LEADERSHIP INSIGHT

Has Your Team Been Stumbling Due to Parkinson’s Law of Triviality?

Fiddling while Rome burns.

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

We’re all familiar with the expression “fiddling while Rome burns.” Another, like it, is “re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” Whether true or not (the fiddle, for example, had not yet been invented during the time of Emperor Nero) both of these expressions have served as illustrations of Parkinson’s Law of Trivialities.

It’s the mistake of majoring in minors, wasting time on irrelevancies as if they matter.

It was C. Northcote Parkinson who in 1957 codified the argument that “members of an organization give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.” We’ve all seen examples of it, no doubt. It’s often at the heart of micromanaging. Spending hours on the size of a logo on an ad by a senior manager who never asks whether this is the right message for this publication or the right product for this audience.

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Photo by the author.

Parkinson provides the example of a fictional committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant spending the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important and a far more difficult and complex task. (Wikipedia)

This is a wonderful example of why G.K. Chesterton said that you search the world over in all the cities and not find a statue of committees.

Parkinson’s Law has been applied to software development and other activities. The terms bicycle-shed effect, bike-shed effect, and bike-shedding were coined as metaphors to illuminate the law of triviality; it was popularized in the Berkeley Software Distribution community by the Danish software developer Poul-Henning Kamp in 1999 and has spread from there to the whole software industry. (Wikipedia)

The graphic on this page illustrates the concept perfectly and explains where the buzzword “bikeshedding” comes from.

Why this is a problem is made clearer when you think about who all the people are sitting around the table. It’s one thing for college kids in a dorm room to have a three-hour bull session about inane trivialities. It’s quite another when the suits around the table have six figure incomes.

One way to address this problem is for the leader of the meeting to define the purpose of the meeting up front and to manage the meeting in accordance with basic ground rules. I recommend Dr. Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats which I have previously written about here: Unlocking New Ways To Think and See — Dr. DeBono’s Six Hats

Related: The Law of Diminishing Returns

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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