Explainers

How to Avoid “Bikeshedding” and Work on What Matters

To feel like you’re making progress, it’s easy to focus on getting tasks done—regardless of whether they’re important or trivial. Make sure you’re spending your energy on what will make the greatest impact.

Imagine that your next leadership meeting has three items on the agenda: building a nuclear reactor, building a shed to store bikes next to the nuclear reactor, and setting the coffee budget for your leadership meetings. Given how complicated the nuclear reactor is, it’s tempting to skip it entirely and spend the whole time discussing the easier decisions. All in all, a successful meeting: you checked off two out of three agenda points, right?

In times of uncertainty, or when confronting complex issues, many leaders focus on the tasks they can complete, that they have some level of confidence in—even if those tasks and decisions aren’t really critical or meaningful in the greater scheme of things. This is known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, or, more commonly, “bikeshedding.” It’s so comforting to complete a task, to move on to the next thing, that you leave the big questions for later.

As the media cycle shifts, and you get distracted by workplace re-entry plans and summer vacations, it will be “easier” to focus on simple tasks rather than complex decisions. Don’t fall into this trap. Instead, make sure you’re building on the momentum of this moment to do your part in creating a more just and equitable world.

As leaders, one of the ways we can all make a direct impact is by creating anti-racist organizations. It may be uncomfortable—especially if you’re new to it, and don’t necessarily know the best way to do it—but that’s exactly why it’s important to recognize and engage with (rather than avoid) those hard decisions. Take on the difficult conversations and projects which are necessary for moving your team forward. If you find your team consistently bikeshedding:

  • 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. In fact, this is an excellent opportunity to think about delegating work within the organization. Does your leadership team really need to spend time on the day-to-day work, or can managers flex their decision-making and accountability skills? (Spoiler alert: your executives should be looking no less than a 10-year horizon, not daily operations).
  • Decide who needs to be involved. Evaluate how the decision will be made—by majority rules? Consultation?—and invite only those people to the meetings. (This is a great time to reflect on who makes decisions in your organization—are you hearing from diverse viewpoints? Are the people closest to the problem given the authority to deal with it?) Take notes and share widely so that people who don’t attend are still informed. Remember, not everyone needs to chime in on every decision—and sometimes, that means you!
  • Use a decision framework and set a time limit. A framework gives people structure and consistency when confronting dynamic, uncertain issues, while a time limit prevents the team from endless debate. Don’t forget that there’s a difference between Type 1 and 2 decisions: most decisions (Type 2) can be walked back if needed, so it’s better to decide. To that end, set a time limit for discussion—it can be tempting to keep talking rather than take action, but you won’t know what the right decision is until it’s made.
  • Be okay with being uncomfortable. Finally, acknowledge to yourself and the team that this is a stressful time, and watch out for falling back on established habits and patterns in an effort to feel “normal.” Take time to reflect on the work at hand and watch out for where you might be holding back.
Published June 11, 2020

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