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Parkinson's law of triviality (bikeshedding)

What is Parkinson's law of triviality (bikeshedding)?

Parkinson's law of triviality is an observation about the human tendency to devote a great deal of time to unimportant details, while crucial matters go unattended.

Parkinson's law of triviality is not the principle known as Parkinson's law, which is the familiar observation that work expands to use up the amount of time allocated for it. However, both principles were originally formulated by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British Naval historian and author.

Bikeshedding is another common term for wasting time and energy on more trivial details than addressing important matters. That term originates from Parkinson's observation of a committee organized to approve plans for a nuclear power plant. As Parkinson noted, the committee devoted a disproportionate amount of time to relatively unimportant details -- such as the materials for a bicycle storage shed -- which limited the time available to focus on the design of the nuclear plant.

People tend to focus on the smaller details because they are easier to understand than the more complex matters, such as building a nuclear power plant.

Implications of law of triviality for business

As is the case with the more famous Parkinson's law, the law of triviality has implications for many areas of business, including time management, resource allocation, project planning and project management.

The law of triviality -- or bikeshedding -- can present serious implications for a group of employees. Once one employee has voiced an opinion on a small portion, people tend to add their opinions as well, and time is wasted. The more important issues the company needs to tackle only have a few minutes to be addressed, which limits efficiency.

How to avoid law of triviality

The first step to avoiding bikeshedding is awareness. Once a trivial topic gets too much attention, someone needs to return to the meeting agenda. Here are some other ways to avoid bikeshedding:

  • Create clear agenda items, and return the meeting conversations to discuss these topics.
  • Establish time limits for each topic, and then move on to the next agenda item.
  • Have separate meetings for more complex issues, and avoid long agendas.
  • Invite fewer people to the meeting as simple issues tempt more people to speak in a large group setting.
  • Name a person in charge of making the final decision versus a committee.
This was last updated in October 2022

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