Fixing the Bike(shed). A conversation about how to deal with Bikeshedding

The biggest bike shed in the world. City of Utrecht Train Station (link)

Have you ever been in a meeting where you spend an eternity discussing something relatively trivial, and then microseconds on something significant? If the answer is yes, the chances are you’ve been Bikeshedding…

Bikeshedding is the common name for Parkinson’s Law of Triviality:  … ‘the amount of time a committee will spend discussing an item is inversely proportional to the importance of that issue’.

So, if the issue is huge, complicated and really important, the meeting will spend far less time discussing it than something that is straightforward and less important. The classic example given by Parkinson was along the lines of a decision to build a Nuclear Power Station (costing many billions) being decided in 5 minutes. In comparison the discussion of where to build the employee bike sheds lasts 45 minutes. You can read more about the origins of Bikeshedding in this post.

This post is a conversation between Sarah Prescott and Chris Bolton to try and ‘Fix the Bikeshed’. We’ve both been involved in committees and meetings for many years. We’ve seen enough Bikeshedding to make the Parking Attendant at the Utrecht Bike Parking Garage faint*. (*biggest bike parking garage in the world!)

What we’ve done is ask each other a few questions and have hopefully come up with some useful suggestions. Here goes…

Sarah’s questions for Chris.

1 – When did you first become aware of Bikeshedding? – Have you got a real-life example?

I’ve been aware of Bikeshedding for over 30 years, I just never knew what it was called. During the 1990’s in one of my first jobs I used to get intensely frustrated about wasted time in meetings talking about trivial things. Part of the role involved taking the meeting notes of a ‘Fishery Bailiffs Protective Equipment Subcommittee’. They obsessed for hours about military specification equipment and camouflage clothing. I just couldn’t see the point.

That frustration with endless discussions about trivia in meetings has persisted with me ever since. In about 2010 I remember complaining to my Father in Law about a frustrating ‘Community of Practice’ I’d attended.

They were discussing ‘voting rights’ – for a group whose sole purpose was to share knowledge (in what circumstances would they need to vote… on what?)

By the time we had ‘resolved’ that issue, there was no time left to share any actual good practice. The important work was relegated to “let’s do it by email”. Arrghhhh!  My Father in Law just said, “ah, a lovely example of Bikeshedding” A week later he gave me a copy of Cyril Parkinson’s 1958 book ‘The Pursuit of Progress’. Bikeshedding is beautifully explained in the book, which I cherish.

2 – Are some kinds of decisions more prone to bikeshedding than others? What’s the relationship between bikeshedding and risk?

I think that some decisions are more prone to bikeshedding than others. Parkinson makes the point that if the topic is; big, complicated and something we don’t understand, we will shy away from engaging with the detail. What we will do is focus on the ‘easy’ stuff. Things that are at a level we fully understand and are comfortable talking about.

How this plays out in a meeting is that people will ‘defer to the experts’ and just accept whatever is in front of them, without questioning it too deeply. So, the complicated, huge impact issue (a new Nuclear Power Station) gets ‘nodded through’ in 5 minutes, whilst the design of the bike shed for the workers gets chewed over for 45 minutes.

There are a number of things that influence this behaviour, the fear of looking ignorant or foolish in front of experts and others in the meeting. For me, this raises a big question. If people are there to make decisions, how can they be helped to feel confident and capable of asking questions about the big, complicated and important things?

As far as risk is concerned, I think the practice of ‘Bikeshedding’ poses significant risks. Big and complicated issues are likely to have many risks associated with them. If the issue isn’t getting the discussion and scrutiny that as proportionate to that level of risk – that’s got to be a risk in itself.

3 – Has anyone used the dark side of bikeshedding and how did you tackle it?

I think it’s important to recognise that ‘Bikeshedding’ is exploited in lots of places, not just decision-making meetings. It can be as simple as someone ‘offering’ a distraction or a decoy that it’s easier to engage with than the ‘hard’ stuff.

Using Bikeshedding for ‘ulterior motives’ does happen. Going right back to the start of my working life I used to support a committee on ‘technical’ issues. This involved attending the agenda setting meetings with the Committee Clerk and the Chair – both highly experienced individuals. 

Their version of ‘agenda management’ definitely involved bit of creating the space for Bikeshedding. When the Chair wanted certain items passed as smoothly as possible, they were placed after the Bikeshedding opportunity. “Let them chew on something irrelevant for a bit” was the objective. Observing these ‘dark arts’ was an ‘education’.

As for counteracting bikeshedding – the main points I would suggest are; avoid it in the first place, be constantly vigilant, and if you sense it’s happening, take steps to stop it.

Like all the best advice, easier said than done, but awareness is a good place to start.

Chris’s questions to Sarah:

1- Do you think there are any ‘structural’ things that could be done to avoid Bikeshedding in the first place?

Firstly I think there is a lot we can do to avoid Bikeshedding by structuring meetings. There will be a lot of familiar advice on how to run an effective meeting, setting a strong agenda, being clear on what outcomes are, and of course the need to get the right people around the table in the first place!

These are all effective “hygiene factors” to avoid Bikeshedding, and I would argue that these are even more important in a remote working environment.

Structuring the agenda is one of the key points – I personally favour putting the more meaty discussions at the beginning, shortly after a warm up, and before the energy is depleted. Don’t leave it until five minutes to go!

But being intentional about the style and not just the formality of the meeting helps. Meetings and decisions don’t happen in a cultural vacuum and some cultures are more prone to Bikeshedding than others. Some organisational cultures more weight is placed on not losing face, for example, and this can drive people towards the Bikeshed.

Nancy Kline’s famous book “Time to think” talks about creating a respectful meeting space where everyone can be heard effectively and a safe place for discussion, I think this helps.

The other point for me is around governance is structured and how risks are managed. If decisions are not devolved effectively and the sheer number of decisions become overwhelming then Bikeshedding seems much more likely.

Governance has to manage the appropriate risks – so the operational decisions need to be aligned to the operational teams and the operational risks. It sounds so easy when I write it like that!

Systems of approval have to be carefully designed to achieve that though. Underpinning it is a keen and frank eye for the risks we are facing. There are questions we can ask ourselves to help with that – I’m a fan of getting under the skin of what’s bothering people, that nagging feeling. It usually leads away from the Bikeshed in my experience.

2. What about the behaviours of key players, for example the Chair – do they have a role to spot it and stop it?

Chairs absolutely do have a role to spot it and stop it (sounds like a good motto for a T-Shirt!)

Chairs who; facilitate effectively, don’t get lost in the weeds, and don’t push their own agendas are a big defence against Bikeshedding. A good Chair must call out anyone playing at any of the dark arts  – I find a spot of humor can go a long way in doing this! A good Chair can also hold up a mirror to the room to point out ‘Bikeshedding without blame’.

Another key role is the people presenting information to meetings. The “expert” has a critical role to present all the facts and context as best they can and avoid any “dark arts”.

Awareness of their own biases and their ability to handle conflict / uncertainty is really important. They can also help guide the meeting back to where it needs to be.

It takes courage and bravery for people to admit they don’t know everything. That awkward space, on the edge of knowledge, is where we need to be a lot of the time. There is definitely a link between being on the edge of comfort zones and seeking the Bikeshed to my mind.

3 – Isn’t this everyone’s problem though? How do you work with that?

It is of course and for me it’s about starting with the recognition that we all Bikeshed from time to time. Sometimes issues are difficult to face. That’s ok. Rather like mindfulness, it’s about recognising that we are off track and returning to the matter in hand. And maybe a spot of Bikeshedding in a meeting all helps build a social relationship (in small doses, of course).

Processes of risk management and assurance also play a role in tackling organisational bikeshedding.  The lodestone is the risk matrix process. If nothing else this should be telling you what are the most important things to worry about – be afraid if it doesn’t tally with the “what’s bothering you” test.

How we get assured that everything is on track via audit processes can really help as part of the evidence we assess. I’m a fan of Stephen Covey’s four quadrants (or Eisenhower – who got there first on this) to help me make sure I am in the important areas. Bikeshedding as a concept is very similar to the “Urgent but not important” quadrant in Covey’s world.

Adaptation of Stephen Covey’s Important v Urgent Matrix

The other key area is creating a culture where we seek continuous improvement on our meetings. We’ve used feedback sessions at the end of Board meetings to good effect and as part of our Board annual appraisals for example. I think the same can apply to 121s on a more individual level. A good coaching and facilitation relationship is a good antidote to bikeshedding right from the shop floor to the Boardroom.

Tackling bikeshedding is ultimately about being honest about what’s bothering ourselves, to my mind. Leaders have a particular role to play in encouraging and rewarding the behaviours which lead to productive debate and good quality thinking, and providing the feedback that things are going off course.

Leaders can emphasise this about role modelling that behaviour and having the courage to admit when they are unclear or if they think they have gone off track. And, I think tackling Bikeshedding as a group behaviour becomes easier over time as new norms are established. We are all learning about new norms at the moment!

Points to ride away on your Bike with :

  1. Think about how your meetings are structured and managed. Clear the agenda for what’s important and be clear on the outcomes.
  2. Develop a style that hears all voices and allows for strong facilitation.
  3. Build a team that is comfortable with being uncomfortable. The interesting and productive stuff is often just outside our comfort zones!
  4. Use tools like risk matrices, assurance and evidence to help guide you and back up the decision making.
  5. Adopt a continuous improvement approach to decision making and meetings.

A version of this post can be found on Sarah’s blog here:

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

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