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Leadership: The Bicycle Shed Effect

The bicycle shed effect also refers to our irresistible urge to spend time debating silly little details – rather than the issue itself

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Remember Parkinson’s Law? It is the one that says ‘work expands to fill the time available for its completion.’ You’ve probably heard it before. There is another lesser-known law from Parkinson that we should all be aware of. A law that’s even more relevant in a world filled with back-to-back meetings. And never-ending webinars. Here’s a little story to illustrate the law.

Imagine a business meeting that’s been called to discuss a two-point agenda. The first item on the agenda seeks approval to sign a contract to build a $10 million reactor. The second item is a proposal to build a bicycle shed for workmen that will cost $350. Once the meeting starts, here’s what happens. The $10 million dollar reactor contract gets approved in five minutes. Primarily because $10 million is a very large sum that people can’t quite comprehend. And also because this reactor thing is in any case too technical.

Everyone assumes this is such a big decision, the folks concerned would have done their homework. One man  –  who understands all about reactors – tries making a point but discovers it is pointless because no one else understands what he is saying. And the $10 million reactor deal gets approved. In a jiffy.

Up next is the proposal for building the $350 bicycle shed. Now everyone in the room is familiar with bicycles and bicycle sheds. The HR guy talks passionately about the company’s tradition of  taking care of employees. The Finance guy says he cycles to work every day, leaves the bicycle out in the sun and there’s never been a problem. Says he can’t understand why we need a bike shed at all. Someone suggests that we should re-look at the roofing material. Aluminum is expensive, we should use asbestos instead. That could save $50. The debate moves to the colour of the roof. Grey or Green? This goes on for over an hour and finally, the bike shed is approved. With an asbestos roof. Grey in colour. And everyone goes home happy that the fruitful deliberations helped save $50.

Sounds familiar? See this happening in your meetings? It happens everywhere. Big issues are summarily dealt with because we don’t want to take the trouble to understand them. And everyone chips in on the trivial issues. This then is Parkinson’s Law of  Triviality. Or, as it’s popularly called, the Bicycle Shed Effect. It refers to the tendency of  leaders in organisations to spend disproportionate time discussing trivial issues. We waste time discussing things we are comfortable with, rather than focusing on what really matters.

The bicycle shed effect also refers to our irresistible urge to spend time debating silly little details – rather than the issue itself. The focus shifts from whether we should have the bicycle shed or not – to what the roof should be made of. And what colour it should be. The bicycle-shed effect also tells you that in meetings people often speak up not because they have a point to make, but because they want to show their familiarity with the subject. It’s almost like people feel the need to speak up – or risk being seen as having not contributed at all.

Next time you find your team wasting time discussing trivial things, press the pause button. Bring them back to the big issue. And tell them all about the Bicycle Shed Effect.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Prakash Iyer

Iyer is an author, speaker and leadership coach , and former MD of Kimberly Clark Lever

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