Bike-Shed Effect

Your coworkers don’t want hard work.

This post is dedicated to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless others who have suffered racial injustice and systemic oppression around the world. If you only have time to read one thing today, please read this from Barack Obama instead of this post. He is providing leadership at a time when our current President won’t.


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People are lazy.

They don’t want to think hard, they don’t want to make decisions, and they don’t want to be accountable... at least on the surface. I have found this to be the case with so many people that I have worked with throughout my career. Let’s see if this sounds familiar...

You head into a conference room to attend a meeting about a new project. Your boss, their boss, the project team, the product team, and lead developers are all in attendance. Your bosses, boss kicks off the meeting by describing the project at a high level, set up the vision, and hands it over to the lead project manager. The lead PM then goes through the project plan but doesn’t get very far before someone asks a detailed question about part of the implementation. It isn’t even a big part of the project, but they want to know. You look around... different team members chime in to give their two cents. The project manager doesn’t agree with the product owner and before you know it, the project kickoff is derailed into chaos. Most of the biggest questions haven’t been answered, and you are tasked with figuring things out on your own.

This is the Bike-Shed Effect in action — choosing to spend time and energy on the most trivial parts of a project.

The Bike-Shed effect (sometimes known as the law of triviality) is an argument first made by C. Northcote Parkinson in 1957 that members of a team will give disproportionate attention and time to trivial issues, such as what color to paint the bike shed (hence the name). Parkinson argued that most of the time spent on a project is spend on the trivial and easy-to-grasp issues.

"The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved." - C. Northcote Parkinson

Most complex projects are challenging to understand and people on the team will not understand all the parts of the project. Because of this, they will talk about the parts they do understand, typically the more trivial issues.

Trivial Ideas are Easy

Thinking and debating about trivial ideas not only helps keep one’s nose clean, but also takes less mental energy. This is why we do it so frequently. It is something we may not realize we are doing at the time.

Just like electricity takes the shortest route to the ground, our mind takes the easiest route toward our goals. Most of the time, our goals are contributing value and speaking up. We want to contribute something to the project without making an incorrect choice. This means that we are very likely to pick something to talk about that is easy, that we know a lot about, or that we don’t have to worry about making a big mistake on.

Parkinson would explain this by suggesting that easy or trivial ideas are anything a single person can understand and conceptually maintain visualization of in their mind’s eye.

If Everybody Does The Easy Work, You Will Fail

The problem isn’t necessarily that we always want to start with the easiest tasks. Sometimes this can be a good way to get ramped into a period of work. The issue is when everybody takes the easy way, and wants to make their mark. This drives the team to argue about parts of the project that few will care about in the end.

Wasting time on the easiest items means the hard questions never get answered. The team will suffer from a lack of coordination and direction on how to get the hard and complex items done. This will likely ultimately lead to a single person carrying the load or the project failing.

Force People to Do the Hard Work

Make people write.

“When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences, complete paragraphs it forces a deeper clarity.” - Jeff Bezos

Give them a part of the problem, make them write down their solution, share it in public before the meeting, and discuss them. Fleshing out ideas in writing makes everyone think for themselves. Thinking for yourself (especially in private as is the case with writing) is the easiest way to force yourself to resolve the hardest problems you are facing.

On my product team, we implement a shared weekly meeting agenda. We have a shared Confluence document to which we add items needing discussion. Each person can comment and maintain a dialogue on items other team members have added. Here is the catch: The additions you make to the doc must be complete and fully thought out. Everyone on the team should be able to understand them without additional context and without you needing to explain it live. This forces everyone to think about how they want to articulate their items. This ensures everyone stays on the same page, even if we don’t have time to get through our entire agenda.

Another way to force thinking about a problem is to require the meeting leader generate a 6-page document with the proposed product implementation and solutions. This methodology has been implemented at Amazon for years. Each person gets the document ahead of time, they come to the meeting prepared, and then they spend the first part of the meeting rereading the document. This rigor ensures any interrupting questions don’t get asked because they are answered later in the document. 6 pages of writing also requires the author has spent quality time ensuring their ideas are well thought out, clear, and concise.

People Want Hard Work, So Enable Them

The team around you likely has a lot of really good ideas. They know more than they can communicate in a meeting for which they are unprepared.

I started this article saying:

People are lazy. They don’t want to think hard, they don’t want to make decisions, and they don’t want to be accountable... at least on the surface.

I will end the article with this...when people are thrust into a situation for which they are unprepared and feel insecure, they tend to come across in a negative light. If you can set up an environment in which they feel prepared and equipped, the story changes.

People want to feel the satisfaction of working hard. They want to contribute effective and noticeable decisions to the team. They want to be held accountable when they feel confident in their work.

Give your team the ability to shine. Force them to come prepared and ready. Your team will thank you for it and your customers will notice you spending time working out the hard things and not just polishing the easy things.


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