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Is there any neat clean familiar way to get across the idea of "bike-shedding"?

"Bikeshedding" is when legitimate agenda items or elements of a project which people enjoy or find easy to discuss crowd out important items they don't (example and historical background below).

It's nothing to do with "getting to the point", waffle, jargon or off-topic discussions: the bike-shedder is often making valid points in a perfectly to-the-point way, but are unconsciously shifting the focus and drive away from the most mission-critical areas. It's also often the project lead, meeting chair and/or the most senior person who is most guilty of it - which makes flagging it a particularly delicate matter.

I'm look for an idea somebody can reference (or, failing that, a way to cleanly communicate the problem) when they realise a meeting and/or the wider management or appraisal of a project is drifting too much towards the elements which are easy to discuss or oversee.

It should:

  1. not risk de-railing things further by requiring a lengthy, comment-worthy anecdote or explanation
  2. not be offensive or confrontational and be appropriate to use when the person or people getting carried away bike-shedding are more senior (e.g. project lead or meeting chair)
  3. neatly get across the idea that this is a known, real, recognised common trend (so addressing the cause not just the symptom and giving the observation some face-saving authority for more senior hierarchy-conscious bike-shedders)

Among people who know the term "Bikeshedding" (which is moderately common in the UK particularly in engineering, I believe), it can do all these things, but among people who don't, it's no help at all.

Ideally, I'm hoping that in the 57 years since Parkinson's book introduced the term, somebody has found a more diplomatic and efficient way of communicating the idea, e.g. in management books or similar.


Here's an example based on the 1957 book that launched the term, which also explains why it is called "bikeshedding":

Parkinson writes about a finance committee meeting with a three-item agenda.

The first is the signing of a £10 million contract to build a reactor, the second a proposal to build a £350 bicycle shed... the third proposes £21 a year to supply refreshments...

The £10 million [reactor] is too big and too technical, and it passes in two and a half minutes.

The bicycle shed ..."debate is fairly launched. A sum of £350 is well within everybody's comprehension. Everyone can visualize a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some £50. Members at length sit back with a feeling of accomplishment.

"[Re. the refreshments]... every man there knows about coffee... This item on the agenda will occupy the members for an hour and a quarter... leaving the matter to be decided at the next meeting."

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This isn't strictly a duplicate, as it is programmer specific (and not on this site) but may help: http://programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/219069/how-do-i-get-people-to-st‌​op-bikeshedding –  Telastyn Apr 28 at 15:19
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@user568458 - I'm the one who asked the question, though I don't necessarily agree with you. Just because I'm the team lead doesn't make my words any more effective at changing people's subconscious behavior. (or at least, I haven't been effective at it) –  Telastyn Apr 28 at 15:39
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@Telastyn Sorry, I wasn't clear: I meant that as project lead, you can attempt things like for example restructuring the task (top voted answer) or saying "We'll park that for later" (second voted answer) which would not be options for someone dealing with a project lead or more senior person who is bikeshedding. I might try suggesting parking things for later, but it risks looking really insubordinate and presumptive. –  user568458 Apr 28 at 15:46

4 Answers 4

This is a fine question! Parkinson's bike shed isn't as notorious in the US as it is in the UK, so here it's even harder to use "bikeshedding" as a short keyword to capture peoples' attention.

If you're running a meeting yourself, you can ask someone to keep a written list of "items requiring attention." When the metaphorical bike shed comes up for discussion, you can respectfully say "let us put that on the list and move on."

If you're not running the meeting yourself, you can say something like this: "With respect, let's move this topic to later in our agenda, so we don't run out of time before we consider x topic."

By mentioning the topic of concern to you, you are drawing your colleagues' attention to the metaphorical reactor. You're subtly proposing better behavior rather than criticizing present behavior.

Or, if you are able to use edgy astronomy humor, you can say "that topic is a notorious black hole. This meeting is perilously close to the event horizon."

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I like the idea of something along the lines of "This is something that we could debate for hours, let's come back to it after the more challenging [x]", which would work with peers. The 'holy grail' would be something with its own (non-offensive) authority that could be referenced when the bikeshedder is more senior without sounding like you're speaking out of turn. –  user568458 Apr 28 at 12:04
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Yes... training co-workers is like training dogs. You have to re-direct them to something positive, and keep doing it. Eventually the desired structure of things will gel in their heads, but it will take time. –  Jasmine Apr 28 at 16:55
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I've done this (both as meeting organizer and as underling attendee) to good effect. Even as an attendee I've had good results with "could we move this to the sideboard for now so we have time to discuss X?". Note: in meetings that generate a lot of side topics, keep an actual list on the whiteboard! –  Monica Cellio Apr 28 at 18:12
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@Jasmine, a wise old sales executive once said to me, "never give your customers nicknames, because they will find them out." I think this principle many extend to training co-workers as if they were dogs. –  Ollie Jones Apr 28 at 18:25
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Ha, edgy event horizons. :) –  Brian S Apr 28 at 20:23

This phenomenon that you are currently experiencing can be easily solved by more effective means than shaming your colleagues. Instead, try encouraging some basic meeting rules before you start.

All meetings should have a clearly defined agenda. What are the topics to be discussed? The person leading the meeting should try to steer the conversation towards the agenda when possible. If the person calling for the meeting or the person in charge of the meeting is habitually calling meetings to be a speaking platform for his/her issues and not giving the courtesy of an agenda then that person is acting very unprofessional and not respecting the time of the people he called into the meeting. It is important to remember that the true cost of a meeting is the sum of the hourly compensation of all people involved. Don't waste the companies money trivially.

Secondly, good record keeping of outcomes, decisions and important points related to the agenda should be captured in meeting minutes. Typically somebody in the meeting should be in charge of taking minutes, perhaps the person who called the meeting or the person in charge of it. An administrative assistant with proper training should know how to effectively take minutes. Results of the meeting are on record now so there shouldn't be any confusion.

Finally, encourage that the last 5 minutes of every meeting should be to go review the Action Items as a result of the meeting. An action item is essentially some investigation or work that needs to be performed to help answer a question that could not be resolved in the meeting. A follow-up meeting with the agenda of reviewing what was found in looking into action items is always a good idea.

In retrospect, if you are calling the meeting and are getting frustrated that bikeshedding is occurring then I advise implementing the three ideas above in your meetings. If you are not organizing these meetings then I encourage you to have a conversation with this person(s) about these three simple ideas can more efficiently utilize everybody's time.

I agree that sometimes these can feel very process heavy and very formal but a casual laid back office attitude only works when everybody respects each others time. When people derail the agenda of a meeting they are not being respectful.

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Most times I experience this, there is a fixed agenda already (like in the original example), and the person chairing the meeting is the person most susceptible to bike-shedding because as a project manager or similar they're furthest from the technicalities. The bikeshedded topic will be a legitimate agenda item, but just not one that deserves the very high % of time it receives –  user568458 Apr 28 at 11:52
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I mean "technicalities" as a shorthand for whatever the thorny areas are that are being bikeshedded away from. They're not necessarily technical (for example a team of developers working on an early-stage startup that doesn't yet have non-developer staff might bikeshed away from crucial promotion, funding and recruitment planning to talk about technical matters that are important but are less important: but are in their comfort zone and therefore easier to discuss) –  user568458 Apr 28 at 15:08

I think the other answers are missing the point (Which is not bike shedding.). The culprit is convinced that what they are saying is not only on point with the agenda of the meeting, but it is important.

Example: Meeting to discuss color scheme and layout of the corporate website. It is easier for the person leading the meeting to keep people from getting into discussions about content. Not that it is purely black and white, but pretty easy to recognize. What about the person who wants to discuss the thickness of the dividing lines? Isn't that about layout? Maybe, maybe not?

Once you feel this topic is heading towards a path of taking too much time, the head of the meeting should be allowed to interrupt and ask Why is this important? What priority does it have? Once you decide it is a low priority, move it to the end and if there is time, discuss it or schedule another meeting. If it is considered too trivial, someone with the deciding vote, just needs to pull rank and either implement it or forget it.

If the bike-shedder feels ignored, that is another discussion. You'd like to be equally open to everyone's suggestions, but individuals need to take some responsibility for the quality and relevancy of their suggestions. Use this as an example.

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I've been thinking about how to turn Ollie Jones' wise advise into an idea that is sufficiently familiar, positive and easy to understand that a subordinate could convince more senior superiors of it then refer back to it any time a topic needs to be hastened or put on the "We''ll park this for later" list, without seeming uppity. Here's the best I've managed so far - it should work for "over-enthusiastic" bike shedding, but not so much for "heated debate" bike shedding.

The first time it happens, introduce the concept something like this:

It sounds like we're really getting on top of [topic A] now - it's feeling like familiar ground where we've got strong [ideas/actions] with which we can [do whatever our jobs are]. We'll also need to work out how this fits the more challenging unfamiliar ground of topic(s) X (Y, Z)... We'll need to make sure these great ideas are properly recorded to be followed up before we get stuck in on that challenging topic... [park topic A, shift to topic X]

So it's about taking their enthusiasm for the topic and trying to turn it into a feeling of success, and trying to turn that into a feeling of readiness for a challenge, using any trepidation about topics X, Y, Z as incentives to sharpen up discussion of topic A into concrete things that can be returned to.

Then, the idea of "familiar / unfamiliar ground" maps quite neatly and inoffensively onto "bikeshedding / reactoring":

Great, yes, that'll [relate to] topic Z. There's a lot of unfamiliar ground on topic Z. I think one of the main unanswered questions is...

Great ideas, topic B is really starting to feel like familiar ground. Who are we nominating to make sure that [whatever the next step is] is done with these ideas? How might this tie in with [thing that needs discussing about topic X]?

etc etc

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