Ways to Avoid Bike Shedding

Also known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, bike shedding is the tendency to focus efforts and time on unimportant details or tasks while more important ones do not get done. This differs from Parkinson’s Law that states work will expand to fill the time allotted for it.

In 1957 C. Northcote Parkinson used the example of a committee planning a nuclear power station. In the example they spent most of their time discussing and debating the bike shed out behind the facility and not planning the actual nuclear station.

“The podcast expands to fill the time alloted.”

Working with a group of highly specialized and opinionated people can be difficult and lead to very detailed conversations on topics not relevant or only tangentially relevant to the project you are working on. Know that you or your team may be lead off topic when in meetings and prepare for that inevitability. You may not be able to completely avoid bike shedding but you will be better able to mitigate it and even redirect that energy and drive to more productive conversations.

Episode Breakdown

11:06 What causes bike shedding to happen?

The way people interact can create an environment that promotes bikeshedding. They may be insecure in their knowledge, ability, or position within the company. They may be jockying for a higher position or to knock someone else down. They may not actually know what is going on or may know too much minutia.

“You start to realize after a while that talking too much is a low status symbol.”

The organizational structure can create a problem leading to bikeshedding. There may be two disparate teams and it is unclear who is in charge. The target customer or stakeholders may not be clear. If the chain of command is not structured or clear who makes decisions on the team may be a point of contention.

“Databases are beautiful man, sometimes I just want to be a DBA.”

Structural problems with the problem you are trying to solve may lead to bikeshedding. Complex changes in a market that is constantly changing can lead to issues. Regulatory environments and other areas where coding best practices compete with industry requirements and standards can cause issues leading to bikeshedding. Fast moving competitors can cause you to put focus where you don’t need it.

28:32 Avoiding or Preventing Bike Shedding

“First off, knowing is half the battle.”

Knowing that bike shedding exists you know that you need to anticipate it. Inform the team about it.

Set time expectations. Put a limit on agenda items and stick to them. Set expectations on how much participation in expected on each item.

“A lot of the stuff with bike shedding comes from someone trying to prove themselves.”

Plan for both simple and complex issues. Share information about this issue before the meeting. Assign trivial issues to individuals or sub-groups.

33:25 Curbing Bike Shedding

Create a self regulating environment. Have team members call each other out when they go too long on an issue. If members aren’t comfortable calling each other out then leadership needs to set the pace for the meeting.

“The best way to do this is to hand out bull horns…actually don’t do that.”

Remove the distracting influence from the meeting. Get most argumentative people onto another project or team. Bring in project focused team members.

“This can cause a team to back through the Storm process.”

Table the subject being bike shedded for a later discussion that never happens. Sometimes the market shifts and you no longer need to discuss it. The issue causing the need may go away due to other parts of the project. Dissatisfied personnel can also go away. Give the team time to do more research on the topic. A team member may find a solution or propose an external resource that solves the problem.

42:12 Regaining Focus

Bring in the right stakeholders to set priorities. They will redirect away from the bikes shedding or clarify it so that it is no longer a focus. They will not have time to mess around with it. The wrong stakeholders will engage in the bikeshedding behavior.

“The right stakeholders won’t have time for bike shedding.”

Change the scope or timeline of the project. Bikeshedding may be happening because there is too much time to debate and argue about small things. Push project timeline up so that it is due sooner or change the scope of the project.

“Everyone is wanting to get into the nitty gritty of something, redirect them into the nitty gritty of something that needs it.”

Redirect to another difficult problem for the team to work on. If that energy is in the room you might as well put it to a positive use. Rather than discourage the discourse use it to your advantage.

48:16 Dealing with the Aftermath

“You may have to deal with a team that has gotten used to it.”

Find what holes in the process allowed it to take place. This is the output of a busted process. Fix the process.

Discuss with the team how to avoid or mitigate this in future meetings. This is the purpose of the sprint retrospective, to evaluate the process. Encourage team members to hold each other accountable.

IoTease: Product

Moocall Calving Sensor

This is a device that you can mount on the tail of a pregnant cow. It monitors the movements of the cow’s body and contractions to determine when she will most likely give birth to a calf. It then sends SMS messages about an hour before the event, so that you can actually get out there in case the animal gets in trouble. This is an awesome example of how agri-tech is changing farming and is probably something you don’t hear much about in the cities.

Tricks of the Trade

Become comfortable with small amounts of uncertainty and even risk. You will not move forward if you try to mitigate every last thing. Instead, you are far more likely to end up bike shedding or engaging in other avoidant behavior to cut the risk. Instead, accept reasonable risk and lean in.

Editor’s Notes:

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