Cyril Northcote Parkinson was a British naval historian, author, and satirist. While his 60 books ranged from dry history to historical fiction, to biographies of fictional characters, he is best known for a short book on government bureaucracy. Titled “Parkinson’s Law,” it is the source of the often-quoted, “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” One chapter, “High Finance, or The Point of Vanishing Interest,” explores the tendency for management to obsess on the trivial. As he put it, “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” Given a choice between discussing something complicated and expensive, which they don’t understand, and something familiar, most folks will bypass the complicated topic.
The Bike Shed Effect
Parkinson’s Law of Triviality is known in some circles as “The bike shed effect,” derived from his example of a finance committee considering three agenda items: the signing of a £10 million contract to build a nuclear reactor, the second a proposal to build a £350 bicycle shed for the clerical staff, and the third a proposal for £21 a year to supply refreshments for the Joint Welfare Committee. The reactor is approved in less than three minutes; an argument over the color and construction of the bicycle shed goes on for 45 minutes, with a possible savings of £50; debate over the coffee takes up the remaining 75 minutes, closing with a request for additional information and the decision deferred to the next meeting. If these absurd minutes don’t seem painfully familiar, then you just haven’t attended enough meetings.
One of the corollaries to Parkinson’s Law is, “The amount of discussion and resistance generated by a change is inversely proportional to the complexity of the change.” Many of projects I’ve worked on over the years had the goal of transferring work from the sponsor’s staff to their customers, in the guise of self-service. When I’ve seen resistance to manager self-service, it is usually expressed in the form of anticipated response to complexity. “We should have the support staff handle these transactions. The managers won’t execute them more than once or twice a year, and they shouldn’t have to know how to do them. We should let them focus on the job we pay them for.” Never mind that the processing rules are imbedded in the work flow, and generally all the initiator has to do is make selections from a few pull-down menus; these highly-compensated folk aren’t perceived by the specialists to be competent to fill out electronic forms. Of course, I’ve never seen anyone object to a requirement for these same folks to select their own benefits during annual open enrollment, which has a lot more decision points. No, it’s actions like initiating a promotion, or the transfer of an employee to another supervisor that makes people dig in their heels. Not because the HR specialists are intimidated by these transactions, but because they understand them completely, and thus feel qualified to weigh in on them.
Applying Parkinson’s Law
Parkinson’s Law is not about the task, nor is it about the people performing it. It describes an entirely natural human response to agenda topics with a range of complexity. If you include a routine question on an otherwise challenging agenda, that routine matter will become the place where everyone can demonstrate their understanding. And they most certainly will do so.
Plainly, there are two ways to apply this understanding: you can get easy approval on a nuclear reactor by letting them dispute the color of the bicycle shed, or you can focus the discussion on the nuclear reactor by making it the only topic on the agenda. Either way, it is important to understand the degree to which the participants will feel qualified to participate in the discussion. And if you absolutely need their qualified opinion, you need to lay the groundwork for them to feel empowered to participate. Whether it’s by beginning with a demonstration, or spending time on the background material, you need to cultivate their level of understanding to match the complexity of the required decisions. Otherwise, you’ll end up scheduling a follow-up meeting, where you present additional information on something they do understand.