understanding bikeshedding

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.

Key takeaways:

  • 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.

Connected Business Concepts

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.
The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.
The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.
Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.
Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.
Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.
Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO, defined design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” Therefore, desirability, feasibility, and viability are balanced to solve critical problems.
The CATWOE analysis is a problem-solving strategy that asks businesses to look at an issue from six different perspectives. The CATWOE analysis is an in-depth and holistic approach to problem-solving because it enables businesses to consider all perspectives. This often forces management out of habitual ways of thinking that would otherwise hinder growth and profitability. Most importantly, the CATWOE analysis allows businesses to combine multiple perspectives into a single, unifying solution.

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