Monday, December 3, 2012

Parkinson's Law of Triviality

This post was first published in SmartBlog on Leadership on 11/29/2012:

Have you ever noticed that committees or management teams tend to spend way too much time in meetings endlessly debating the most unimportant or mundane topics, while at the same time, not enough time on the most important or strategic issues?
Most of us have either led or participated in a meeting where this phenomenon has reared its ugly head. Most of the time we blame it on the leader’s lack of meeting planning and facilitation skills, or we blame it on our fellow team member’s low intellect or competence, or both. We cope by getting frustrated, or just checking out and hoping it’s all over when we come out of out the coma.

There’s been plenty written about how to prevent wasting time at meetings, and yes, well planned agendas, process, meeting facilitation and participation skills are ALL very important.  However, my friend Alex tipped me off to something that I believe is vitally important for any leader to be aware of and could have a dramatic impact on how your team spends it’s time at meetings.
It’s called “Parkinson's Law of Triviality”. Parkinson's law of triviality (PLOT), also known as bikeshedding or the bicycle-shed example, is C. Northcote Parkinson's 1957 argument that organizations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. Parkinson demonstrated this by contrasting the triviality of the cost of building a bike shed in contrast to an atomic reactor.

Way back in 1957 Parkinson used the example of a finance committee spending hardly any time approving the construction of a nuclear power station, then going on to spend hours debating the construction of a bike shed. Some of the reasons that he attributed to this behavior, were to do with the nuclear power plant being very complicated and the average committee member being unable to understand the issues. As a result the item receives very little discussion, and the committee ‘trusts’ the experts. There are very few questions as nobody wants to appear stupid by asking something that is blindingly obvious or makes them look ignorant. Building a bike shed on the other hand is something we can all understand, and committee members are more than happy to contribute anecdote, opinion and sometimes ideas, usually at great length.
Just about everyone I’ve talked to since learning about PLOT can come up with plenty of examples in meetings in which PLOT came into play, including:

-A Marketing Team: 5 minutes on the review of a new marketing brand strategy and 60 minutes on what to call the strategy;
- An HR team: 5 minutes on spiraling company health care costs survey and 90 minutes on the rules for an employee “fun committee”;

- A facilities committee: 5 minutes on the design of a 10 million dollar HVAC system for a new building and 2 weeks selecting the artwork for the lobby.
So is there anything a leader can do to address Parkinson's Law of Triviality and its negative consequences? Here are a few ideas:

1. Be aware of it. Now that you know about it, it should be easier to anticipate and deal with it.
2. Make sure the rest of the team/committee is aware of it – share this blog post with your team or organization.

3. Set time expectations and limits for every agenda item and stick to them.
4. Be clear on where and how much participation is expected and desired and where it is not.

5. If an issue is complex, share information about the issue prior to the meeting so that participants can be prepared to discuss it.
6. Assign trivial issues to individuals or small sub-teams, and empower them to implement without full team discussion or approval.

7. Call it out if you think the discussion has fallen prey to PLOT (although, use tact if anyone, especially the boss, may feel the issue IS very important and worth spending time on).
8. Create “PLOTless” meeting agendas.

9. If you’re the leader, exercise your decision making authority on the trivial stuff and leverage your team for the important decisions. Just make sure they are clear which decision making method you are using for each item on the agenda.
10. When all else fails, activate the fire alarm app on your smartphone and evacuate the building.


Colin Gautrey said...

Certainly worth taking notice of Dan, as always.
It reminds me of two things. Firstly a witticism (from somebody I once knew) thaat the main purpose of middle management was to meet with itself, which it tempting to agree with in large organisations.
The second reminder is of a book called Management F-Laws by some US octogenarian sage - one if his laws or flaws was that profitability declines in direct proportion to the rising number of consultant days. Not sure if that was evidence based, but again, it is very tempting to believe.
Either way they support the need to critically appraise where time is focused.

Dan McCarthy said...

Colin -
Thanks, both laws sound true enough to believe!

James Lawther said...


I enjoyed this post very much.

I am a big believer in the Pareto Principle or 80:20 rule. Maybe that could help people setting agendas realise how trivial things are (or not)


Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks, good tip.

Bob Probst said...

I think you left an important item off your list of solutions:
Create an environment that encourages and rewards asking questions. It should be acceptable to be ignorant about a new project or idea and leaders should acknowledge when their staff works to correct that ignorance.