Revelations and suggestions on how to deal with Bikeshedding

Have you ever been in a meeting where you seem to 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 multi-billions being decided in 5 minutes. In comparison the discussion of where to site the employee bike sheds lasts 45 minutes. Bikeshedding. You can read more about in this post;

This post is a joint effort from Sarah Prescott and Chris Bolton to try and ‘Fix the Bikeshed’. We’ve both been involved in committees and meetings for many years, and have seen enough bikeshedding to make the Parking Attendant at the Utrecht Bike Parking Garage faint*.

Utrecht Bikeshed — the largest such shed 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 at the amount of time we wasted in meetings talking about trivial things. Part of that role involved taking the meeting notes of a Fishery Bailiffs Protective Equipment subcommittee. They were obsessed with military spec equipment and camouflage clothing, and I hated it.

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

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

By the time we had ‘resolved’ that issue, there was no time left to share any actual good practice, it 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 hard-back copy of Cyril Parkinson’s 1958 book ‘The Pursuit of Progress’. Bikeshedding is beautifully explained in the book, and I cherish it.

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 its’ a big complicated topic, something we don’t understand, we will shy away from engaging with the detail. What we will do is focus on the ‘easy’ stuff. The 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 drive this behaviour, the fear of looking ignorant or foolish in front of experts and other people in the meeting will be a major influence. For, me this raises a big question; if people are there to make decisions, how can they be helped by the process to feel confident and capable of asking questions?

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 – a highly experienced individual.

Their version of ‘agenda management’ definitely involved bit of creating the space for bikeshedding, were the Chair wanted certain items passed as smoothly as possible… There was plenty of the ‘dark arts’ side of meeting management that I got to observe during that period. A great education that helped immensely when I went on to observe the effectiveness meetings in later jobs.

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 in any case. 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! And make sure the agenda is clear enough to prevent some deep thinking.

○ 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 create a safe place for discussion, and I think this helps. Sooner or later someone will stray away from the bikeshed and the more important areas. And managing meetings in this way is a skill which can be acquired in my view.

○ 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. Sound so easy when I write it like that! Systems of approval have to be carefully designed to achieve that though. Underpinning that 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 which facilitate effectively, don’t get lost in the weeds of the debate and who are able to not push their own agendas are the single biggest defence against bikeshedding in my view, even overcoming a lack of agenda or a lack of preparedness for a meeting. A good Chair must call out anyone playing at any of the dark arts. – I find a spot of humour can go a long way in doing this! A good Chair can also hold up a mirror to the room and without blame point out where bikeshedding is going on.

○ Another key role is those presenting the case for or against – usually in a meeting there is a subject matter expert or two at least. The “expert” also has a critical role to present all the facts and context as best they can and avoid any “dark arts”. An 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 to admit as the subject matter expert you don’t know everything. It's in that awkward space on the edge of knowledge is where we need to be, most of the time, not on decisions which feel within the comfort zones. There is definitely an alignment with comfort zones and the bikeshed to my mind.

3. Isn’t this everyone’s problem though? How do you achieve 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.

○ 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!

Call to Action:

● Think about how your meetings are structured and logistically managed. Clear the agenda for whats important. Get clear on the outcomes

● Develop a leadership style which hears all voices, allows for strong facilitation, and is a team which is comfortable with being uncomfortable. The interesting and productive stuff is often just outside our comfort zones!

● Use tools like risk matrices, assurance and evidence to back up decision making.

● Adopt a continuous improvement approach to decision making and meetings.

Experienced Chief Finance Officer -track record in Welsh social housing and third sector. Chartered Accountant (FCA BFP). Views my own - my space for blogging.

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