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Law Of Triviality

law of triviality

I am sure many would have heard of the Parkinson’s Law postulated by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in the 1950’s-tasks expand to fill the amount of time allocated to them.”

However, not many people would have heard of another lesser-known principle postulated by the same gentleman, called the Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. For anyone working in any organizational setting, this law will resonate very nicely.

Law Of Triviality

The Law of Triviality states that the amount of time people spend discussing an issue in an organization is inversely correlated to its fundamental importance in the scheme of things. Thus, major, complex issues get the least discussion while simple, minor ones get the most discussion.

This law goes by another name, “bike-shedding,” based on a story Parkinson is supposed to have told to illustrate the idea behind it. 

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

  1. A proposal for a $10 million Nuclear Power Plant.
  2. A proposal for a $350K Bike Shed.
  3. A proposal for a $21K annual coffee budget.

According to the law of triviality, the committee will spend the least time on the Nuclear Power Plant proposal and the most time on the $21K annual coffee budget. 

Why is this so?

Because the Nuclear Power Plant proposal is too advanced for anyone in the committee to get into the finer details and most members know very little about the topic in the first place. The one or two members who may know something don’t want to waste their time educating the other committee members. So the decision on this agenda gets deferred.  

The discussion then moves to the second item on the agenda- the Bike Shed. Here, all the committee members feel very comfortable voicing their opinions. Everyone knows what a Bike Shed is, and they are eager to show their involvement in the meeting. So they get into an active debate about the design, what materials, cost, etc., that might deliver some savings. The discussion on the Bike Shed goes on for far longer than the discussion on the nuclear power plant. 

By the time the discussion comes to the third item, the debate gets even more animated. The time spent discussing the coffee budget is more than the other two items combined. And, everyone walks out of this meeting feeling good. After all, everyone participated and contributed. 

Law Of The Trivial Manifests At An Individual Level Too

The Law of Triviality is a nice little metaphor to illustrate the strange tendency we have to spend more time on trivial matters while glossing over the important ones.

Some typical examples that I can think of.

  •  You are investing your hard-earned money into some stocks based on some tip from a friend with zero research vs. spending hours researching about the cheapest hotel to stay when going on a holiday.
  • The time you invest defining and reviewing your life goals vs. the time you spend planning a get-together with friends. 
  • Investing in personal development vs. getting busy with BAU and feeling productive at the end of the day.

Being aware of the Law Of Triviality will help you pull back from getting sucked into the trivial matters and remind you to consciously commit your time and attention to the things that truly matter.

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