The Law of Triviality…

Ever been in a meeting where some jackass wastes everyone’s time with trivial arguments? Just happened to me at a recent HOA (Home Owner’s Association) meeting. Thus, this blog post…

As consultants, it is often our job to keep meetings on track and to keep clients focused on the important issues — not the trivial.

This is not a new business problem. Way back in 1957, C. Northcote Parkinson coined Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, or PLOT. This is the same Parkinson who created the more general Parkinson’s Law. In essence, PLOT says:

People argue most about the things that matter least.

Also known as the “bikeshedding,” Parkinson observed organizations give undue weight and attention to trivial issues. He demonstrated this with two examples: the cost to build a bicycle shed, versus the cost to build a nuclear reactor. While experts on reactors are rare, everyone feels knowledgable about building a shed.

Thus, minutes may be spent on a critical decision on the reactor, but hours may be spent on trivial decisions on the shed. Not only that, the less informed often feel the need to compensate for their reactor-ignorance by spouting off on their shed-expertise – trivial though it may be.

So how does one handle that as a consultant? 

Robert’s Rules of Order can help. But even when following RRO, so here are some additional suggestions:

–Have a printed agenda – If somebody goes off topic, gently bring them back by pointing to the agenda

–Send the agenda in advance – Insist that attendees review the materials ahead of time.

Resolve in advance –  If issues can be resolved off-line, do so and report the results.

Highlight decisions that need to be made – This keeps the focus on the important issues.

Limit speaking time – If someone blathers on, politely shut them off. (I suggest three minutes, but be flexible.)

Ask why – This is particularly useful if someone want to ramble on about “sheds.” Ask “why is this relevant?” or “why are we spending valuable time on this?”

 Does all this work?

Much of the time, but not all of the time. But my asking “why” shut down a showboater at our recent HOA meeting. She was upset, and let me know, but several attendees thanked me later for politely cutting her off.

Finally, if you are running a meeting (or even just attending), remember Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. Don’t let some ignorant jackass spout off about bike sheds.

P.S. Here is Parkinson’s better known law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

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