Parkinson's law of triviality is C. Northcote Parkinson's 1957 argument that members of an organisation give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. He provides the example of a fictional committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant spending the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important and a far more difficult and complex task.
The law has been applied to software development and other activities. The term bike-shed effect or bike-shedding was coined as a metaphor to illuminate the law of triviality; it was popularised in the Berkeley Software Distribution community by the Danish computer developer Poul-Henning Kamp in 1999 and has spread from there to the whole software industry.
The concept was first presented as a corollary of his broader "Parkinson's law" spoof of management. He dramatizes this "law of triviality" with the example of a committee's deliberations on an atomic reactor, contrasting it to deliberations on a bicycle shed. As he put it: "The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved." A reactor is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so one assumes that those who work on it understand it. On the other hand, everyone can visualize a cheap, simple bicycle shed, so planning one can result in endless discussions because everyone involved wants to add a touch and show personal contribution.
Problems arise after a suggestion of building something new for the community, like a bike shed, causes everyone involved to argue about the details. This is a metaphor indicating that it is not necessary to argue about every little feature based simply on the knowledge to do so. Some people have commented that the amount of noise generated by a change is inversely proportional to the complexity of the change.
In the third chapter, "High Finance, or the Point of Vanishing Interest", Parkinson writes about a fictional finance committee meeting with a three-item agenda: The first is the signing of a £10 million (£221.3 million in 2016 money) contract to build a reactor, the second a proposal to build a £350 (equivalent to £7,744 in 2016) bicycle shed for the clerical staff, and the third proposes £21 (equivalent to £465 in 2016) a year to supply refreshments for the Joint Welfare Committee.
- The £10 million number is too big and too technical, and it passes in two and a half minutes. One committee member proposes a completely different plan, which nobody is willing to accept as planning is advanced, and another who understands the topic has concerns, but does not feel that he can explain his concerns to the others on the committee.
- The bicycle shed is a subject understood by the board, and the amount within their life experience, so committee member Mr Softleigh says that an aluminium roof is too expensive and they should use asbestos. Mr Holdfast wants galvanised iron. Mr Daring questions the need for the shed at all. Holdfast disagrees. Parkinson then writes: "The debate is fairly launched. A sum of £350 is well within everybody's comprehension. Everyone can visualise a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some £50. Members at length sit back with a feeling of accomplishment."
- Parkinson then described the third agenda item, writing: "There may be members of the committee who might fail to distinguish between asbestos and galvanised iron, but every man there knows about coffee - what it is, how it should be made, where it should be bought - and whether indeed it should be bought at all. This item on the agenda will occupy the members for an hour and a quarter, and they will end by asking the secretary to procure further information, leaving the matter to be decided at the next meeting."
Related principles and formulations
There are several other principles, well known in specific problem domains, which express a similar sentiment.
- In the context of programming language design, one encounters "Wadler's law", named for computer scientist Philip Wadler. This principle asserts that the bulk of discussion on programming language design centers on syntax (which, for purposes of the argument, is considered a solved problem), as opposed to semantics.
- Sayre's law is a more general principle, which holds (among other formulations) that "In any dispute, the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake"; many formulations of the principle focus on academia.
A countermeasure is the duck technique in corporate programming: a programmer expects their corporate office to insist on at least one change on every presentation to show that they're participating, regardless of the benefits of that change. Consequently, the programmer intentionally adds an element they expect corporate to remove. Quoted from Jeff Atwood's blog, Coding Horror:
This started as a piece of corporate lore at Interplay Entertainment. It was well known that producers (a game industry position roughly equivalent to project manager) had to make a change to everything that was done. The assumption was that subconsciously they felt that if they didn't, they weren't adding value.
The artist working on the queen animations for Battle Chess was aware of this tendency, and came up with an innovative solution. He did the animations for the queen the way that he felt would be best, with one addition: he gave the queen a pet duck. He animated this duck through all of the queen's animations, had it flapping around the corners. He also took great care to make sure that it never overlapped the "actual" animation.
Eventually, it came time for the producer to review the animation set for the queen. The producer sat down and watched all of the animations. When they were done, he turned to the artist and said, "That looks great. Just one thing: get rid of the duck."
- Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project, O'Reilly, 2005, ISBN 0-596-00759-0, "Bikeshed Effect" pp. 135, 261-268 (also online)
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