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WotW: Bikeshedding

That moment when someone gives you a name for something you’ve seen many times but for which you had no name. It happened to me the other day.

I was told that a recent project planning meeting had involved someone who had engaged in a lot of bikeshedding. It had been difficult to stop them bikeshedding, I was told, but eventually they had been stopped and a successful meeting was had. I nodded wisely, and wondered what this might mean.

It turns out that I knew what this was, but not what it was called. The Golgafrinchans did it when they couldn’t decide what colour to make their wheel, for example. I have seen it many times in many past lives.

Bikeshedding is properly known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, which notes that many organisations or individuals will attach undue weight to trivial issues. The original example describes a committee considering budgets for a nuclear power plant project. This is a vast project, so vast in fact that it cannot really be comprehended, so the part budget for the reactor itself is passed very quickly. The much smaller budget for the bike shed can be understood (and everyone on the committee understands what a bike shed is all about) so the discussion there is much. much longer.

So the committee spends a lot of time on relatively trivial issues, because those are the issues that they can understand easily.

Anyone who has worked with software must have seen the same thing. The person at the meeting who focuses on the colour of a button, or the font of some text. And completely ignores the overall architecture of the system. Now we have a name for that … Bikeshedding …

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