In 1957, Cyril Northcote Parkinson defined the Law of Triviality, an argument that people within an organization commonly or typically give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. For example, Parkinson coined the term “Bikeshedding” as a metaphor to illuminate the Law. Parkinson used a fictional Committee to help articulate his point. In his scenario, the Committee, whose job is to approve plans for a nuclear power plant, would spend the majority of its time on relatively unimportant but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bikeshed while neglecting the design of the power plant itself, which is far more critical but also far more difficult to criticize constructively. For example, how much feedback can you give on a Nuclear Power Plant design? How about a Bikeshed? As a result, the Committee provided significantly more feedback on the $350 bike shed accompanying the plant instead of the $10M nuclear plant – simply because it was easier to understand the bikeshed.
When you are Creative or in the business of presenting ideas – this phenomenon is probably familiar to you. But how often have you been in meetings where the discussion is more about the logo size vs. the remaining 98% of the content or design in the Presentation?
Visually put, this is what is happening with Bikeshedding.
When you are listening or giving feedback – do you have an internal feedback filter that prevents you from focusing on the wrong feedback? How about the Executive Sponsors? As you get higher in the Organization, you will see more of this phenomenon – not because Executive Sponsors are dumb, but because they are typically not specialists in the field.
How to Avoid Bikeshedding (Influenced by The Decision Lab)
- Bikeshedding can be avoided by attempting to remain on topic in feedback rounds. To stay focused on important issues, implement single agenda-item meetings, which makes it less likely that you’ll get off track.
- Another way to limit bikeshedding is to have fewer people attend a meeting; that way, fewer people will voice their opinion on trivial matters.
- Appoint a neutral feedback owner and assign them clear responsibilities – like, ensuring the time spent on specific feedback is proportional to the impact of the content. Although this will mitigate the problem, as the number of Businesses within the Organization increase – the feedback owner (or owners) need to span more and more Executive Sponsors – which can be very difficult.
- Consider the Rubber Duck philosophy by adding a very easy-to-remove element in the Creative – therefore containing the feedback to the obvious. This step is more of an acceptance that your Sponsors will have to weigh in on the feedback, so why not give them something we all agree on…like the image of a rubber duck with no business in the Creative.