Way back in 1957 a British naval historian named C. Northcote Parkinson observed something striking about human behavior and formulated what is known as Parkinson's Law of Triviality. The quick version of the story goes (something) like this. There was a Board of Directors Finance Committee meeting set up with a two hour agenda comprised of three items:
1) A $13 million contract to build a nuclear power plant.
2) A $460 proposal to build a bike shed for the employees to store their bikes while at work.
3) A $27 annual proposal to provide refreshments for the Joint Welfare Committee.
And here is how the meeting played out...
Agenda Item #1: $13 million nuclear power plant
Discussion: A brief overview of the contract was given, and very little discussion followed. Time: 2.5 minutes. Decision: Approved. (Wait, what? This is 1957...nuclear power plants are a big deal...no discussion? Ok...I guess...)
Agenda Item #2: $460 proposal for a bike shed
Discussion: With the rising number of employees riding bikes to work, there needed to be a storage location established for the bikes while the employees were at work, and the idea was raised to provide a covered shelter to keep the bikes protected from the weather. This prompted a significant amount of discussion - what material should be used for the roof? Which will be most cost effective? Most durable? Where could it be purchased? Which contractors are to be used? Have bids been sent out? What color should it be painted? How large should it be? What is the best location? (I could go on, but I think you get the idea).
Time: 45 minutes. Decision: Approved. Yay!!!
Agenda Item #3: $27 annual proposal to provide refreshments for the Joint Welfare Committee.
Discussion: A lot. What type of refreshments? How much coffee? Do they really need sandwiches and fruit? Where is the best place to procure the items? We don't want to overpay for bananas...
Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes. Decision: More information is needed. (more information?!?!?! really?!?!?)
What is the impact of this silliness?
Huge. This committee meeting likely involved about 15 people. And they spent almost two hours debating the details of how to spend $487. Among them, they devoted a grand total of almost 30 hours to decide what materials to use to protect bikes from the weather and to not make a decision on refreshments.
Pause. Sigh. (hands over face, shaking my head)
And this is only one example of one meeting at one organization. If you start adding up all the meetings and all of the organizations, the lost time is staggering.
Parkinson's Law of Triviality points out that humans 1) have a tendency to devote a great deal of time and energy to unimportant details while crucial matters go on unattended and 2) have this uncanny ability to spread the work over the time allowed.
Because of Parkinson's story, this behavior has become known as "bike shedding". And it happens. A lot.
What to Do? What to Do?
Watch for these moments to begin. And they will. Maybe as soon as today. Utilize these tips to prevent your company from being the world's largest producer of bike sheds!
Keep the magnitude of the discussion in perspective. I was able to hear a wage increase discussion for someone who was described as "outstanding" and "such a value to our organization" by her supervisors. And a 45 minute discussion ensued about weather to give her a standard 2.5% wage increase, or a 3.5% (the maximum allowed by the organization). The weekly difference in these two numbers? $9.61. Yup, basically a Venti coffee and a breakfast sandwich from Starbucks. Approve it and move on.
Schedule meetings for the exact amount of time you think they will take. Most scheduling software is set up to schedule meetings in 30 minute increments. Don't just blindly schedule. If you think you can get the meeting done in 17 minutes, schedule it for 17 minutes. Also, start the meeting on time and set the expectation right away - "we have a pretty tight agenda, so we need to stay on topic..."
Engage others to stop the madness. Introduce the concept of bike shedding at your organization. Tell the story of the finance committee meeting - and then encourage everyone to stop the conversation when it starts to get out of hand. A simple, "are we bike shedding right now?" will do the trick.
Have a good bike shedding moment to share? Please tell us about it in the comments below!
Christopher M. Spranger, MBA, ASQ MBB
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