bikeshedding

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

Heuristics

heuristic
As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Bounded Rationality

bounded-rationality
Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Second-Order Thinking

second-order-thinking
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

lateral-thinking
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

moonshot-thinking
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.

Biases

biases
The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

dunning-kruger-effect
The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

occams-razor
Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Mandela Effect

mandela-effect
The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

crowding-out-effect
The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

bandwagon-effect
The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What is marketing can be associated with social proof.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger

Read Next: Heuristics, Biases.

Read More:

Scroll to Top
FourWeekMBA