C Northcote Parkinson’s 1957 book, Parkinson’s Law – The Pursuit of Progress, also contained Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, which contends that in organisations, notably in meetings and group discussions about projects, most time and attention (or certainly a disproportionately large effort) is given to trivial issues rather than important ones. Parkinson asserted that this effect is an inevitable ‘law’ or tendency within organisational behaviour. Parkinson provided the analogy of the relative attention given to the building of a nuclear reactor versus a bicycle shed. The nuclear reactor is regarded as a highly complex project, and a general assumption among group members is made that a suitably qualified person or team will make the right decisions about it, (which of course may not be the case). Most people choose not to invest time and effort in understanding such a challenging issue, and doubt their ability to make a useful contribution. Instead people largely prefer to focus on simpler accessible matters – crucially which they can influence more easily – such as the design of the bike-shed.
bikeshed colour/bicycle shed law
Parkinson’s Law of Triviality provided the inspiration for a recently popularised interpretation of its central argument under the name ‘Bike-shed Colour’ (and variations such as The Colour of the Bike-shed Law, and the Bicycle Shed Law). This resurgence was prompted by Poul-Henning Kamp, a prominent Danish computer developer, after an email posting dated 2 Oct 1999 to a mailing list for FreeBSD developers (FreeBSD is a substantial free computer operating system). Kamp’s email had the subject line: “A bike shed (any colour will do) on greener grass..” His ideas were to an extent an application of Parkinson’s 1957 thinking (Kamp clearly referred to Parkinson’s Triviality theory) as to how computer development projects tend to become distracted by debate about irrelevant minor factors.
Parkinson incidentally never referred to the colour of the bike-shed. This was part of Kamp’s interpretation, which certainly seemed to capture people’s interest, given the adoption of the ‘bike-shed’ terminology.
Fascinatingly, for decades, Parkinson’s Law of Triviality remained relatively hidden under its old dry heading. Kamp’s seemingly unintentional and quirky renaming of the concept brought it to life again. The effect of new branding and packaging on anything – whether deliberate or not – can be remarkable.
So lets take a moment and celebrate the trivial and acknowledge our pursuit of this phenomenon.