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The Bike Shed Effect

think independently Jun 11, 2023

It’s happened to all of us. You’re at a board meeting involved in a lively discussion. But when you take a moment to step back from the conversation, you realize that the topic is rather trivial. In fact, it doesn’t deserve the time and energy that board members have been pouring into it.

Nevertheless, everyone has an opinion and insists on having their say. The discussion goes on and on, well past the time the relatively unimportant matter should have taken. It seems odd, because a more important strategic topic was dealt with in half the time.

What’s going on? It’s called bikeshedding, a metaphor that describes the tendency to spend excessive time on trivial matters while glossing over important ones.

Let’s explore how bikeshedding impacts decision-making in the boardroom.


Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

Bikeshedding is the common name for Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, coined by British historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson in the 1950s. It states, “the amount of time spent discussing an issue in an organization is inversely correlated to its actual importance.”

The term bikeshedding derives from an example Parkinson used to illustrate his law of triviality. In the example, a management team has three issues on its meeting agenda: a nuclear power plant, a bike shed, and the annual coffee budget.

The team runs through the power plant proposal quickly. It’s too advanced for anyone to really dig into the details, and most of them don’t know much about the topic in the first place. One person who does is unsure how to explain it to the others. Another suggests a redesigned proposal, but it seems like such a huge task that the rest decline to consider it.

The discussion then moves to the bike shed. Everyone knows what a bike shed looks like and is comfortable weighing in with ideas on what materials to use and how to save money. They spend more time on the bike shed than the power plant.

When it comes to the coffee budget, everyone is an expert. They all have strong opinions about cost and value. By the end of the meeting, they’ve spent more time on the coffee budget than the bike shed and the power plant combined.


Bikeshedding and Cybersecurity

If you’re trying to think of a more up-to-date example where bikeshedding might occur at a typical board meeting, look no further than the topic of cybersecurity. According to experts, boards are getting hung-up on tactical details such as malware prevention instead of assessing the organization’s cybersecurity strategy as a whole.

Here’s an example from Bryan Thomas’s Bitsight article ‘What Boards of Directors Are Missing about Cybersecurity’. A board of directors learns about a recent ransomware attack. Each director has a reasonable understanding of ransomware, so in their board meeting they spend considerable time discussing how the organization might be targeted, possible prevention initiatives, and whether their firewall and detection tools are adequate. Meanwhile, there are several more pressing cybersecurity threats facing the organization, but none of them end up getting much attention from the board.


Why Does Bikeshedding Happen?

Every director knows that a power plant deserves more time and attention than a bike shed. But human nature being what it is, bikeshedding can and does happen - even on a board made up of experienced, knowledgeable directors.

We all want to feel that we’ve had an impact, that we’ve contributed. Plus, we want to demonstrate that we’re engaged in the process – we’ve been paying attention. We gravitate toward topics we understand, so that we can feel competent speaking up and taking a stand, even if we don’t have anything of real value to add. In the end, the discussion drags on so everyone can have their say.

But when something is outside our wheelhouse, we won’t even try to come up with something to say. It’s just too intimidating. Besides, we assume (often correctly) that management has a better understanding of it than we do. They must have already looked into it thoroughly, so what could we possibly add?


The Problem with Bikeshedding

As we all know, bikeshedding results in some frustrating board meetings. Most directors find that sitting through a lengthy meeting bogged down in minutiae is not exactly engaging – even if we did get to express our views on the design of the bike shed!

But more importantly, bikeshedding gives rise to two main problems – inadequate attention and wasted time.

Inadequate attention. Important, complex topics don’t get the consideration and scrutiny they deserve. Not enough time is spent discussing critical strategic issues, considering options, and assessing risks. That makes it easy to make a poor decision that can have a serious impact.

Wasted time. Once an opinion is voiced on a simple issue, more and more people jump in to give their opinion. Time gets used up without adding much value. And if you consider that time is money, then money is wasted too.


The Dark Side

The natural tendency toward bikeshedding can be exploited for ulterior motives. It’s not difficult to craft an agenda that creates space for bikeshedding by including a distraction or decoy – an item that’s easy to engage with and robs time from dealing with important, contentious matters. That makes it more likely that the hard stuff will get passed quickly and smoothly, with a minimum of debate.

Agenda management creates the opportunity for bikeshedding through practices such as putting the important strategic decisions at the end or including unimportant but interesting material that keeps people talking for ages.


Dealing with Bikeshedding

The first step in avoiding bikeshedding is awareness. Once you acknowledge the problem, there are steps you can take to make sure to spend an appropriate amount of time on each issue.

If your board is prone to this behavior, here are a few pre-meeting tips:

  • Have a clear purpose. Keep meetings specific and focused on a particular issue. Ensure that the meeting goals are clear. If the goal is simply to discuss a topic, directors won’t be clear on what’s expected of them. It’s more effective to state that the goal is to accomplish something specific, such as making a decision or providing advice.
  • Set clear parameters and establish time limits for each topic. Decide in advance on the importance of each issue.
  • Put the strategic topics and critical decisions at the beginning of the agenda. If you need extra time for a more important item, at least you’ve got it first.
  • Have a separate meeting for any major, complex issue. In a meeting with a long agenda, an important issue can get lost amid the trivial, but if it’s the only purpose for the meeting, it’s hard to avoid talking about it.
  • Invite fewer people to the meeting - only those who can contribute to the discussion or are needed for a decision. Obviously, board directors have to be there, but consider carefully which members of the management team should attend.

Here are a few tips to counter bikeshedding during the meeting:

  • Focus board efforts on important issues. Leave picking the right coffee to someone else. Just say, “I think this decision can be left to management.”
  • Call it out, respectfully. Because the term ‘bikeshedding’ isn’t a familiar one, use other phrases such as “It seems we’re spending a lot of time on this issue. I appreciate the passion we have for the topic, but I feel our time would be better spent on …” Any attendee can do this - others will probably appreciate it.
  • Once you’ve called it out, the board can agree to move on. This works best when trust has been established and there’s a culture of respect on the board.
  • If the problem is pervasive, use a visual cue that everyone recognizes as a signal to avoid bikeshedding. One suggestion is to use the ELMO (Enough, Let’s Move On) technique to signal that it’s time to move on.


Whose Job Is It?

It’s the board chair’s job to manage the board meeting and keep it productive. If the chair is doing a good job, they guide the board toward consensus. Without proper facilitation, any given discussion can just drag on and on – no matter how trivial the topic.

The single biggest defence against bikeshedding is a board chair who facilitates effectively, doesn’t get lost in the weeds of the debate, and resists pushing their own agenda. A good chair is able to hold up a mirror to the room and point out where bikeshedding is going on, all with good humour and without blame.

Anyone who is presenting to the board, such as a subject matter expert or a member of the management team, can also help avoid bikeshedding by guiding the discussion back to the core issue if directors’ questions and comments start to stray into the trivial.


Bikeshedding Advice for the Savvy Director

We all engage in bikeshedding from time to time. We all have issues that are too difficult to face or too complex to handle. What’s important is recognizing that we’ve gone off track, and making sure we return our comments to the matter at hand.

If you’re ever unsure whether you’re engaging in bikeshedding in the moment, ask yourself the simple question, “Should we be dedicating as much time to the problem at hand as we currently are?”

If the answer is no, meaning that your time could be better allocated elsewhere, do what you can to bring the discussion to a close, and move on. If the answer is yes, keep going. You may even want to suggest that the board allocate more time to the problem at hand – possibly by continuing the discussion at the next board meeting, or scheduling a special meeting dedicated to that one topic.


Your takeaways:

  • Bikeshedding is the tendency we have to spend excessive time on trivial matters in meetings, often glossing over important ones.
  • Bikeshedding is damaging because it wastes valuable time and leads to inadequate attention to important issues.
  • To avoid bikeshedding, establish a clear purpose for the meeting, design a purposeful agenda with the most important issues first, and include only the necessary people.
  • If you see bikeshedding occurring, call it out. Consider using a visual clue to signal ‘Enough, let’s move on.’




Thank you.


Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help directors prepare for their board role.


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