My finances, my projects, my life
May 18, 2024

Meetings: learn to focus on what’s important!

Have you ever been to a meeting that seems to drag on with no meaningful outcome? myLIFE encourages you to stop spending too much time on minor issues and to learn to stay focused on what’s important.

Key takeaways

    • According to Parkinson’s Law of Triviality (bikeshedding), the time spent discussing a topic is inversely proportional to its actual importance. For example, meeting participants tend to focus on trivial matters and avoid those that are more complex. Short-sighted time management results in a loss of efficiency and productivity.
    • Bikeshedding tends to be more apparent in a group and particularly in business. The more inconsequential a subject is, the more compelled people feel to share their opinion. Meanwhile, many people shy away from passing comment on complex issues.
    • Three simple strategies help to reduce bikeshedding in business: list meeting agenda items in order of importance, apply a “one meeting, one agenda” principle or restrict access to important meetings only to individuals who are more familiar with the subject and to those who have the authority to make decisions.

Would you like to lose less time on trifling details and optimise your productivity at work and at home? It’s relatively easy to do! Before giving you effective strategies, however, it is important to understand why we spend an excessive amount of time looking at irrelevant details instead of focusing on big decisions.

The example of the bike shed

Let’s imagine that a company’s financial committee meets to discuss the following three agenda items:

    • Proposal to set up a new production chain (cost: min. €10 million)
    • Proposal to install a bike shed for employees (cost: approx. €1,500)
    • Discussion surrounding the renewal of the annual coffee budget (cost: €100)

How will the committee allocate its time to these three items? In theory, it seems obvious that most of the meeting would be used to deal with the first agenda item. In practice, however, the meeting will generally play out quite differently.

First of all, the committee quickly reviews the proposal to set up a new production chain. Too much progress has already been made on the project to really be able to go into it in detail. Most committee members are unfamiliar with the technical aspects of the project anyway and those working closely on it struggle to relay it in layman’s terms. One of the experts present has clearly expressed the need to overhaul the project, but the task seems so huge and complex that another participant has suggested coming back to it at another time, which the rest of the committee was quick to approve.

As such, the discussion swiftly moves on to plans to install a bike shed. The atmosphere changes because the committee members feel much more comfortable to speak their minds on the subject. As everyone has their own thoughts on the future bike shed, the question of which materials to choose, its location and colour soon enliven the conversation. Not only does this subject take up more of the meeting than the previous one, but it even seems to divide the members and generate some tension between those who prefer wood for ecological reasons and those who favour the more economical solution. This has undoubtedly incited more passionate debate.

Finally, and not without difficulty, the committee moves on to the third agenda item without the slightest decision being reached until now. This time, everyone is keen to take part in the discussion. Who would have known that everyone around the table was a coffee connoisseur? Coffee origin, roasting method, flavour, price: everyone has their own point to make and some opinionated participants even boarder on disrespectful.

There is no denying the facts: the committee members spent more time discussing the €100 coffee budget than the first topic, which was much more costly and more of a priority for the proper functioning of the company. But it gets worse. The committee actually decided, due to a lack of time, to meet again to continue the discussions, which had not led to any concrete decisions being made.

Parkinson’s Law assumes that the duration of work will fill its allotted time span.

Although the example given might appear somewhat extreme, it will certainly remind you of meetings you have attended that have been entirely unproductive. It is a perfect illustration of the Law of Triviality or “bikeshedding” (in reference to the bike shed example).

Bikeshedding: the phenomenon behind time-wasting

The term bikeshedding was invented in the 1950s by British naval historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson. He is famous for “Parkinson’s Law,” which assumes that the duration of work will fill its allotted time span. This means that if you assign an hour to a task that only really calls for half of that time, the task will eventually increase in complexity to fill the apportioned time.

Parkinson also discovered a lesser-known phenomenon called the Law of Triviality, which describes how organisations tend to focus on trivial matters and set aside more complex ones. This law demonstrates that the time spent discussing a topic within an organisation is inversely proportional to its actual importance. In other words, the less important something is, the more time spent on it. How is that possible?

The Law of Triviality suggests that the time spent discussing a topic within an organisation is inversely proportional to its actual importance.

The bikeshedding phenomenon can be explained as follows: the simpler a subject is, the more people there are who will have an opinion and will want to contribute to the discussion. This is even more true in a professional setting where individuals seek to show their commitment, or indeed to stand out. When a topic is beyond our skillset, such as a new production chain, we don’t even attempt to formulate an opinion. We prefer to discuss simple matters or subjects that fall within our area of expertise.

This is not only the case in the business sector. Bikeshedding is often seen in our daily lives. For example, if our day’s to-do list includes shopping, laundry and a tax return, there’s a strong chance that we will spend more time on the mundane domestic tasks, like shopping and laundry. When it comes to the tax return, we will be left with just enough time to rush through it at the last minute. This phenomenon therefore illustrates the limitations of to-do lists. To be efficient, a to-do list must be written in order of importance and the time assigned to each task must first be proportional to its importance and then to its complexity.

This phenomenon is generally exacerbated when the task is both complex and important. For example, someone planning a wedding will easily spend more time picking out the design of their wedding invitations than on actually deciding who to invite to the wedding reception or evening do. Bikeshedding makes us short-sighted about how we allocate our time, which can result in a loss of efficiency and productivity.

This is true on an individual level, but can be even more apparent in groups and particularly in business. The effects of bikeshedding on overall productivity can be devastating.

Bikeshedding: the adversary of collective working time

Bikeshedding tends to be more apparent in a group and particularly in business. It is an environment where we are invited to simultaneously demonstrate our skills and our involvement, especially during meetings. Combining both isn’t always easy and it’s normal to prefer to participate when it is a topic we’re comfortable with. And since everyone acts like this, the most trivial subjects end up dominating discussions. The hierarchy of priorities is disrupted and the use made of collective time is anything but productive when it comes to the main issues of the meeting.

If a company’s productivity is suboptimal, especially during meetings, it is often because of this tendency to spend most of the time on trivial matters.

If a company’s productivity is suboptimal, especially during meetings, it is often because of this tendency to spend most of the time on trivial matters. This phenomenon can be an obstacle for project completion because the team spends most of its time focusing on simple and less important items instead of addressing complex and important matters.

Still sceptical? Let’s imagine a meeting with two agenda items: the reduction of the company’s carbon emissions over the next decade and the creation of a new rest area next month. The first topic is obviously more important, but it is also more complex. You and your colleagues will probably find it easier and therefore more appealing to spend more time discussing the opportunity to renovate the rest area. Especially as it can be done in the near future.

Being aware of bikeshedding in business makes it possible to identify when the time available is being used poorly. How can we avoid wasting it on matters of little importance at the expense of collective efficiency and productivity?

Three strategies for more productive meetings

There are several techniques to ensure that a group stays on task during a meeting. Here are three examples that focus on ways to prevent bikeshedding.

    • Be precise and impose limits. In meetings, it is important to have an agenda as well as allocated time limits and an objective linked to each agenda item. Be very clear about the objective, as that will help to redirect the conversation in the event of digression. Being specific is a key component of productivity. You should also make sure that important items are dealt with at the start of the meeting to ensure they are addressed properly. Less important tasks can generally be put off if necessary.

Being specific is a key component of productivity.

    • One meeting, one issue. It is always preferable to only have one agenda item at your meetings. This prevents anyone straying from the matter at hand. At meetings with a busy agenda, important and complex topics can be overshadowed by others, including by those that are less important. It makes sense to give someone the role of shutting down pointless conversations or those that bear little importance to the subject being discussed.
    • Reduce the number of meeting participants. Bikeshedding is a major problem in groups, because it decreases productivity and causes things to drag on. One way to avoid this is to only involve the number of people strictly required to deal with the subject matter. By doing so, it is easier to stay focused on what’s important and not get overwhelmed by trivial questions. For important matters, involve individuals with the most informed and experienced opinions to be able to make the most relevant decisions.

Now that you know what bikeshedding is, why not make it the sole agenda item for your next team meeting so you can explore together how meetings can be better managed in future?