Bikeshedding is avoiding tough problems

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

This commonly-used phrase reminds us that, no matter how far away a deadline is, we always seem to be rushed to complete the task. Some even cite it as evidence that setting impossibly short deadlines is good for efficiency.

While most of us are familiar with the phrase, we may not realize it’s called Parkinson’s Law. More than 60 years ago, Cyril Northcote Parkinson used it as the opening sentence of a humorous essay in The Economist. Parkinson was referring to the rate at which bureaucracies expand over time, based on supposedly scientific observations of the British Civil Service.

There’s a series of mathematical equations in the article but it boils down to two factors:

  1. “An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals.”
  2. “Officials make work for each other.”

Said another way, every bureaucrat will hire subordinates to lighten his/her workload and, importantly, to increase his/her own importance. However, managing subordinates takes time – often more time than is actually saved. And the new subordinates eventually want subordinates of their own. This process often continues unchecked until “there are twenty people busily doing the work of four.”

To illustrate this phenomena, Parkinson points out the Colonial Office had its largest number of staff at a time when the British Empire was losing colonies and had the least work to do. Similarly, the British Royal Navy hired more clerks while most of the ships were being decommissioned and the number of sailors dropped by 30%.

The Economist article was reprinted along with other essays in the 1958 book ‘Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress.’  In the third chapter, ‘High Finance, or the Point of Vanishing Interest,’ Parkinson describes a fictional budget committee meeting with a three-item agenda: a £10M proposal for a new nuclear reactor, a £350 bicycle shed for the staff, and the £21 per year coffee bill for meetings. Since no one on committees like this knows much about reactors, there’s little discussion and it’s approved in minutes. Most understand bicycle sheds and all understand coffee. Therefore the longest and most-informed debate is on whether to buy a new coffee machine and which model.

While I can’t be certain, I’d guess this chapter is the inspiration for another common phrase: penny wise, pound foolish. It’s definitely the source of a popular term in software development: bikeshedding. Bikeshedding refers to discussing something easy/trivial rather than having to deal with bigger/harder issue. Prioritization is difficult.

Side note: The book also claims the best indicator of an organization’s decline is the construction of a new headquarters. I’ve seen that happen a few times in Silicon Valley. I wonder if the newest spaceship campus will buck the trend.

While some of ‘Parkinson’s Law’ might not have stood the test of time, most of it is still highly relevant. I recommend you take the time to read the book. Even if you’re bikeshedding.


One Response to Bikeshedding is avoiding tough problems

  1. Terry Lund March 12, 2017 at 3:26 pm #

    Jonathan, a great post for sure, and there are a number of vivid memories during my career of exactly these issues, but I haven’t come across the bikeshed concept until reading your post. I have to track down a copy of Parkinson’s book.

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