There are many versions of the same principle. We spend disproportionate amounts of time on issues. We often have deep discussions on trivial matters and superficial and fast agreements on complex projects.
Our prioritization exercises are full of that stuff. Soon in the flipcharts, anything that is not controllable by us, even if fundamental, is discarded, and then we spend a lot of time prioritizing the less fundamental, controllable, ‘manageable’ and perhaps trivial. Another form of the ‘managing the inevitable’ principle.
The 3 more memorable versions of the above are:
1. The Parkinson Law of Triviality, also known as Bike-Shed Effect. Parkinson observed that a committee in charge of financing the design of a nuclear plant, spent a disproportione amount of time – 45 minutes – agreeing on the bicycle stand (shed) in the car park, cost 350 pounds; and 10 minutes in agreeing a 10 million pound project investment. As he put it, “The debate is fairly launched. A sum of £350 is well within everybody’s comprehension. Everyone can visualise a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some £50. Members at length sit back with a feeling of accomplishment.“. The 10 million project is too technical, too big, and assumes that expert people have already looked into it. But bikes? We all could save at least 50 pounds on a shed.
2. Here is the Sayre Law: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”
3. Here is Henry Kissinger’s : “I formulated the rule that the intensity of academic politics and the bitterness of it is in inverse proportion to the importance of the subject they’re discussing. And I promise you at Harvard, they are passionately intense and the subjects are extremely unimportant”.
See the pattern? My rule of thumb is that prolonged debate beyond the reasonable parameters of time and space, sustained passionate arguments leading nowhere, and fast discarding issues as ‘corporate’, ‘not under our control’, or ‘important, but not our prerogative’, are an indication of possible focus on triviality. Hard problems are hard. Easy problems deserve a good, long brainstorm and a full prioritization system. If on top of this you can manage to put some numbers, then it will be even better.
In my previous corporate life, I have witnessed intense and passionate meetings of all our secretaries discussing the merits of second class or first class stamps for our correspondence.
Some of the longest and more complicated discussions I have witnessed in our Viral Change™ programmes have been around the look of the workbooks for our Champions Boot camps
I have seen, and probably you have also seen, terrible battles about saving the cost of one training workshop in the Training Department whilst McKinsey is working on a multimillion-dollar project for the Board.
Back to bikes. Watch out for ‘the bicycles’ in the company. They may enjoy a marvelous time and attention. Suspect something else, probably big, is being either cooked, and you don’t know, or discarded as if non existing.