Business concepts: When we discuss trivial matters instead of important ones

We generally prefer to discuss things we understand rather than things we don't, and that can be a big problem in interviews and meetings. 

If I ask you, "What's the best time to take a train in your city?", you would have a clear opinion. You might say, "10am, right after rush hour." But, if I asked, "What's the most reliable train manufacturing company?", you might not have much to say. If both questions were asked in a meeting, the bulk of the time would be taken up by the former question, even if it's much more trivial than the latter.

This dynamic was coined the Law of Triviality by C. Northcote Parkinson in 1957. To illustrate his point, he told a fictional story about a committee that needed to approve plans for a nuclear power plant. But, in the meeting, most of the time was spent arguing about what color to paint the bike shed.

    This happens, Northcote suggests, because big things may be too hard for many people to grasp, so they want to move past them quickly and spend time on the things they understand. They also want to feel valuable and give an opinion. We might not have much to say about nuclear reactors, but we all have something to say about paint color.

    The story has led to the term bikeshedding to describe this sort of meeting, though it must be noted that bikeshedding is not in common usage. Rather, if you find yourself in a meeting like this, you can say: 

    • I'm sure we all have an opinion on this, but we're focusing too much on trivial matters.
    • We seem to be substituting tough questions for easier ones. 
    • First things first—let's focus on [main topic].

    This focus on triviality rather than substantive issues happens a lot. Here are a couple of examples:

    1. The question, "What is the connection between plastic use and global warming?" may turn into a simple discussion of ways we can reduce our use of plastic, ignoring the original, more complex topic.
    2. After political debates, the commentators on popular news networks often focus on trivial matters like gestures and looking "presidential", rather than the what the candidates said.

    Can you think of any other examples of bikeshedding? If you can, and you are a student at The English Farm, then try writing about it for homework, or mention this blog post and your ideas to your next teacher. 

    trivial [adjective]/triviality [noun]—not important, especially compared to other immediate things.

    to coin [verb]—to invent a word or phrase.