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17 Oct

Let's hop on a quick call, y'all.

I sometimes feel many workplace cultures enjoy meetings so much because then everyone can be happy about everyone else not working and being as unproductive as them. No one really wants to work and meetings are a good excuse that come under the definition of "working."

Hey, if your boss was with you in the same meeting for 6 hours, then no one can complain you didn't work. Lol.

Anyway, today I'll tell you about why meetings often tend to be so unproductive so often. The answer to this was hinted by the same man, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, who came up with Parkinson's Law:

"Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

In other words, if you have 15 days to build a project, it will take you 15 days to complete it, no less.

The same guy also came up with another one of these adages, called Parkinson's Law of Triviality, or as it is better known today: Bikeshedding.

"The amount of time spent discussing an issue in an organization is inversely correlated to its actual importance in the scheme of things. Major, complex issues get the least discussion while simple, minor ones get the most discussion."

Okay, too many words. Here's the analogy Parkinson offered to explain Bikeshedding:

Imagine a financial committee meeting to discuss a three-point agenda. The points are as follows:

  • A proposal for a $10 million nuclear power plant
  • A proposal for a $350 bike shed
  • A proposal for a $21 annual coffee budget

What happens is that the most trivial discussion around the $21 coffee budget gets the most limelight and the most serious and impactful discussion around the $10 million nuclear power plant gets the least attention.

Why? Because the power plant is too advanced for anyone to think about and discuss at length on — while the bikeshed and coffee budget are things everyone feels comfortable opining around. Hence, everyone spends the majority of the time in the meeting discussing the bikeshed and related trivialities, while the harder problem of the nuclear power plant doesn't get done justice at all.

In the end, the committee runs out of time. As usual, another meeting is scheduled to carry on this discussion. Everyone walks away feeling satisfied, while having contributed little to the overall picture or having moved the needle in any significant way.

Now, this scenario might almost be too comical to be representative of what happens in cultures that have at least some notion of productivity embedded within them.

And yet, it is easy to fall prey to Bikeshedding even in the most stellar teams.

I'll show you how.

1. "Man with a Hammer" Syndrome

You have a problem to solve. Everyone comes to the meeting and sees their specific skillset as the perfect way to solve the problem. Individuals try to focus on how they can leverage their skills to solve the problem instead of thinking about the best way to solve the problem or even asking if it's the right problem to solve.

In the end, trivial tactics and "HOWs" hog up most of the time instead of the "WHYs." Teams with great individual contributors and specialists are the most at risk when it comes to this kind of bikeshedding.

2. Not being able to articulate the main problem

Sometimes, the main problem is too tough to articulate or visualize in a measurable way. So teams end up focusing on problems they can easily articulate and measure.

3. Members worried about their own performance or incentives more than the project

In many cases, individuals are more worried about how they will pull their weight in the project; how they will absolve themselves of blame when something goes wrong; as these things are more relevant and palpable to them versus the outcome of the project itself.

So, interpersonal conflicts and constraints end up hogging the discussion more than the larger problem to be solved.

4. It's easier to talk about what's urgent or lucrative in the short term

We naturally want to avoid the hard stuff: stuff that comes under the "not urgent but important" bracket. These are usually high-leverage activities if pursued diligently. But we tend to focus more on what's more urgent or what can show results on the dashboard quicker.

Personal incentives like what would look better on your resume or what would get you your promotion tend to be prioritized. This is perhaps the most insidious way bikeshedding can creep up during meetings.

5. It's easier to talk about what's proximate

Engineers and technical teams often make the mistake of thinking that they are the user or that the user thinks like them. Hence, conversations around solving user problems often bikeshed their way into solving challenges the engineers find most interesting.

Here are some ways to avoid bikeshedding.

1. The first way is to be cognizant of when such a thing is happening and to stop it in its tracks. If you're leading the meeting, it is your job to prevent people from digressing too much and conveniently navigating the conversation to topics around which they feel most comfortable talking.

2. Discuss relevance with the central theme with each point you make or each story or anecdote you might share during the meeting:

"The reason why I think this is relevant to <the topic under discussion> is..."

If someone has a tendency to ramble and digress a lot, keep asking them,

"How is this relevant?"

Some tough love goes a long way.

3. Keep reminding the team that you're talking about your ideal customer persona, not about yourselves — that ultimately it's the customers' problems you need to be solving, not your own.

4. Keep a hard cap on meeting duration and a hard cap on the number of meetings the team is allowed to have per week.

5. Incentivize written communication as much as possible. Not everything needs a meeting. Most things don't need a meeting. In fact, the larger the thing to be discussed, the more it helps to put it down in writing first. Prefer meetings for quick alignment on little decisions. Prefer Slack Huddles over Zoom calls.

I hope knowing about bikeshedding and all the ways in which it can manifest itself helps you have more productive meetings henceforth.


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