Letting Triviality Wreak Havoc on a Project at Work

Over 80% of workplace distractions are trivial matters, at best. But what exactly constitutes a trivial matter? And when do you step in to mention that a project at work is being smothered by one?

To really understand how irrelevant discussions can throw off a project, it’s important to highlight a man by the name of C. Northcote Parkinson, a British naval historian. He is most famous for his work called, Parkinson’s Law, a series of books concerning public administration, among other things. And somewhere inside there, he drew up Parkinson’s Law of Triviality (PLOT). This theory demonstrates how much trivial matters weigh down projects (and budgets). He uses the example of a finance committee spending hardly any time approving the construction of a complex atomic reactor, then going on to spend a disproportionate amount of hours debating how the bike shed of that reactor should be built.


 If you’ve ever heard the term “bikeshedding” used at work, it’s to zero in on how much time’s being wasted on the most irrelevant topics. I’d be hard-pressed to call it a buzzword, but for this post, let’s roll with it.

Bikeshedding can be so many things. Everyone reading this probably has their own version to tell, but I’m going to use the persona non grata of bikeshedding: meetings. You know the moments.  It’s that meeting where someone throws in how last night’s spaghetti was the best ever. Then another person chimes in about how they added garlic and meatballs to their spaghetti two weeks ago. Before you know it, a debate rages on about the history of spaghetti and who created it. Nevermind that the meeting was supposed to cover Q2 reports. There’s the spaghetti arc to be had!

Bikeshedding can also be that scenario where one department gives a presentation on their new product (let’s say it’s a company’s new clothing line). They have the marketing copy, price points and launch dates covered, but everyone at the meeting spends far too much time talking about how the color tone in the lettering is too maroon. Not enough maroon. It looks purple. No, it’s magenta! The tail end of the “Q” is too jagged, or it just looks...odd. A half hour (maybe more) has passed and by the time everyone regroups, the pitch has fallen by the wayside, the coffee pot is running on empty and a new meeting is scheduled for tomorrow to discuss exactly what should’ve been resolved in minutes.

Trivial matters can take up less than 3 minutes or as much as 1 hour. Even if you average 5 minutes in the Irrelevant Zone, that’s 5 minutes too long. You need to come up with a way to block these trivial U-turns and get your productivity back in line. And before stopping short of using an air horn to bring everyone back to the task at hand, here are a few quick tips you could try out:

Where's the Ref?

Designate one person to be the referee on when a topic begins to veer away. They don’t have to use a whistle; maybe just a subtle lead-in, calmly let everyone know the discussion is going south and regroup.

Draw Up a Smarter Checklist

Have a list of accomplishments you want done for the day in hand as you and the team begin working/planning out a project. Throw in a few that you know deep down will only take a minute or so to run through. See if they do.

Crunch Time

Institute rigid time limits on each session. If it’s something that could be discussed and completed before lunch time, make sure it is. If it takes an hour, don’t dwell a minute after.

Lock Away The Ambiguous Talking Points

Create and share separate documents (or let them make their own video on what needs to be done) for the most ambiguous discussion points. If people involved in the project have differing opinions on something like the color tone issue above, let them add it here and have it dealt with at a later date.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times in a project when simple tweaks or directions need to be addressed. It’s just that even the smallest tweak can get away from us because someone’s either opinionated just for the sake of being so, another's counterpoint to something mistakenly adds a dash of triviality, there’s no moderator--the list goes on.

Next time, take a page out of Parkinson’s playbook and keep the bikeshedding to a minimum. You’ll be surprised at how much you’re able to accomplish in future meetings when you do.

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