I have written before on my general distaste of meetings and how they frequently destroy more value than they create, and one of the key reasons I detest meetings so much is they always seem to be about trivial things. A recent article, Why We Focus on Trivial Things: The Bikeshed Effect, explains why we gloss over important topics and focus on the trivial. Bikeshedding is a metaphor to illustrate the tendency we have to spend excessive time on trivial matters, often glossing over important ones.
What is bikeshedding and why it is a problem
Bikeshedding comes from an example by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, the father of Parkinson’s Law (tasks expand to fill the amount of time available), that explains the amount of time spent discussing an issue in an organization is inversely correlated to its actual importance. We discuss important complex issues minimally while simple, minor ones get the most attention.
In Parkinson’s example, an executive management team has three issues on its agenda
- Build a $10 million nuclear power plant
- Build a $350 bike shed
- Allocate a $21/year coffee budget
Rather than focus the conversation on the big project, the power plant, the team runs through that proposal quickly. In Parkinson’s example, “[i]t’s too advanced for anyone to really dig into the details, and most of the members don’t know much about the topic in the first place. One member who does is unsure how to explain it to the others. Another member proposes a redesigned proposal, but it seems like such a huge task that the rest of the committee decline to consider it.”
When the conversation moves to the bike shed, it heats up. Everyone on the team is comfortable expressing thoughts on it. They all know what a bike shed looks like. They have different ideas on the material to use for the roof and potential small cost savings. The team spends more time discussing the bike shed than the $10 million nuclear power plant.
Finally, the team ends up spending the most time talking about the coffee budget. With coffee, everyone on the team is an authority. Each person knows about coffee and has a strong sense of cost and value. At the end of the meeting, they have spent more time discussing the coffee budget than the bike shed or the power plant combined. As they say in the post, “everyone walks away feeling satisfied, having contributed to the conversation.”
There are two critical issues caused by bikeshedding:
- Not enough time is spent discussing the power plant and the critical issues related to it. This decision potentially alters the trajectory of the company and a mistake could cost a lot of money or be fatal to the firm. By not looking at the details, even a small misstep can have a big impact.
- Even taking away the opportunity cost, wasting time talking about a cheap coffee plant or bike shed is likely to cost more in the value of time than any gain. Assuming each executive is well compensated, the value of their time spent talking about coffee is likely to run in the thousands of dollars.
Why do we have bikeshedding
Given the absurdity (and uncanny truth) of the above example, it begs the question how does this happen (and we have all seen it happen). According to the post, “the more people will have an opinion on it and thus more to say about it. When something is outside of our circle of competence, like a nuclear power plant, we don’t even try to articulate an opinion. But when something is just about comprehensible to us, even if we don’t have anything of genuine value to add, we feel compelled to say something, lest we look stupid. What idiot doesn’t have anything to say about a bike shed? Everyone wants to show that they know about the topic at hand and have something to contribute.”
During meetings, we reward people simply for expressing an opinion rather than for having put in the time and work to develop the judgment. Most importantly, people should focus on contributing when you have something valuable to add that would result in a better decision.
How to mitigate bikeshedding
Once you acknowledge the problem of bikeshedding, there are several steps you can take to avoid the issue and spend the appropriate time each issue demands:
- Have a clear purpose. Successful meetings need to have a clear and well defined purpose. Specificity is central to having a purpose and conveying it.
- Invite the right people. Only invite people who can contribute to the discussion or are needed for execution of the decision. If the purpose is to discuss the nuclear power plant, this purpose will make it clear who should and should not be in the meeting. As the post points out, “the most informed opinions are most relevant. This is one reason why big meetings with lots of people present, most of whom don’t need to be there, are such a waste of time in organizations. Everyone wants to participate, but not everyone has anything meaningful to contribute.”
- Appoint a decision maker. To reach the best outcome, you need a designated decision maker. First, it avoids forcing a consensus when there should be a black and white winner, a compromise is not always better than an extreme option. Also, it is often impossible to reach a consensus when nobody is in charge. The discussion just drags on and on.
- Have the decision maker set clear parameters. With one person in change, they can decide in advance how much importance to accord to the issue (for instance, by estimating how much its success or failure could help or harm the company’s bottom line). They can set a time limit for the discussion to create urgency. And they can end the meeting by verifying that it has indeed achieved its purpose.
By implementing these steps, you can help your company focus its efforts on finding solutions to the most intractable and important problems and let picking the right type of coffee to someone else.
- Bikeshedding is the tendency we have to spend excessive time on trivial matters in meetings, often glossing over important ones.
- Bikeshedding is damaging because it wastes very valuable time and, more importantly, leads to insufficient discussion of important issues.
- To avoid bikeshedding, set a clear purpose for all meetings (and eliminate conversations about other issues), only invite necessary people, appoint a decision maker and have the decision maker set clear parameters for the meeting.