How many resources does an organization expend to make a decision? You’d think that an organization would spend more time and money on decisions about big, costly, complex issues and less time on simpler issues with smaller price tags. But it often doesn’t work that way.
In his book Parkinson’s Law, or the Pursuit of Progress, (which has been quoted and commented on by many bloggers and Wikipedia editors), C. Northcote Parkinson describes a committee that met to discuss the construction of a new atomic power plant. The agenda included three items: approving the plans for the plant, discussing a new bicycle shed for employees, and the refreshment expenses of the Welfare Committee. The committee spent two and a half minutes discussing the highly complex power plant, 45 minutes debating the bicycle shed, and over an hour furiously debating the refreshments. That matter eventually was left unresolved and deferred to a further meeting.
Parkinson explains that this is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive, and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far. A bike shed, on the other hand, is easily understood; almost anyone can build one of those over a weekend. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, some people will seize the chance to put their fingerprints on the project to demonstrate that they are paying attention.
Parkinson summed this up as his Law of Triviality: “the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” Essentially, Parkinson’s metaphor raises the issue of noticing when governance gets reduced to sharing “our two-cents worth” and that we need not argue every feature just because we know enough to do so. It also may be true that the amount of noise generated by a change is inversely proportional to the complexity of the change.
Simplest problems can take up most of our time. When we’re facing a decision, it might not hurt to first ask whether we’re dealing with a bike shed or an atomic reactor, so that we give the decision the attention it deserves. If it’s a simple issue, let’s not get bogged down by minutia. But if it’s a complex issue, let’s make sure we have all the information we need so we truly understand what we’re talking about and can make the best decision. See you there.