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Are your meetings derailed by trivial matters?

4 min read


Have you ever noticed that committees or management teams tend to spend way too much time in meetings endlessly debating the most unimportant or mundane topics, while at the same time, not enough time on the most important or strategic issues?

Most of us have either led or participated in a meeting where this phenomenon has reared its ugly head. Most of the time we blame it on the leader’s lack of meeting planning and facilitation skills, or we blame it on our fellow team member’s low intellect or competence, or both. We cope by getting frustrated, or just checking out and hoping it’s all over when we come out of out the coma.

There’s been plenty written about how to prevent wasting time at meetings, and yes, well planned agendas, process, meeting facilitation and participation skills are ALL very important. However, my friend Alex tipped me off to something that I believe is vitally important for any leader to be aware of and could have a dramatic impact on how your team spends it’s time at meetings.

It’s called Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. PLOT, also known as bike-shedding or the bicycle-shed example, is C. Northcote Parkinson’s argument that organizations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. Parkinson demonstrated this by contrasting the triviality of the cost of building a bike shed with that of building an atomic reactor.

Way back in 1957, Parkinson used the example of a finance committee spending hardly any time approving the construction of a nuclear power station, then going on to spend hours debating the construction of a bike shed. Some of the reasons that he attributed to this behavior involved the nuclear power plant being very complicated and the average committee member being unable to understand the issues. As a result, the item received little discussion, and the committee “trusted” the experts.

There are few questions asked, as nobody wants to appear stupid by asking something that is blindingly obvious or makes them look ignorant. Building a bike shed, on the other hand, is something we can all understand, and committee members are more than happy to contribute anecdotes, opinions and ideas, usually at great length.

Just about everyone I’ve talked to since learning about PLOT can come up with plenty of examples in meetings in which PLOT came into play, including:

  • Marketing: Five minutes on the review of a new marketing brand strategy and 60 minutes on what to call the strategy.
  • HR: Five minutes on spiraling company health care costs survey and 90 minutes on the rules for an employee “fun committee.”
  • Facilities: Five minutes on the design of a $10 million HVAC system for a new building and two weeks selecting the artwork for the lobby.

So is there anything a leader can do to address Parkinson’s Law of Triviality and its negative consequences? Here are some ideas.

  1. Be aware of it. Now that you know about it, it should be easier to anticipate and deal with it.
  2. Make sure the rest of the team/committee is aware of it — share this blog post with your team or organization.
  3. Set time expectations and limits for every agenda item and stick to them.
  4. Be clear on where and how much participation is expected and desired — and where it is not.
  5. If an issue is complex, share information about the issue before the meeting so that participants can be prepared to discuss it.
  6. Assign trivial issues to individuals or small sub-teams, and empower them to implement without full team discussion or approval.
  7. Call it out if you think the discussion has fallen prey to PLOT (although, use tact if anyone, especially the boss, may feel the issue is very important and worth spending time on).
  8. Create “PLOTless” meeting agendas.
  9. If you’re the leader, exercise your decision making authority on the trivial stuff and leverage your team for the important decisions. Just make sure they are clear which decision-making method you are using for each item on the agenda.
  10. When all else fails, activate the fire alarm app on your smartphone and evacuate the building.

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire. He writes the award-winning leadership-development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBrief and a member of the SmartBrief on Workforce Advisory Board. E-mail McCarthy.

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