I attended a (seemingly) infinite number of meetings during my 30 years in the corporate world. Some were productive but some felt like we were just spinning our wheels, not accomplishing much.
One reason meetings are not as productive as they should be is the tendency of the group to engage in “bikeshedding.” It can be a huge hindrance to productivity and effective problem solving.
Bikeshedding, also known as Parkinson’s Law of Trviality, gets its name from an example author Cyril Northcote Parkinson gave of a typical meeting. He imagines a financial committee meeting where there were three topics on the agenda:
A proposal for a ￡10 million nuclear plant
A proposal for a ￡350 bike shed
A proposal for a ￡21 annual coffee budget
Few people had much to offer regarding the first proposal because its complexity made fewer people comfortable in voicing their opinions. The committee would then address the bike shed proposal and spend far more time discussing it than they did the nuclear plant. They would spend even more time discussing the coffee budget, as the simplest of the three proposals.
Bikeshedding is essentially a misalignment between decision impact and the resources - time and attention - spent on that decision or issue.
Why do we fall into the bikeshedding trap? Mainly because we are irrational, but specifically:
- Smaller, more trivial issues are easier to understand and have an opinion about.
- The important issue carries a bigger weight of responsibility. Adding an opinion that is not well-informed and could lead to a poor outcome is riskier when the stakes are high.
- When we feel that we understand an issue, even if we don’t have anything of genuine value to add, we want to say something to avoid looking useless or stupid.
Here are some strategies for avoiding the bikeshedding problem:
- Have separate, shorter meetings with fewer attendees for discussing each topic.
- When multiple topics do need to be discussed in one meeting, dedicate ahead of time a limited block of time for dealing with the smaller issue. If unresolved in that time period, resume the discussion at another time and get to the bigger issues.
- Be cognizant of how much time is being spent on smaller issues. When that time starts to balloon into a time-sucking monster with no resolution in sight, politely interrupt and re-schedule that discussion for another time that is dedicated to that discussion.
On a personal note - I don’t know if this technically qualifies as bikeshedding, but I experience a similar misalignment of impact to resources in my day-to-day individual work. It happens when I have multiple items on my to-do list and opt for the tasks that take less complex thinking and that I have better understanding of.
For example, It’s easier and more fun for me to update the images and text on my website than to work on improving my marketing strategy, though the latter will have a much bigger impact on my business than the minor website changes would.
Think well - live well.
- Steve Haffner, speaker and illusion expert
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