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We’re all familiar with Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. But author and historian C. Northcote Parkinson added a similar, lesser-known lesson, dubbed the law of triviality: The time spent on any item of an agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum of money involved.

He offered a wonderful example of that in which a committee first discussed a report on building an atomic reactor and then moved to considering a bike shed for use by the clerical staff. The first issue is complicated with few of the committee members knowledgeable on specifics, so it is swiftly approved. But a bike shed is comprehensible to all and, even if trivial in comparison, chews up 45 minutes in discussion, all for a possible saving of a few hundred dollars. The next item is the cost of coffee at monthly meetings of the welfare committee, paid for by management. Well, you can imagine the potential for discussion here.

And the problem with that is not just the time squandered. Columbia University political scientist Wallace Stanley Sayre coined what has become known as Sayre’s Law: In any dispute, the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake. It was meant to explain why academic politics could be so bitter, but can apply beyond.

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The law of triviality became known as bikeshedding after Danish computer scientist Poul-Henning Kamp noted how it devoured time in open-source development discussions. “This is a metaphor indicating that you need not argue about every little feature just because you know enough to do so,” he wrote.

Itamar Shatz, a PhD student at Cambridge University, who brought this to my attention in his Effectiviology blog, says, “When it comes to implementing your understanding of bikeshedding, the first thing you should do is keep in mind the fact that people, including yourself, are prone to focusing on the minor issues, often at the expense of more important ones.” That’s a good starting point – personal responsibility. It’s not just others who can be idiots. He then urges you to identify situations where this currently is an issue or might later become one, and to take any necessary action.

Since Mr. Parkinson shared these observations in the mid-1950s, we have supposedly advanced in our meeting skills. Thought is given to agendas, and where to place important items. Time limits are common on agendas to try to corral us. We even appoint timekeepers to hint when we are approaching the time limit, and to holler if we go too far beyond it.

My own experience is that only works when it isn’t necessary – on issues not quite as complicated as building a nuclear reactor but equally dreary, so we deal with them quickly. Time limits actually hurt on some important issues where new factors are uncovered and a useful discussion would be handy but gets choked off by the predecided limit. And, of course, often for one issue on each agenda – the bikeshed of the day – time limits get totally ignored.

It might be helpful if bestselling author Stephen Covey’s urgency-importance formulation of time management was applied to meeting agendas. Instead of just indicating the time assigned to the topic, remind people how important and how urgent the issue is, after developing a culture that pays attention to importance. So an item might be labelled “urgent/not important” and be assigned 10 minutes, giving a reason rather than a time preference from on high. Another item might be “important/not urgent” and after the hour assigned to it, somebody might suggest returning to it in future while an issue given one hour but labelled “important/urgent” would see time expanded to finish discussion.

While I am assuming meetings discussing a cafeteria of items, NOBL, a management consultancy, says you need to ruthlessly prioritize agendas. “Determine what’s urgent and important: If you need to talk about the annual budget in a meeting, or how to re-evaluate your hiring process, don’t also plan to discuss vacation schedules – keep it focused,” they implore. It also can be a time to consider decision points: Is this the appropriate level and meeting for such a discussion?

Zoom has an antidote for bikeshedding: Its basic plan. If you have been using the 45-minute version, it has a strict limit for discussion time. Of course, that can mean meetings with hasty decisions and no summing-up of task responsibilities as the screen disappears. But the clock on everybody’s screen showing the time left is even more powerful than an in-person timekeeper. Call it Zoom’s Law: Talk shrinks to fit the assigned time. But how can you duplicate that in other meeting situations?

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We can go too far with meeting efficiency, however. Some of the worst – and best – meetings I attended were early morning coffee in the boss’s office, leaders of the various silos congregating with no agenda, bikeshedding and gossiping and speculating – and sometimes coming up with spontaneous, great ideas.

Cannonballs

  • Every two weeks entrepreneur Scott Belsky writes a list of all the “elephants in the room” he encountered in his meetings during that period. He also asks his team to send him the elephants they have spotted, for discussion.
  • Consultant S. Chris Edmonds recommends spending an hour or two each week seeking input from team members on policies that impede great performance.
  • Resilience is the ability to emerge stronger from inevitable adverse circumstances, says INSEAD management professor Narayan Pant. Getting back up again after having been knocked down without having learned anything is not resilience, but survival.

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