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.