Bikeshed Problems

I’m a firm believer that the things that destroy organizations are not the big problems, they’re the little ones. The “bikeshed problem” is the type of problem that everyone loves to squabble over: the completely trivial, stupid issue.

I don’t remember where I first encountered this term (try looking on Wikipedia for “Parkinson’s Law of Triviality”), but it certainly describes very well an extremely common organizational problem. Every time I find myself in a dysfunctional organization, I see this issue manifesting itself in some form.

The origin of the term classically stems from a (fictional) committee’s deliberation on two things: a bikeshed, and then a reactor for a nuclear power plant. The committee spends the majority of its time arguing over the material to use in the bikeshed, and/or the specific color that it should have. They then move onto the power plant and quickly come to a consensus on it, without going into nearly as much detail as they would have with the bikeshed.

Why so little time on the reactor? We can explain this behavior in one or more of the following ways: 1) the committee has actually physically run out of time because it spent so much time and energy on the bikeshed, or 2) nobody is willing to have strong opinions on the power plant because they would not want to seem underinformed about such a complicated subject.

The bikeshed problems are seductive because they’re so easy; everyone understands the issue (or they think they do). With groupthink comes the potential for people to want to appear involved, even if superficially, by offering suggestions and debating issues – and it’s so easy to argue about simple things that are easy to understand. You can’t bikeshed a nuclear reactor because it’s hard to overdesign something of that magnitude. No, bikeshed problems are the smallest, most basic and indivisible problems.

Like: the background color of the website.

Or: Verdana vs Arial.

The common theme being: it doesn’t matter. At all. They are the decisions that don’t matter (or don’t matter enough) regardless of what option is chosen. In well-led organizations, the group may deliberate for perhaps a few seconds or a minute before someone realizes it doesn’t matter and moves the process along. In a badly led organization, the culmination of all the bikeshed deliberations means that only a tiny fraction of the total energy expended by the group is spent making the important decisions.

Which kills them.

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