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Parkinson’s Law & The Law of Triviality (Bike Shed Effect)

Never let trivial tasks become too complicated.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

What is Parkinson’s Law and the Law of Triviality?

Our col­lect­ive engage­ment tends to be biased towards the under­stand­able, relat­able, and manageable.

This bias might have ser­i­ous implic­a­tions for intern­al com­mu­nic­a­tions and com­mu­nic­at­ive lead­er­ship. As PR pro­fes­sion­als, we must observe “Communicative Discipline.”

So, what’s Parkinson’s Law?
And what’s the Law of Triviality?
And what do bike sheds have to do with anything?

Here we go:

The Bike Shed Story

Ponder the fol­low­ing story:

Once, a com­mit­tee was formed to over­see the con­struc­tion of a new nuc­le­ar power plant, a pro­ject of monu­ment­al import­ance and com­plex­ity. The com­mit­tee, com­posed of esteemed com­munity mem­bers, reviewed and approved the vari­ous aspects of the plant’s design.

The day came for a cru­cial meet­ing, and the com­mit­tee gathered in the town hall. The first item on the agenda was the nuc­le­ar react­or itself. The engin­eer presen­ted intric­ate plans and detailed safety pro­to­cols. However, the mem­bers, not well-versed in nuc­le­ar phys­ics, were over­whelmed by the tech­nic­al jar­gon and com­plex dia­grams. Nods were exchanged, and without much dis­cus­sion, the plans for the react­or were approved.

Next on the agenda was a seem­ingly minor item: con­struct­ing a bike shed for the plant’s employ­ees. The moment the bike shed was men­tioned, the room buzzed to life. Everyone had an opin­ion! “What mater­i­al should we use for the shed?” one mem­ber asked. “Wood is too weak; it should be steel,” said anoth­er. “But steel is too costly and imper­son­al; how about a nice red brick?” chimed in a third.

The debate raged on. Members argued over the col­our, the style of the roof, and even the type of lock for the door. The con­ver­sa­tion went in circles, with every minute detail scru­tin­ized and delib­er­ated. Time ticked away, and the meet­ing that had swiftly approved a com­plex nuc­le­ar react­or spent hours on the bike shed.

As the sun set, the com­mit­tee finally agreed on the per­fect bike shed. They left the meet­ing feel­ing sat­is­fied and pro­duct­ive. Little did they real­ise they had fallen prey to Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, focus­ing their ener­gies on the trivi­al and under­stand­able. At the same time, the com­plex and truly sig­ni­fic­ant decision had passed by almost unnoticed.

The Law of Triviality

The story of the bike shed is based on a fic­tion­al com­mit­tee’s delib­er­a­tions about a nuc­le­ar power plant. 

The Law of Triviality (Bike Shed Effect, Bicycle-Shed Effect, and Bike-Shedding) argues that mem­bers of an organ­iz­a­tion give dis­pro­por­tion­ate weight to trivi­al issues — and that tasks will fill up their allot­ted time — how­ever long that amount of time be. It provides insight into intern­al com­mu­nic­a­tions in com­plex organisations. 

British nav­al his­tor­i­an and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson describes how a com­mit­tee tasked with approv­ing plans for a nuc­le­ar power plant spends most of its time dis­cuss­ing rel­at­ively trivi­al and easy-to-grasp issues, such as what mater­i­als to use for a staff bike shed, rather than focus­ing on the more com­plex aspects of the nuc­le­ar power plant itself. 1Law of tri­vi­al­ity. (2023, December 23). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​L​a​w​_​o​f​_​t​r​i​v​i​a​l​ity

The Bike Shed Effect is a meta­phor for the tend­ency of both organ­isa­tions and indi­vidu­als to give dis­pro­por­tion­ate weight to trivi­al issues while neg­lect­ing more import­ant ones. 

Parkinson’s Law

The obser­va­tion that work expands to fill the time avail­able for its com­ple­tion is known as Parkinson’s Law. Like The Law of Triviality, Parkinson’s Law was presen­ted by Parkinson in an art­icle for “The Economist” (1955) and later in his book “Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress” (1957). 2Parkinson, C. N. (1955, November 19). Parkinson’s Law. Time Magazine. 3Parkinson, C. N. (1957). Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress. John Murray.

Parkinson’s Law observes that as the amount of time alloc­ated to a task increases, the com­plex­ity and the level of bur­eau­cracy involved in the task also tend to increase. 4Parkinson’s law. (2023, December 23). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law

In oth­er words, tasks essen­tially swell in per­ceived import­ance and com­plex­ity dir­ectly related to the time allot­ted for com­ple­tion. 5Descamps, Ambroise, Sébastien Massoni, and Lionel Page. (2021, March 29). Learning to Hesitate. SocArXiv. https://doi:10.31235/osf.io/6fa5q

The “swell­ing of tasks” is observed in intern­al com­mu­nic­a­tions where atten­tion to minor details over­shad­ows more sig­ni­fic­ant mat­ters, usu­ally because the minor details are easi­er to under­stand and dis­cuss. 6Busy work. (2023, December 15). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​B​u​s​y​_​w​ork

Communicative Discipline in Organisations

Parkinson’s Law and The Law of Triviality high­light a human tend­ency to man­age time and effort in ways that aren’t always the most effi­cient but rather are influ­enced by the time per­ceived as available.

Here are five key learn­ings for intern­al com­mu­nic­a­tion and com­mu­nic­at­ive lead­er­ship based on Parkinson’s Law and the Law of Triviality: 7Silfwer, J. (2023, December 24). Parkinson’s Law & The Law of Triviality (Bike Shed Effect). Doctor Spin | the PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​p​a​r​k​i​n​s​o​n​s​-​l​aw/

  • Rationalise and sim­pli­fy — nev­er let trivi­al tasks or top­ics become com­plic­ated or emotional.
  • Prioritise uncom­fort­able dis­cus­sions and tackle com­plex and sens­it­ive mat­ters head-on. 
  • Promote a con­cise com­mu­nic­a­tion cul­ture and debunk rumours and gos­sip straight away.
  • Always ask for recom­men­ded solu­tions when someone presents you with a problem.
  • Reward reach­ing decisions, con­clu­sions, or con­sensus before actu­al deadlines.
  • Listen respect­fully to under­stand and com­mu­nic­ate with the abso­lute expect­a­tion of being respected.
  • Be fair and con­sist­ent by dis­trib­ut­ing recog­ni­tion, rewards, and feed­back at sep­ar­ate ses­sions. 8Silfwer, J. (2023, December 30). Split Sessions: Recognition, Rewards, and Feedback. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​s​p​l​i​t​-​s​e​s​s​i​o​ns/
  • Speak (and write) plainly and com­bat the use of cor­por­ate jar­gon, plat­it­udes, and banter. 9Silfwer, J. (2020, May 23). Corporate Cringe. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​c​o​r​p​o​r​a​t​e​-​c​r​i​n​ge/ 10Silfwer, J. (2015, October 9). The Platitude Sickness: The Trash of Corporate Writing. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​p​l​a​t​i​t​u​d​e​-​s​i​c​k​n​e​ss/

As a PR advisor, I refer to these prin­ciples as com­mu­nic­at­ive dis­cip­line. 11Silfwer, J. (2023, December 24). Parkinson’s Law & The Law of Triviality (Bike Shed Effect). Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​p​a​r​k​i​n​s​o​n​s​-​l​aw/


Please sup­port my PR blog by shar­ing it with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

PR Resource: More Psychology

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Law of tri­vi­al­ity. (2023, December 23). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​L​a​w​_​o​f​_​t​r​i​v​i​a​l​ity
2 Parkinson, C. N. (1955, November 19). Parkinson’s Law. Time Magazine.
3 Parkinson, C. N. (1957). Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress. John Murray.
4 Parkinson’s law. (2023, December 23). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law
5 Descamps, Ambroise, Sébastien Massoni, and Lionel Page. (2021, March 29). Learning to Hesitate. SocArXiv. https://doi:10.31235/osf.io/6fa5q
6 Busy work. (2023, December 15). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​B​u​s​y​_​w​ork
7 Silfwer, J. (2023, December 24). Parkinson’s Law & The Law of Triviality (Bike Shed Effect). Doctor Spin | the PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​p​a​r​k​i​n​s​o​n​s​-​l​aw/
8 Silfwer, J. (2023, December 30). Split Sessions: Recognition, Rewards, and Feedback. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​s​p​l​i​t​-​s​e​s​s​i​o​ns/
9 Silfwer, J. (2020, May 23). Corporate Cringe. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​c​o​r​p​o​r​a​t​e​-​c​r​i​n​ge/
10 Silfwer, J. (2015, October 9). The Platitude Sickness: The Trash of Corporate Writing. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​p​l​a​t​i​t​u​d​e​-​s​i​c​k​n​e​ss/
11 Silfwer, J. (2023, December 24). Parkinson’s Law & The Law of Triviality (Bike Shed Effect). Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​p​a​r​k​i​n​s​o​n​s​-​l​aw/
Shareable:
The Law of Triviality (Bike Shed Effect) argues that organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.
Shareable:
Never let trivial tasks become too complicated.
Shareable:
What are Parkinson’s Law and the Law of Triviality (Bike Shed Effect)?
Shareable:
In my role as a PR advisor, I refer to counter-measuring Parkinson’s Law and the Law of Triviality as “Communication Discipline.”
Shareable:
Parkinson’s Law and the Law of Triviality has profound implications for internal communications.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Cover Photo

The cover photo isn't related to public relations; it's just a photo of mine. Think of it as a 'decorative diversion', a subtle reminder that there is more to life than strategic communication.

The cover photo has

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