Big Idea: Trivial Bikeshedding Management

Did you know that today is National Trivia Day* and 50 years ago (last Wednesday 5th February, 1965) trivia was invented? Well sort of true; a Columbia Spectatorarticle appeared on this day and used the term trivia to topics like,

  • Who played the Old Gypsy Woman in The Wolfman?
  • Answer: Maria Ouspenskaya (I did not know this either).

Columbia University students Ed Goodgold and Dan Carlinsky, who had proposed the new use of the term in their original article swiftly created the earliest inter-collegiate quiz bowls that tested culturally (and emotionally) significant yet essentially unimportant facts, which they dubbed trivia contests. The expression has also come to suggest information of the kind useful almost exclusively for answering quiz questions, hence the brand name Trivial Pursuit (1982).

The word originates from the Latin neuter noun trivium (plural trivia) is from tri- “triple” and via “way”, meaning a place where three ways meet. The word trivia was also used to describe a place where three roads met in Ancient Rome. Often misquoted with the comedic line that 2 are irrelevant (trivial) as only the one leading back to Rome is important. They did not, as some wag (Frank Skinner) suggested, pin pieces of rubbish information at these cross roads.

More accurately trivia are the three lower Artes Liberales: grammar, logic andrhetoric. These were the topics of basic education, foundational to the quadrivia of higher education, and hence the material of basic education and an important building block for all undergraduates. In management terms I came across Parkinson’s law of triviality on my MBA course years ago. It also known as ‘bikeshedding’ and was first described by C. Northcote Parkinson in 1957. His argument was that organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.

Parkinson observed and illustrated that a committee whose job is to approve plans for a nuclear power plant spent the majority of its time with pointless discussions on relatively trivial and unimportant but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike-shed, while neglecting the less-trivial proposed design of the nuclear power plant itself, which is far more important but also a far more difficult and complex task to criticise constructively. As he put it:

The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.

A reactor is used because it is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so one assumes that those that work on it understand it. On the other hand, everyone can visualise a cheap, simple bicycle shed, so planning one can result in endless discussions because everyone involved wants to add a touch and show personal contribution.

Thus bike shedding involves discussions about relatively unimportant issues which result in extensive debate. Know that feeling at many a management meetings?

It may be the result of individuals who wish to contribute feeling that they do not have the knowledge or expertise to contribute on more significant issues. Bike shedding can result in discussions that, whilst on-topic, nevertheless effectively drown out other discussions on more significant issues.

My top 7 favourite pieces of trivia are currently:

  1. On Good Friday in 1930, the BBC reported, “There is no news.” Instead, they played piano music.
  2. In the 1980s, Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel was spending $2,500 a month on rubber bands just to hold all their cash.
  3. M&M’s actually stands for “Mars & Murrie’s,” the last names of the candy’s founders.
  4. In 1907, an ad campaign for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes offered a free box of cereal to any woman who would wink at her grocer.
  5. The Arkansas School for the Deaf’s nickname is the Leopards.
  6. The Vatican Bank is the world’s only bank that allows ATM users to perform transactions in Latin.
  7. The unkempt Shaggy of Scooby-Doo fame has a rather proper real name of Norville Rogers.

*There is a National Trivia Day, but it is January 4th.

Be Amazing Every Day