“BRADLEY, I GOTTA CALL B.S. HERE.” I hired two interns this summer specifically for this reason—to challenge my thinking with their casual combination of candor, confidence, and cluelessness that few humans other than millennials possess—but I wasn’t in the mood on this particular conference call.
I took a deep breath before responding to Intern #2. “What, specifically, do you think is bulls*** about this conversation?” I heard a gasp from the other end of the line. “Oh no…I’m sorry…no. That’s not what I meant at all.”
“I would never say that to you,” he stammered. “I meant, uh, the other B.S.”
Then Intern #2 told me about the other B.S.: bike-shedding.
Bike-shedding is a metaphor for Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, which says “the amount of discussion a subject receives is inversely proportional to its importance.” That is, we spend too much time talking about stuff that doesn’t really matter while ignoring the big, important issues.
The term itself, bike-shedding, comes from a fictional committee responsible for reviewing plans for a nuclear power plant. Instead of focusing on the power plant itself, (important, complex, and hard to understand) the committee turns their attention to the staff bike shed (unimportant, simple, and easy to grasp).
While bike-shedding was popularized in the software community, it is helpful with teams in general.
When to Invoke the Bike-Shed Metaphor
Anytime you find yourself thinking, “Why are we still talking about this?” it is a good time to ponder the bike shed metaphor. The fundamental question is whether or not the subject of the discussion is important. Be sure to ask yourself, “Am I missing something here?”
How to Invoke the Bike-Shed Metaphor
Bike-shedding is a story. People like stories. When I am confident a committee is bike- shedding, I’ll wait for a moment of silence and ask, “Is everyone familiar with the term, bike-shedding?”
By design, it’s a non sequitur. It interrupts the discussion. I tell the story and end by saying, “I don’t necessarily think we’re doing that here… but it popped in my head. My mind wanders easily!” I’ve found this delivery limits defensiveness. The self-deprecation assumes part of the guilt as well.
If the bike-shedding story has stymied progress further, I resort to dollarization. “We’ve been talking about the mailbox on this million-dollar project for the last hour. There’s 10 of us here. Let’s say our time is worth $100…Do we think this a $1,000 topic?”
With Whom to Invoke the Bike-Shed Metaphor
I’d recommend testing the bike shed story within your own team first. Experiment with timing, delivery, and follow-up questions. See what happens within the (relative) safety of your own company.
Prospects: Decision-makers like talking about how busy they are. As you pose specific questions about priorities to your prospects, mention your keen sense of bike-shedding. Curiosity will follow. Then talk about how you, too, value productivity. Share a brief example when you helped a client avoid bike-shedding to save time and money.
Clients: During a negotiation years ago, I began haggling over the linear foot price of MDF crown moulding. The sales rep said, “Your house cost is $200K. We’ve spent the last 15 minutes talking about $6 of it.” He was right. We moved onto more important things.
You’re busy. I’m busy. Everyone is busy. There is value in someone who can ensure we stay focused on the things that really matter. Research conducted by strategy guru Rich Horwath found only 12% of executives believed their top management meetings consistently produced decisions on important strategic or organizational issues.
Teams at all levels struggle with bike-shedding because it’s part of the human condition. Individuals and groups gravitate towards topics they can understand and influence easily. “Seriously, bike-shedding is a thing,” my intern declared. Of course it is. And Intern #2 was right. We had just spent 20 minutes discussing which font the team should use in internal emails.
You’ll find you can deliver value—to your team, prospects and clients—by keeping your interactions focused on the power plant, not the bike shed.