Law of Triviality

I heard this story years ago but came up in a recent presentation. It had far greater meaning now than it did then.

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality says that members of an organization give a disproportionate time and weight to trivial issues.  An example (fictional) is a committee had a job to approve plans for a nuclear power plant.  However, they spent the majority of their time on relatively minor issues, such as the materials to use for the staff bike shed.  They neglected the design of the plant itself, which was a much more important and complex task then a bike shed.

I relate this back to my first construction project.  More time was spent on executive and management office layouts than on the warehouse and IT configuration combined.  So much time was spent on these trivial details (all the way down to the type of caster on their reclining leather chairs), other areas of the project were delayed.

What drives us to spend so much time on such trivial tasks and issues?  Why do we neglect or put off the most important decisions?

One of my theories is the trivial stuff is usually the easiest.  I listened to two mobile app developers argue about a background color while we still had to decide what data needed to be included on the screen.  Colors can be changed fairly easily, but the data piece was much harder technically.

Another is based on the experts in the room.  In the example of the nuclear power plant, the operators probably knew how the plant should be built (how many different configurations can there be for a nuclear reactor?).  However, they probably knew very little about a bike shed but didn’t want to admit it.  Instead, they argued about what materials to use.

In your projects, there will be important tasks and decisions to be made and trivial ones.  Be sure to tackle those tough ones first and make the trivial a very short conversation.  Otherwise, you’ll spend more time on the bike shed than the reactor!

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