What is Parkinson's law of triviality (aka: Bikeshedding) ?

Mohan pd.
Written by Mohan pd. on
What is Parkinson's law of triviality (aka: Bikeshedding) ?

What is Parkinson's law of triviality ?

Parkinson's law of triviality is an argument by C. Northcote Parkinson's in 1957 about human tendency to devote significant amount of time to unimportant details where crucial matters goes unattended.

Note: Parkinson's law of triviality is not the principle known as Parkinson's law.

As per parkinson's argument, the committee formed to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant devote a disproportionate amount of time on discussion about relatively minor but easy-to-grasps issues such as what material to use for the staff bike shed while neglecting the purposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important and a far more difficult and complex task.

The law has been applied to software development and other activities.

The act of wasting time on trivial details while important matters are inadequately attended is sometimes known as bikeshedding. The terms bicycle-shed effect, bike-shed effect, and bike-shedding was coined as metaphor to illuminated it and was popularised in the Berkeley Software Distribution community by the Danish software developer Poul-Henning Kamp in 1999 and has spread from there to the whole software industry.

Karl Fogel, a renowned engineer on the topic describes the issue as

"the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the complexity of the topic that has been around for a long time”.

Example and situation

  • A Marketing Team: 5 minutes on the review of a new marketing brand strategy and 60 minutes on what to call the strategy

  • A facilities committee: 5 minutes on the design of a 10 million dollar HVAC system for a new building and 2 weeks selecting the artwork for the lobby.

  • You are out shopping for a T-shirt. You can’t, for the life of you, decide whether to get the color pink or light red, which have a color difference of a delta E value of 1 ( i.e. not even visible to begin with). You stress out over it and decide not to get either of them. You then spend the rest of the week thinking about the T-shirt and the color that you want. You even consult your friends about it. And at the end of the week, you go all the way out and return back to the shop just to get that one T-shirt when you could have gotten it back then when you were there.

  • You have a dream to pursue your passion. Everyone around you gets into an outburst and starts volunteering his/her opinions even though you don’t ask for any. You reverberate in shock and decide not to pursue it under everyone’s coaxing.

What leader can do to address Parkinson's Law of Triviality and its negative consequences?

  • Be aware of it. Now that you know about it, it should be easier to anticipate and deal with it.
  • Set time expectations and limits for every agenda item and stick to them.
  • If an issue is complex, share information about the issue prior to the meeting so that participants can be prepared to discuss it.
  • Assign trivial issues to individuals or small sub-teams, and empower them to implement without full team discussion or approval.
  • Create an environment that encourages and rewards asking questions. It should be acceptable to be ignorant about a new project or idea and leaders should acknowledge when their staff works to correct that ignorance.

What can be done to avoid bikeshedding effect on personal life ?

  • Use objective assessment tools. Assuming the problem is significant enough for you to spend further time on it, objectifying it may help with your decision-making process. Since subjective judgment tends to be, well, subjective and hence inconclusive, use objective criteria to bring light to the situation.

  • Don’t talk about something unless you are ready to hear others’ opinions about it. Everyone likes to comment on a bike shed scenario. Think about it as a can of worms that will get out of control once you open it. By talking about it, you are essentially issuing an open ticket for others to critique it

  • Use the 80/20 list to identify important tasks over unimportant bike shed problems.

  • Pick your battles. There are about a million bike shed problems you can mull yourself with, but that’s not what you want to do. You want to be choiceful over where you spend your time on. People may have agitated opinions over something, but if it’s trivial to you, then let it go — you don’t need to “win” the argument for the sake of winning. Spend your energy on the things that matter

  • Pick one and go. If the decision doesn’t matter in the long run, then just pick any option and go. For you to even have a dilemma over the options — that means that they must be pretty good to begin with, aye? So, it’s not going to matter much whether it’s you pick the color green or yellow.

Mohan pd.

Mohan pd.

Author of The Coders Blog. Also a professional fullstack javascript developer working with various tech company and client around world.


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