“Organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.”
A corollary is that:
“The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.”
Parkinson's Law of Triviality, that organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues, was advanced by him as part of a satirical look at bureaucracies in his 1957 book Parkinson’s Law.
The example given by Parkinson to illustrate his concept is a finance committee's deliberations where there are 11 items on the agenda. Items 9, 10 and 11 on the agenda are a nuclear power plant at $10m (remember that this was in 1957), a bicycle shed at $2,350 and the budget for refreshments, $57 per year.
A nuclear reactor is so vastly expensive and complicated that people cannot understand it, so they assume that those working on it understand it. Even those with strong opinions might withhold them for fear of being shown to be insufficiently informed. The committee members don’t know what it is, what it does or why it costs so much. It gets passed with little discussion. Parkinson writes:
Allowing a few seconds for rustling of papers and unrolling diagrams, the time spent on Item Nine will have been just two minutes and a half. The meeting is going well. But some members feel uneasy about Item Nine. They wonder inwardly whether they have really been pulling their weight. It is too late to query that reactor scheme, but they would like to demonstrate, before the meeting ends, that they are alive to all that is going on.
In contrast, everyone understands what a bicycle is, what is does, what a bicycle shed is for. The committee debates such aspects as the best choice of roofing materials. Everyone involved wants to add his/her touch and show that he/she is there. According to Parkinson:
The debate is fairly launched. A sum of $2350 is well within everybody's comprehension. Everyone can visualise a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some $300. Members at length sit back with a feeling of achievement.
The final item is the yearly coffee budget at $57. The debate is so lengthy and acrimonious that no decision is able to be reached. Item 11 is pushed back to the next meeting.
Anyone who has ever dealt with local Councils, government bureaucracies and committees will relate to Parkinson’s Law of Triviality.
In 1999 Paoul-Henning Kamp referred to Parkinson’s Law of Triviality in an email post to a mailing list on the subject of software development problems. In it he said “A bike shed (any colour will do) on greener grass…”. Parkinson had not used a reference to colour in his original example but this has become increasingly identified with the principle, such that the Law of Triviality has now also become known as the “bike shed concept” and “the colour of the bike shed”.