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Bikeshedding: Why Meetings Can Be Awful and What to Do About It

Meetings don’t have to be awful. A preposterously controversial proposition, I know. Because they usually are. It’s not even hard to see why. Have you ever been in a business meeting and had this feeling that you could’ve used your time more productively? You’re not alone. Elon Musk is one name I might drop. He shares your opinion and can afford it. Oddly enough, even though we know there’s a problem with meetings, they keep being a pain. The reason for this has come to be known as Bikeshedding.

A Bikeshedding Case Study

In order to find out what it is, let’s sit in on a meeting where Bikeshedding is about to occur and examine how things go downhill. The agenda has just come in. It’s your average items we all know them from our own organisations:

  1. Proposal for a $10,000,000 nuclear power plant
  2. Proposal for a $500 bike shed
  3. Proposal for a $50 coffee machine.

The meeting begins and we get to work with item number one. Uneasy looks are exchanged. Everyone is fully aware of the magnitude of this project and the far-reaching consequences of the collective decision. The proposal is passed in less than three minutes.

On we go with item number two. Everyone’s mood lightens. A colleague outs herself as an avid bicycle enthusiast. She has tales to tell about the pros and cons of public bike shed setups in various shires throughout the English Midwest, a climate comparable to ours. In fact, she now remembers a splendid anecdote from her last bike trip through the Hungarian wilderness. The Hungarians still build bike sheds the old-fashioned way, with tile roofs. Her anecdote is one of several passionate contributions on materials, choice of colours, preferable coating and cost-efficiency. The group spends 45 minutes in a lively debate. The proposal passes.

Item number three is up the coffee machine proposal. Everyone loves coffee. Everyone knows coffee. Even the people who had not much to say about bike sheds now chime in. You see where this is going. The group debates for one hour and fifteen minutes. A conclusion is not reached. The decision is postponed to the next meeting pending further discussion. The secretariat is asked to compile further information. Everyone walks away with a sense of having contributed something to the conversation.

What Is Bikeshedding?

Surprised? Probably not. We’ve been witnessing the textbook case of Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, casually known as Bikeshedding. As a matter of fact, I took the liberty of modifying the very example he used in his 1957 book Parkinson’s Law: Or The Pursuit Of Progress. The law says:

The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.

In other words, the more something costs or the more important the project is, the less time people will spend discussing it. Instead, Parkinson found that most time is spent on trivial issues, hence the term Law of Triviality. It goes without saying that, rather than the cheap projects, we would expect the expensive ones to be discussed much more in-depth.

That doesn’t seem to happen, though. A major contributing factor is complexity. Nuclear power plants are of course infinitely more complex and abstract than a bike shed let alone a coffee machine. Only a few people understand how they work and what goes into building one. While not all too common, the bike shed is much easier to comprehend using common knowledge and common sense. Unsurprisingly, Parkinson’s choice of a coffee machine project is not a coincidence either. It’s cheap, easy to understand and we don’t have to be experts to weigh in.

The three proposals are metaphors of course. Each of our organisations may have its own versions of ‘atomic reactors’, ‘bike sheds’ and ‘coffee machines’. See if you can spot them in yours. Now, I wouldn’t even limit Bikeshedding to business meetings either. Imagine a family meeting. You discuss buying a new RV, which is a fairly big decision. If at all, I assume your eight-year-old kids wouldn’t weigh in on fuel efficiency or resell value, but rather on colour and the sheer size of it. Then again, I might grossly underestimate your children.

The point is that your family may spend more time discussing minor aspects of the new RV or other more trivial purchases rather than going into the nitty-gritty of RVs. You may be much more likely to outsource the important parts of the decision to the salesperson.

At any rate, the problem remains that decisions about important, complex and expensive projects have to be made. Preferably by people who are responsible for them and understand the matter. This brings us to the question of how we can solve the meeting problem.

Solving Meetings

Let’s begin by acknowledging that we cannot force people to have productive discussions about issues they know little about. It’s like squeezing water out of a stone or forcing people to resort to yak shaving. At the same time, we need to prevent them from taking a deep dive into pointless trivialities when it comes to coffee machine topics.

In terms of the former, we may also acknowledge that giving people homework so they can come prepared is often doomed to fail. I’ve yet to see a committee in which all members have actually read and understood those highly specialised 50-page reports that were sent to them two weeks in advance. If they weren’t an expert on nuclear power before, those 50 pages won’t have made a difference. Becoming an expert takes much longer. If anything they may give members the illusion they know what they’re talking about and turn the reactor into a bike shed.

Let’s say our goal is to have this power plant be discussed properly. So how about we start by focussing on two things we might be able to influence: the agenda and the people in the room.

The Power of Agenda-Setting

In my experience, the meeting agenda is an often underestimated tool. Bear in mind that the agenda shapes the purpose of the meeting as well as its content. What’s not on the agenda is not discussed. Well, that’s not entirely true. An issue may still be discussed briefly at the very end of the meeting under ‘other items’. You know, the time when everyone wants to go home.

What I mean is this: If we don’t put the bike shed or the coffee machine on there, those projects won’t take away valuable time from our main project. Of course, that won’t make our participants magically knowledgeable either. So, we may want to break the proposal down into several bits that people can actually talk about. If there aren’t any aspects of the proposal they are knowledgeable in, why are they even in the room? This brings us to our second solution.

Getting the Right People in the Room

If we can’t tweak the meeting by altering the agenda, we may need to think about whether we can get those in the room who know what they’re talking about. We’re looking for the kind of experts for whom talking nuclear is as natural as talking coffee. I admit, if we’re dealing with a board meeting, we probably can’t swap members at will. Fair enough. That’s why we may want to think about scheduling meetings with our experts before the big decision. That way, the major discussions have already been held before and board members don’t have to play an awkward game of competence make-believe.

Another aspect of getting the right people in the room relates to the person chairing the meeting. To avoid Bikeshedding and keep the discussion productive we need someone who knows how to moderate. That means, elegantly steering the conversation back on topic if it becomes too trivial. At the same time, make sure that all-important aspects are covered and everyone gets a chance to weigh in.

To achieve this it may be worth getting a meeting chair with lots of knowledge about an issue, excellent negotiation skills, little time and a tendency to get things done. They don’t have to make the decision, they only have to force the outcome if everything has been said and the meeting turns trivial. I love drawing parallels to teaching. As an educator in a room full of over-excited students, if you don’t keep the discussion on track while steering it towards its goal, nobody will.

Now you might say: That all sounds terrific, but I can’t implement any of this. I cannot set the agenda. I have no control over who’s in the room. I’m no stranger to hearing the phrase: “We’ve never done that before. Who knows what could come of it.” Here’s a bonus solution just for you.

Enjoy the Bikeshedding Show

We’re back in the meeting and the Bikeshedding is in full swing. We may not be able to make the meeting better, but we can at least make it less terrible. Because there is someone in that room we can influence like nobody else. It’s us, as in you and me. All we need to do is turn the Law of Triviality into a sharp analytical tool.

First, by knowing about its characteristics we should be able to realise when Bikeshedding is happening. As Dune author Frank Herbert put it: The initial step of avoiding a trap is knowing of its existence. Have important topics been rushed and now we’re all stuck in an endless conversation about trivialities? Have we been able to anticipate it by looking at the agenda? Do the people in the room seem like they know what they’re talking about? Does the meeting chair give the meeting a clear direction?

The second we notice it, we may want to stop contributing to it. If we have something meaningful to say that brings everyone closer to the goal, fantastic. If not, don’t. Even though we just remembered how we loved to play hide and seek in our neighbour’s bike shed when we were eight years old. High-quality shed locks are so important. Let’s bite our tongue.

Thirdly, we don’t disturb the situation by pointing out the bike shed in the room. At this point, the old barn is unsalvageable — at least for us. Instead, we go with the flow. One reason why we may enjoy binge-watching a season of The Office is that we’re not a part of it. We’re more of an omniscient spectator. We observe the characters, we relate to the absurdities, and we are entertained.

Closing Thoughts

Once we’ve realised we’re trapped under the rule of the Law of Triviality, we can lean back and take a break. The gentle smile on our faces only contributes to our image of a friendly professional. Let’s enjoy this latest episode of Bikeshedding. Only 10 more minutes and we have to be productive again. Meetings don’t have to be awful.