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
checking out
and hoping it’s all over when we come out of out the

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

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
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.