The Bike-Shed Effect

I’m working with a great client, helping them to develop a key function and team towards becoming a ‘High Performing Team’. They already perform well, and have the familiar challenges to improve quickly, in a way that engages the team and is driven by the local leadership team. I’m doing my research, looking for tools, ideas, useful stories and other nuggets of gold in all the muck that I have in my library and is online.

I came across this short extract in a McKinsey article from June 2017 on High Performing Teams : A timeless leadership topic about how teams decide (or rather, don’t decide) how to prioritise their time on decisions.

The tendency of teams to give a disproportionate amount of attention to trivial issues and details was made famous by C. Northcote Parkinson in his 1958 book, Parkinson’s Law: Or The Pursuit of Progress. As the story goes, a finance committee has three investment decisions to make. First, it discusses a £10 million investment in a nuclear-power plant. The investment is approved in two-and-a-half minutes. Second, it has to decide what colour to paint a bike shed—total cost about £350. A 45-minute discussion cracks the problem. Third, the committee addresses the need for a new staff coffee machine, which will cost about £21. After an hour’s discussion, it decides to postpone the decision. Parkinson called this phenomenon the law of triviality (also known as the bike-shed effect). Everyone is happy to proffer an opinion on something as simple as a bike shed. But when it comes to making a complex decision such as whether or not to invest in a nuclear reactor, the average person is out of his or her depth, has little to contribute, and will presume the experts know what they are doing.’

This becomes a useful and well-learned message about prioritising the important decisions and consciously allocating time to focus on the important ones. It seems so simple, but it is here, in a 2017 article being quoted in 2019, quoting a book from 1958, and I’m sure that a scholar of the Classics will be able to dredge up an example from Cicero or Homer on the same thing. A logical conclusion from this would be that we can’t change or learn from our past experiences. It’s the wrong answer, though. What we have to learn is to believe in the better way of doing things, understand and practise how to do them, and embed them in our behaviours, systems and processes.

Simple as that.

Change Consulting

We were asked to support a Programme Manager who was implementing a £multi-million brand transformation for one of the UK’s main hospitality organisations. Given the scale of the changes this was a high profile programme with senior stakeholder involvement.

We worked with the Programme Manager to identify:
• clear purpose and measurable outcomes for the programme
• define the implementation plan for each site
• gaps in the existing process and how these would be addressed
• ownership of key deliverables – and get their agreement to this
• a simplified process and approach to reporting.

The significant outcomes were:
• we shortened the shut down period for each site, reducing costs and increasing revenues
• senior stakeholders had confidence that the programme would deliver – and the results to prove it
• feedback from employees and customers was very positive
• it provided a template for other projects in the business.

A Dysfunctional Team

We were asked to help a broken leadership team to mend itself.  We completed the ‘usual’ research, speaking to the team, their reports and some of their client groups to understand the situation.  The causes of the problem rapidly became apparent :

  • individual objectives and priorities that weren’t aligned;
  • different ways of working; and
  • a lack of trust in each other.

We worked with the HR Business Partner and the team’s Director to develop a one day programme that would lead to some simple commitments that the team could hold themselves to.

The day focused on identifying and agreeing  :

  • the shared values they had – and understanding their differences
  • the dysfunctions in the team – we used the assessment in Patrick Lencioni’s book to help the discussion
  • what their clients needed from them and what they wanted to be known for – their individual and team brand.

The team were all experienced leaders, but the pressure they were under had got to them.  The day allowed open, constructive conversation and agreement to a way forward.

The simple commitments to each other – attending and being prepared for meetings, sharing information in a timely way outside the formal sessions – these all happened.  The feedback from their clients and team was that they were getting consistent messages from each leader and their team and were far easier to work with. The trust had started to come back.