bikeshed + -ing.

1. Futile investment of time and energy in marginal technical issues.
2. Procrastination.

The term was coined as a metaphor to illuminate Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. Parkinson observed that a committee whose job is to approve plans for a nuclear power plant may spend the majority of its time on relatively unimportant but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bikeshed, while neglecting the design of the power plant itself, which is far more important but also far more difficult to criticize constructively.

From Wiktionary


This trap snares lots of folks, and leaders are particularly susceptible.

We’re asked to make a multitude of decisions every day, usually without enough facts and often with no good answer. It can be exhausting.

Given the chance to think about adjusting our revenue management strategy or the color of the lobby chairs, my mind leaps at the chance to take it easy.

But I shouldn’t indulge.

And you probably shouldn’t either.

I purposed never to do anything others could or would do when there was so much of importance to be done that others could or would not do. – Dawson Trotman

When we give in to bikeshedding, we’re usually procrastinating or avoiding other decisions.

As a leader, you’ve accepted responsibility for your family, your team, or your community. They don’t benefit when you focus on the color of the bikeshed. They know threats are looming and opportunities are growing, and they expect that you’ll be focused on those.

It can also be a sign that we haven’t appropriately organized and empowered our team.

Joel Trammell says, “nowhere is the maturity of an organization more noticeable than in how it makes decisions.” Certainly leaders are expected to make decisions, and they also should be teaching others how to make good decisions. What better opportunity than to start with the color of the bikeshed?

If you’re stuck at this step, there are a few solutions to consider.

Do you have an updated org chart with responsibilities identified?

Clarity is powerful. When each of your team members understands what success for their position looks like, they’re far more likely to achieve it. They may not sound very important, but a current org chart and job descriptions will eliminate most anxiety and chaos.

Have you discussed which decisions should be made at each level?

Simple customer requests are usually best addressed by front line team members, especially if they’ve been empowered with options. But other challenges often involve multiple departments, and a solution determined by one team might ignore an aspect important to another. The best approach would be clarify the expectations and decision-making responsibilities at each level, and make sure everyone is comfortable identifying a problem even when they can’t solve it alone.

Does your team know how you will respond if they make a “bad” decision?

 Fear paralyzes. If we expect our team members to make decisions, we must explain in advance what we’ll do if we disagree. (And yell and scream probably shouldn’t be it.) If our teams trust that we’ll coach them through the process, they’ll continue to learn and grow.

The temptation is real. Beware of bikeshedding. If you’re not sure what you should be doing instead, try a Weekly Review.


Hat tip to Matt Mullenweg for reminding me of this concept on his recent interview with Tim Ferriss and to Joel Trammell for his excellent writings on CEO responsibilities

photo credit: kaleissin