The Bikeshed Effect: Understanding and Avoiding Trivial Matters

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How is it that we can often waste a lot of time on trivial matters instead of focusing on the most critical issues at hand?

Whether in lengthy and unproductive meetings at work or through endless email chains, it seems we all have a strange tendency to prioritize inconsequential tasks. The outcome of this phenomenon is a lack of time dedicated to the decisions that truly matter.

To address this problem, we must first understand why we become absorbed in trivial matters. Then, we need to adopt strategies for changing our dynamic towards generating valuable input while still allowing time to consider it thoroughly.

The Law of Triviality

The Law of Triviality, also known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, named after the British naval historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson in the 1950s, helps explain this phenomenon. This law states that the amount of time spent discussing a topic is inversely related to its importance. Therefore, major and complex issues receive less discussion, while simple, minor ones receive more.

Parkinson uses the metaphor of a bike shed to illustrate this law. He suggests imagining a financial committee meeting to discuss a three-point agenda consisting of a proposal for a £10 million nuclear power plant, a proposal for a £350 bike shed, and a proposal for a £21 annual coffee budget. The committee quickly rushes through the nuclear power plant proposal, as it is too complicated and advanced for most members to delve into the details. Some members don’t understand the topic, while one member who does is unsure how to explain it to the others. Another member proposes a redesign, but the rest of the committee finds it too arduous to consider.

However, when the discussion shifts to the bike shed, the committee members feel much more comfortable voicing their opinions. Since everyone knows what a bike shed is and what it looks like, they have plenty to say about it. They begin an animated debate about the best possible material for the roof, weighing various options that could help save costs. The discussion continues for far longer than the power plant proposal.

Finally, the committee moves on to item three: the coffee budget. Suddenly, everyone is an expert on the topic. They all have a sense of the cost and value of coffee, and before anyone realizes it, they spend more time discussing the £21 coffee budget than the power plant and the bike shed combined! In the end, the committee runs out of time, and they decide to meet again to complete their analysis. However, everyone leaves feeling satisfied, having contributed to the conversation.

Why Does Bikeshed Effect Happen?

This bikeshedding phenomenon occurs because when something is too complex or outside our area of expertise, such as a nuclear power plant, we tend not to try to articulate an opinion. However, when something is just within our grasp of understanding, we feel compelled to share our thoughts to avoid looking foolish. Even if we don’t have anything genuinely useful to say, everyone wants to demonstrate that they have knowledge and expertise in the matter at hand.

In any case, we shouldn’t attribute equal importance to all opinions. We should pay more attention to the inputs from those who have a better understanding of the subject. When we choose to contribute, we must direct our energy to the areas where we have something valuable to add that will improve the outcome of the decision.

How to Avoid The Bikeshed Effect?

To avoid the Bikeshed Effect, it is essential to have a clear purpose for your meeting or discussion. This means having a specific agenda and goals in mind, and ensuring that all participants are aware of them. When everyone is on the same page, it is easier to stay focused on the most important issues and avoid getting bogged down in trivial matters.

In addition, it is important to recognize that not all opinions are created equal. In any group discussion, there will be people who have more expertise and knowledge on certain topics than others. These individuals should be given more weight and influence when making decisions. Rather than trying to give equal weight to every opinion, it is better to focus on the inputs that are most relevant and informed.

Ultimately, the Bikeshed Effect is a common problem in many organizations, but it is not insurmountable. By recognizing the tendency to focus on trivial matters and taking steps to avoid it, you can ensure that your meetings and discussions are productive and focused on the most important issues at hand.

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