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Bikeshedding: How to Survive Atrocious Meetings

Humorist Dave Barry once remarked that “if you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings'”. He was right. But that is not to say there isn’t anything of grave importance to be discussed by getting in a room with others. If only the time were used productively. Bikeshedding is one of the reasons why that doesn’t happen. So take a seat in my virtual boardroom, we’re going to explore the origins of Bkeshedding and what you can do to survive your next atrocious meeting.

What Is Bikeshedding?

Bikeshedding occurs when participants of a meeting spend a disproportional amount of time and energy on trivial issues rather than important ones. The phenomenon is also known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, which states that “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 expensive and therefore important a project is the less time people will spend on discussing it. The legendary adage was coined by British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson in his 1957 book Parkinson’s Law: Or The Pursuit Of Progress. To understand the use of the term Bikeshedding, consider the following case study.

A Bikeshedding Case Study

Let’s sit in on a meeting where the Law of Triviality is about to be imposed and examine how things go downhill. The agenda has just been announced. Nothing special. Just your average meeting topics:

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

Discussing the Nuclear Power Plant

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.

So on we go.

Discussing the Bike Shed

Everyone’s mood lightens. A colleague outs herself as an avid bicycle enthusiast. She has tales to tell about the pros and cons of bike shed setups in various shires throughout the English Midwest, a climate comparable to ours. In fact, she now remembers a splendid story from her last bike trip through the Hungarian wilderness. And she is certainly not alone.

Her anecdote is one of several passionate contributions on materials, choice of colours, preferable coating and cost-efficiency. The Hungarians still build bike sheds the old-fashioned way, with tile roofs, one member knows. “That’s not quite true,” a fellow bike aficionado interjects. Roofs were often laminated, which is surely a material to consider. The group spends 45 minutes on this. The proposal passes.

Discussing the Coffee Machine

Item number three is finally 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. A lively debate ensues. Between those who prefer the aroma and quality of barista coffee. And those who prefer the ease and convenience of fully automatic machines.

At a meeting, everyone has a chance to have their say.

Most of the people at the meeting have nothing to say, but they say something anyway.

That way the meeting has not been a waste of everyone’s time.

The Ladybird Book of the Meeting

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.

A formal request to the secretary is made to compile further information so as to ensure a responsible decision is being made. Everyone walks away feeling they have adequately and meaningfully contributed to the conversation.

The Reasons Behind Bikeshedding

Surprised? Probably not. We’ve been witnessing the textbook case of Bikeshedding. As a matter of fact, I took the liberty of modifying Parkinson’s own example from his book. It goes without saying that, rather than the cheap projects, we would expect the expensive ones to be discussed much more in-depth. According to Parkinson, however, that doesn’t happen.

Complexity

A major factor is complexity. Nuclear power plants are of course infinitely more complicated and abstract than a bike shed, let alone a coffee machine. Only a few people understand how they work and what goes into constructing one. It’s almost impossible for a layperson to discuss such a matter confidently.

While not all too ordinary, a bike shed is much easier to comprehend using common knowledge, language and sense. Parkinson’s choice of a coffee machine proposal is not a coincidence either. It’s cheap, easy to understand and we don’t have to be experts to weigh in. Ergo, everyone feels competent enough to add their voice.


The three proposals are metaphors of course. Different organisations will have their own versions of atomic reactors, bike sheds and coffee machines. (See if you can spot which topics they correspond to in yours.) Then there’s the factor of outsourcing our responsibility to others.

Outsourcing

Imagine a family meeting. We discuss buying a new $100k RV, which is a fairly big decision. If at all, I assume our eight-year-old kids wouldn’t weigh in on fuel efficiency or resell value but rather on the RV’s colour and sheer size. It’s too complex for them. Then again, I might be grossly underestimating our fictitious children.

Adam looks at his watch.

Every second that ticks away is time he has spent discussing the company’s display stand at the Frankfurt Bathroom Expo.

Adam’s life is being consumed, piece by tiny piece, while he pretends to care about taps.

The Ladybird Book of the Meeting

The point is that our family may spend more time discussing minor aspects of the new RV or other trivial related purchases rather than going into the technical specifications of the vehicle. Why? Because we conveniently assume the salesperson has a much better grasp of the technical details than we do. So we outsource our responsibility to someone else.

I’m sure it’ll be alright. At any rate, the problem remains that decisions about important, complex and expensive projects have to be made. Preferably by people who understand the matter and are responsible for the consequences of the decision. This brings us to the question of how we can solve the meeting problem.

How to Overcome Bikeshedding

So how can we overcome Bikeshedding? Let’s begin by acknowledging that we cannot force people to have productive discussions about issues they know little about. At the same time, we need to prevent them from taking a deep dive into pointless trivialities such as the roasting of beans. Let’s say our goal is to have this power plant be discussed properly and discuss a few strategies.

Giving People Homework

We could give people homework so they come prepared for the meeting. Sending out a memo with key points to understand would give participants a better grasp of the topic. They could contribute more meaningfully. Then again, this seems to only shift the problem to the time prior to the meeting.

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, chances are that memo won’t have made a difference.

What’s more, the homework solution may give less knowledgeable members unconscious incompetence, that is the illusion they know what they’re talking about. Besides, did you notice your body’s visceral reaction to me even mentioning the word homework? So how about we focus on the things we may be able to influence.

The Power of Agenda-Setting

The meeting agenda is an often underestimated tool. 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 smaller items that people might actually be able to talk about.

There’s much to discuss about a metaphorical power plant. Its location, outreach to the public, local politics or safety considerations. And if there aren’t any aspects our participants are knowledgeable in, why are they even in the room? This brings us to solution number three.

Getting the Right People in the Room

If we can’t improve the meeting by altering the agenda, we may need to think about whether we can get those people 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. Those who haven’t fallen victim to the Peter Principle.

We may also want to think about scheduling smaller meetings with our experts before the big decision. That way, the major discussions have already been held before and board members have less incentive to play an awkward game of competence make-believe.

Mr Bideford does not like meetings, so he is going in his cupboard again.

The Ladybird Book of the Meeting

Another aspect of getting the right people in the room relates to the meeting chair. We need someone who knows how to moderate and keep the discussion productive. That means making sure that all important aspects are covered and everyone gets a chance to weigh in. Then the chair should also know how to elegantly steer a conversation back on topic if it becomes too trivial.

To achieve this it may be worth getting a competent meeting chair who has 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. Speaking of getting things done.

Elon’s Productivity Tips

Next time you sit in an unproductive meeting, try guessing everyone’s hourly wage. That’ll give you a good idea of how much money is currently wasted and souls are being killed. In some situations, the best solution to meetings is not having them in the first place. This requires a cultural shift in an organisation. Here’s what billionaire comedian Elon Musk recommended in a leaked email to Tesla employees:

  • Excessive meetings are the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time. Please get [rid] of all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short.
  • Also get rid of frequent meetings, unless you are dealing with an extremely urgent matter. Meeting frequency should drop rapidly once the urgent matter is resolved.
  • Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.

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 not an eccentric billionaire. And I love giving people homework. Here’s what I think you can do.

Enjoy the Bikeshedding Show

Imagine we’re back in the meeting and it feels rather unpleasant and unproductive. We may not be able to improve it. But we can at least make the meeting less atrocious. Because there is someone in that room we can influence like nobody else. Ourselves. All we need to do is turn the Law of Triviality into a sharp analytical tool akin to a Wittgenstein’s Ruler situation.

Elephant in the Room

As Dune author Frank Herbert put it: “Knowing where the trap is — that’s the first step in evading it.” 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? Yes, yes, no and no? Then it’s probably happening.

The second we notice Bikeshedding is occurring, 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. Nobody has addressed the security aspect yet!

We bite our tongues instead and also 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. A reason why we can endure, even enjoy, binge-watching a season of The Office is that we’re not 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

Perhaps Bikeshedding is the universe’s way to slow down human progress. It may be inevitable. But once we’ve realised we’re sentenced by the Law of Triviality to four hours of pointless anecdotes, we can lean back and take a break.

Our gentle nods and curious smiles only contribute to our image of a pleasant professional. Let’s enjoy this latest episode of Bikeshedding. Only thirty more minutes and we have to be productive again. Meetings don’t have to be atrocious.