Tag: Parkinson’s Law

Why We Focus on Trivial Things: The Bikeshed Effect

Bikeshedding is a metaphor to illustrate the strange tendency we have to spend excessive time on trivial matters, often glossing over important ones. Here’s why we do it, and how to stop.

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How can we stop wasting time on unimportant details? From meetings at work that drag on forever without achieving anything to weeks-long email chains that don’t solve the problem at hand, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on the inconsequential. Then, when an important decision needs to be made, we hardly have any time to devote to it.

To answer this question, we first have to recognize why we get bogged down in the trivial. Then we must look at strategies for changing our dynamics towards generating both useful input and time to consider it.

The Law of Triviality

You’ve likely heard of Parkinson’s Law, which states that tasks expand to fill the amount of time allocated to them. But you might not have heard of the lesser-known Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, also coined by British naval historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson in the 1950s.

The Law of Triviality states that the amount of time spent discussing an issue in an organization is inversely correlated to its actual importance in the scheme of things. Major, complex issues get the least discussion while simple, minor ones get the most discussion.

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality is also known as “bike-shedding,” after the story Parkinson uses to illustrate it. He asks readers to imagine a financial committee meeting to discuss a three-point agenda. The points are as follows:

  1. A proposal for a £10 million nuclear power plant
  2. A proposal for a £350 bike shed
  3. A proposal for a £21 annual coffee budget

What happens? The committee ends up running through the nuclear power plant proposal in little time. It’s too advanced for anyone to really dig into the details, and most of the members don’t know much about the topic in the first place. One member who does is unsure how to explain it to the others. Another member proposes a redesigned proposal, but it seems like such a huge task that the rest of the committee decline to consider it.

The discussion soon moves to the bike shed. Here, the committee members feel much more comfortable voicing their opinions. They all know what a bike shed is and what it looks like. Several members begin an animated debate over the best possible material for the roof, weighing out options that might enable modest savings. They discuss the bike shed for far longer than the power plant.

At last, the committee moves onto item three: the coffee budget. Suddenly, everyone’s an expert. They all know about coffee and have a strong sense of its cost and value. Before anyone realizes what is happening, they spend longer discussing the £21 coffee budget than the power plant and the bike shed combined! In the end, the committee runs out of time and decides to meet again to complete their analysis. Everyone walks away feeling satisfied, having contributed to the conversation.

Why this happens

Bike-shedding happens because the simpler a topic is, the more people will have an opinion on it and thus more to say about it. When something is outside of our circle of competence, like a nuclear power plant, we don’t even try to articulate an opinion.

But when something is just about comprehensible to us, even if we don’t have anything of genuine value to add, we feel compelled to say something, lest we look stupid. What idiot doesn’t have anything to say about a bike shed? Everyone wants to show that they know about the topic at hand and have something to contribute.

With any issue, we shouldn’t be according equal importance to every opinion anyone adds. We should emphasize the inputs from those who have done the work to have an opinion. And when we decide to contribute, we should be putting our energy into the areas where we have something valuable to add that will improve the outcome of the decision.

Strategies for avoiding bike-shedding

The main thing you can do to avoid bike-shedding is for your meeting to have a clear purpose. In The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, Priya Parker, who has decades of experience designing high-stakes gatherings, says that any successful gathering (including a business meeting) needs to have a focused and particular purpose. “Specificity,” she says, “is a crucial ingredient.”

Why is having a clear purpose so critical? Because you use it as the lens to filter all other decisions about your meeting, including who to have in the room.

With that in mind, we can see that it’s probably not a great idea to discuss building a nuclear power plant and a bike shed in the same meeting. There’s not enough specificity there.

The key is to recognize that the available input on an issue doesn’t all need considering. The most informed opinions are most relevant. This is one reason why big meetings with lots of people present, most of whom don’t need to be there, are such a waste of time in organizations. Everyone wants to participate, but not everyone has anything meaningful to contribute.

When it comes to choosing your list of invitees, Parker writes, “if the purpose of your meeting is to make a decision, you may want to consider having fewer cooks in the kitchen.” If you don’t want bike-shedding to occur, avoid inviting contributions from those who are unlikely to have relevant knowledge and experience. Getting the result you want—a thoughtful, educated discussion about that power plant—depends on having the right people in the room.

It also helps to have a designated individual in charge of making the final judgment. When we make decisions by committee with no one in charge, reaching a consensus can be almost impossible. The discussion drags on and on. The individual can decide in advance how much importance to accord to the issue (for instance, by estimating how much its success or failure could help or harm the company’s bottom line). They can set a time limit for the discussion to create urgency. And they can end the meeting by verifying that it has indeed achieved its purpose.

Any issue that invites a lot of discussions from different people might not be the most important one at hand. Avoid descending into unproductive triviality by having clear goals for your meeting and getting the best people to the table to have a productive, constructive discussion.

Externalities: Why We Can Never Do “One Thing”

No action exists in a vacuum. There are ripples that have consequences that we can and can’t see. Here are the three types of externalities that can help us guide our actions so they don’t come back to bite us.

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An externality affects someone without them agreeing to it. As with unintended consequences, externalities can be positive or negative. Understanding the types of externalities and the impact they have in our lives can help us improve our decision making, and how we interact with the world.

Externalities provide useful mental models for understanding complex systems. They show us that systems don’t exist in isolation from other systems. Externalities may affect uninvolved third parties which make them a form of market failure —an inefficient allocation of resources.

We both create and are subject to externalities. Most are very minor but compound over time. They can inflict numerous second-order effects. Someone reclines their seat on an airplane. They get the benefit of comfort. The person behind bears the cost of discomfort by having less space. One family member leaves their dirty dishes in the sink. They get the benefit of using the plate. Someone else bears the cost of washing it later. We can’t expect to interact with any system without repercussions. Over time, even minor externalities can cause significant strain in our lives and relationships.

The First Law of Ecology

To understand externalities it is first useful to consider second-order consequences. In Filters Against Folly, Garrett Hardin describes what he considers to be the First Law of Ecology: We can never do one thing. Whenever we interact with a system, we need to ask, “And then what? What will the wider repercussions of our actions be?” There is bound to be at least one externality.

Hardin gives the example of the Prohibition Amendment in the U.S. In 1920, lawmakers banned the production and sale of alcoholic beverages throughout the entire country. This was in response to an extended campaign by those who believed alcohol was evil. It wasn’t enough to restrict its consumption—it needed to go.

The addition of 61 words to the American Constitution changed the social and legal landscape for over a decade. Policymakers presumably thought they could make the change and people would stop drinking. But Prohibition led to numerous externalities. Alcohol is an important part of many people’s lives. Few were willing to suddenly give it up without a fight. The demand was more than strong enough to ensure a black-market supply re-emerged.

Wealthy people stockpiled alcohol in their homes before the ban went into effect. Thousands of speakeasies and gin joints flourished. Walgreens grew from 20 stores to 500, in large part due to its sales of ‘medicinal’ whiskey. Former alcohol producers simply sold the ingredients for people to make their own. Gangsters like Al Capone made their fortune smuggling, and murdered his rivals in the process. Crime gangs undermined official institutions. Tax revenues plummeted. People lost their jobs. Prisons became overcrowded and bribery commonplace. Thousands died from crime and drinking unsafe homemade alcohol.

Policymakers did not fully ask, “And then what?” before legislating. Drinking did decrease during this time, on average by about half.  But this was far from the hope of a total ban. The second-order consequences outweighed any benefits.

As economist Gregory Mankiw explains in Principles of Microeconomics,

In the presence of externalities, society’s interest in a market outcome extends beyond the well-being of buyers and sellers who participate in the market; it also includes the well-being of bystanders who are affected indirectly…. The market equilibrium is not efficient when there are externalities. That is, the equilibrium fails to maximize the total benefit to society as a whole.

Negative Externalities

Negative externalities can occur during the production or consumption of a service or good. Pollution is a useful example. If a factory pollutes nearby water supplies, it causes harm without incurring costs. The costs to society are high and are not reflected in the price of whatever the factory makes. Economists often view environmental damage as another factor in a production process. But even if pollution is taxed, the harmful effects don’t go away.

Transport and manufacturing release toxins into the environment, harming our health and altering our climate. The reality though, is these externalities are hard to see, and it is often difficult to trace them back to their root causes. There’s also the question of whether we are responsible for externalities or not.

Imagine you’re driving down the road. As you go by an apartment, the noise disturbs someone who didn’t agree to it. Your car emits air pollution, which affects everyone living nearby. Each of these small externalities will affect people you don’t see and who didn’t choose them. They won’t receive any compensation from you. Are you really responsible for the externalities you cause? If you’re not being outright careless or malicious, isn’t it just part of life? How much responsibility do we have as individuals, anyway?

Calling something a negative externality can be a convenient way of abdicating responsibility.

Positive Externalities

A positive externality imposes an unexpected benefit on a third party. The producer doesn’t agree to this, nor do they receive compensation for it.

Scientific research often leads to positive externalities. Research findings can have applications beyond their initial scope. The resulting information becomes part of our collective knowledge base. However, the researcher who makes a discovery cannot receive the full benefits. Nor do they necessarily feel entitled to them.

Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat developed probability theory to solve a gambling dispute. Their work went on to inform numerous disciplines (like the field of calculus) and transform our understanding of the world. Probabilities are now a core part of how we think. Pascal and Fermat created a positive externality.

Someone who comes up with an equation cannot expect compensation each time it gets used. As a result, the incentives to invest the time and effort to discover new equations are reduced. Algorithms, patents, and copyright laws change this by allowing creators to protect and profit from their ideas for years before other people can freely use them. We all benefit, and researchers have an incentive to continue their work.

Network effects are an example of a positive externality. Silicon Valley understands this well. Each person who joins a network, like a marketplace app, increases the value to all other users. Those who own the network have an incentive improve it to encourage new users. Everyone benefits from being able to communicate with more people. While we might not join a new network intending to improve it for other people, that is what normally happens. (On the flipside, network effects can also produce negative externalities, as too many members can decrease the value of a network.)

Positive externalities often lead to the “free rider” problem. When we enjoy something that we aren’t paying for, we tend not to value it. Not paying can remove the incentive to look after a resource and leads to a Tragedy of the Commons situation. As Aristotle put it, “For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.” A good portion of online content succumbs to the free rider problem. We enjoy it and yet we don’t pay for it. We expect it to be free and yet, if users weren’t willing to support sites like Farnam Street, they would likely fold, start publishing lower quality articles, or sell readers to advertisers who collect their data. The end result, as we see too frequently, is low-quality content funded by page-view advertising. (This is why we have a membership program. Members of our learning community create a positive externality for non-members by helping support the free content.)

Positional Externalities

Positional externalities are a form of second-order effects. They occur when our decisions alter the context of future perception or value.

For example, consider what happens when a person decides to start staying at the office an hour late. Perhaps they want a promotion and think it will endear them to managers. Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fit the time allocated to them. What this person would otherwise get done by 5pm, now takes until 6pm. Staying late becomes their norm. Their co-workers notice and start to also stay late. Before long, staying at the office until 6pm becomes the standard for everyone. Anyone who leaves at 5pm is perceived as lazy. Now that 6pm is the norm, everyone suffers. They are forced to work more without deriving any real benefits. It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone.

Someone we know once made an investment with a nearly unlimited return by gaming the system. He worked for an investment firm that valued employees according to a perception of how hard they worked and not necessarily by their results. Each Monday he brought in a series of sport coats and left them in the office. He paid the cleaning staff $20 a week to change the coat hanging on his chair and to turn on his computer. No matter what happened, it appeared he was always the first one into the office even though he often didn’t show up from a “client meeting” until 10. When it came to bonus time, he’d get an enormous return on that $20 investment.

Purchasing luxury goods can create positional externalities. Veblen goods are items we value because of their scarcity and high cost. Diamonds, Lamborghinis, tailor-made suits — owning them is a status symbol, and they lose their value if they become cheaper or if too many people have them. As Luca Lambertini puts it in The Economics of Vertically Differentiated Markets,

The utility derived from consumption is a function of the quantity purchased relative to the average of the society or the reference group to whom the consumer compares.” In other words, a shiny new car seems more valuable if all your friends are driving battered old wrecks. If they have equally (or more) fancy cars, the value of yours drops. At some point, it seems worthless and it’s time to find a new one. In this way, the purchase of a Veblen good confers a positional externality on other people who own it too.

That utility can also be a matter of comparison. A person earning $40,000 a year while their friends earn $30,000 will be happier than one earning $60,000 when their friends earn $70,000. When someone’s salary increases, it raises the bar, giving others a new point of reference.

We can confer positional externalities on ourselves by changing our attitudes. Let’s say someone enjoys wine but is not a connoisseur. A $10 bottle and a $100 bottle make them equally happy. When they decide to go on a course and learn the subtleties and technicalities of fine wines, they develop an appreciation for the $100 wine and a distaste for the $10. They may no longer be able to enjoy a cheap drink because they raised their standards.

Conclusion

Externalities are everywhere. It’s easy to ignore the impact of our decisions—to recline an airplane seat, to stay late at the office, or drop litter. Eventually though, someone always ends up paying. Like the villagers in Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, who end up with no grass for their animals, we run the risk of ruining a good thing if we don’t take care of it. Keeping the three types of externalities in mind is a useful way to make decisions that won’t come back to bite you. Whenever we interact with a system, we should remember to ask Hardin’s question: and then what?

The Original Parkinson’s Law and The Law of Triviality

We’ve all heard of Parkinson’s Law — “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” I bet you’ve lived this. After all, who hasn’t sat in an hour-long meeting that really ended after 30 minutes. The rest of the time is just filler. It’s already booked after all.

I wanted to learn more about this law so I went back to the source and read Cyril Northcote Parkinson‘s (1909-1993) original 1957 version of Parkinson’s Law.

The implications of the law were interesting.

Politicians and taxpayers have assumed (with occasional phases of doubt) that a rising total in the number of civil servants must reflect a growing volume of work to be done. … The fact is that the number of officials and the quantity of the work are not related to each other at all. The rise in the total of those employed is governed by Parkinson’s Law and would be much the same whether the volume of the work were to increase, diminish, or even disappear.

More than that, Parkinson comes up with the brilliantly insightful Law of Triviality.

“The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.”

Parkinson puts this law into dramatic form. Imagine a meeting …

Chairman: We come now to item nine. Our treasurer, Mr. McPhail, will report.

Mr. McPhail: The estimate for the atomic reactor is before you, sir, set forth in Appendix H of the subcommittee’s report. You will see that the general design and layout has been approved by Professor McFission. The total cost will amount to $10,000,000. The contractors, Messrs. McNab and McHash, consider that the work should be complete by April, 1959. Mr. McFee, the consulting engineer, warns us that we should not count on completion before October, at the earliest. In this view he is supported by Dr. McCheap, the well-known geophysicist, who refers to the probable need for piling at the lower end of the site. The plan of the main building is before you–see appendix IX–and the blueprint is laid on the table. I shall be glad to give any further information that members of this committee may require.

Chairman: Thank you, Mr. McPhail, for your very lucid explanation of the plan as proposed. I will now invite the members present to give us their views.

It is necessary to pause at this point and consider what views the members are likely to have. Let us suppose that they number eleven, including the chairman but excluding the secretary. Of these eleven members, four — including the chairman — do not know what a reactor is. Of the remainder, three do not know what it is for. Of those who know its purpose, only two have the least idea of what it should cost. One of these is Mr. Isaacson, the other is Mr. Brickworth. Either is in a position to say something. We may suppose that Mr. Isaacson is the first to speak.

Mr. Isaacson: Well, Mr. Chairman. I could wish that I felt more confidence in our contractors and consultant. Had we gone to Professor Levi in the first instance, and had the contract been given to Messrs. David and Goliath, I should have been happier about the whole scheme. Mr. Lyon-Daniels would not have wasted our time with wild guesses about the possible delay in completion, and Dr. Moses bullrush would have told us definitely whether piling would be wanted or not.

Chairman: I am sure we all appreciate Mr. Isaacson’s anxiety to complete this work in the best possible way. I feel, however, that it is rather late in the day to call in new technical advisers. I admit that the main contract has still to be signed, but we have already spent very large sums. If we reject the advice for which we have paid, we shall have to pay as much again.

(other members murmur agreement.)

Mr. Isaacson: I should like my observation to be minuted.

Chairman: Certainly. Perhaps Mr. Brickworth also has something to say on this matter?

Now Mr. Brickworth is almost the only man there who knows what he is talking about. There is a great deal he could say. He distrusts that round figure of $10,000,000. Why should it come out to exactly that? Why need they demolish the old building to make room for the new approach? Why is so large a sum set aside for “contingencies”? and who is McCheap, anyway? Is he the man who was sued last year by the trickle and driedup oil corporation? But Brickworth does not know where to begin. The other members could not read the blueprint if he referred to it. He would have to begin by explaining what a reactor is and no one there would admit that he did not already know. Better to say nothing.

Mr. Brickworth: I have no comment to make.

Chairman: Does any other member wish to speak? Very well. I may take it then that the plans and estimates are approved? Thank you. May I now sign the main contract on your behalf? (murmur of agreement) Thank you. We can now move on to item ten.

Allowing a few seconds for rustling papers and unrolling diagrams, the time spent on item nine will have been just two minutes and a half. The meeting is going well. But some members feel uneasy about item nine. They wonder inwardly whether they have really been pulling their weight. It is too late to query that reactor scheme, but they would like to demonstrate, before the meeting ends, that they are alive to all that is going on.

Chairman: Item ten. Bicycle shed for the use of the clerical staff. An estimate has been received from Messrs. Bodger and Woodworm, who undertake to complete the work for the sum of $2350. Plans and specification are before you, gentlemen.

Mr. Softleigh: Surely, Mr. Chairman, this sum is excessive. I note that the roof is to be of aluminum. Would not asbestos be cheaper?

Mr. Holdfast: I agree with Mr. Softleigh about the cost, but the roof should, in my opinion, be of galvanized iron. I incline to think that the shed could be built for $2000, or even less.

Mr. Daring: I would go further, Mr. Chairman. I question whether this shed is really necessary. We do too much for our staff as it is. They are never satisfied, that is the trouble. They will be wanting garages next.

Mr. Holdfast: No, I can’t support Mr. Daring on this occasion. I think that the shed is needed. It is a question of material and cost …

The debate is fairly launched. A sum of $2350 is well within everybody’s comprehension. Everyone can visualize a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some $300. Members at length sit back with a feeling of achievement.

Chairman: Item eleven. Refreshments supplied at meetings of the joint welfare committee. Monthly, $4.75.

Mr. Softleigh: What type of refreshment is supplied on these occasions?

Chairman: Coffee, I understand.

Mr. Holdfast: And this means an annual charge of — let me see — $57?

Chairman: That is so.

Mr. Daring: Well, really, Mr. Chairman. I question whether this is justified. How long do these meetings last.

Hilarious throughout, Parkinson’s book was the original Dilbert.