C. Northcote Parkinson was a British Naval historian who passed away in 1993. Studying the British military provided him fertile ground for seeing how organizations operate as he formulated two well-known organizational laws: (1) Parkinson’s Law and (2) the Law of Triviality.
What is the Law of Triviality?
The Law of Triviality states that members of an organization give disproportionate weight to trivial matters. Specifically, the law states:
“The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.”
The example of the Law of Triviality in Parkinson’s book concerns a fictional committee with three projects on their agenda: “The first is the signing of a £10 million contract to build a reactor, the second a proposal to build a £350 bicycle shed for the clerical staff, and the third proposes £21 a year to supply refreshments for the Joint Welfare Committee.” Here’s how meeting goes:
- The £10 million number is too big and too technical, and it passes in two and a half minutes. One committee member proposes a completely different plan, which nobody is willing to accept as planning is advanced, and another who understands the topic has concerns, but does not feel that he can explain his concerns to the others on the committee.
- The bicycle shed is a subject understood by the board, and the amount within their life experience, so committee member Mr Softleigh says that an aluminium roof is too expensive and they should use asbestos. Mr Holdfast wants galvanised iron. Mr Daring questions the need for the shed at all. Holdfast disagrees. Parkinson then writes: “The debate is fairly launched. A sum of £350 is well within everybody’s comprehension. Everyone can visualise a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some £50. Members at length sit back with a feeling of accomplishment.”
- Parkinson then described the third agenda item, writing: “There may be members of the committee who might fail to distinguish between asbestos and galvanised iron, but every man there knows about coffee – what it is, how it should be made, where it should be bought – and whether indeed it should be bought at all. This item on the agenda will occupy the members for an hour and a quarter, and they will end by asking the secretary to procure further information, leaving the matter to be decided at the next meeting.” Source.
Due to the disportionate amount of time spent discussing the bike shed as compared to the power plant, the Law of Triviality is often referred to as “bikeshedding” or the “bike shed effect.”
Bikeshedding occurs all the time in business. Detailed discussions of minor policies often consume more time than big discussions of strategy. In many businesses, strategy discussions may rarely occur as the day-to-day minutiae of running the business consumes everyone’s time and items of big picture and long-term strategy get ignored.
How to Combat the Law of Triviality
- Be Aware of It! As with most irrational human behaviors, the first step to combating it is to be aware of it.
- Assign Importance. For each meeting item ask yourself “how important is this?” If it’s not that important, don’t spend much time on it. This requires a strong meeting leader.
- Prepare for Complex Items. A chief reason lesser time is spent on important matters is that they are so big. These big issues might be hard for us to wrap our heads around due to their complexity. Thus, it makes sense to have individuals or teams dig into these items in advance of meetings and provide advance information to meeting attendees.
- Limit Trivial Items. Those leading the meeting need to be forceful in limiting trivial agenda items. Place time limits on these items and enforce short discussions.
- Limit Opinions. It usually doesn’t make sense to get a lot of opinions (or maybe any) about a trivial matter. As such, it behooves a business to empower people to make decisions on minor topics. Not everything needs to be reported to a committee or boss.
A related concept: The Pareto Principle