The expression was coined by C. Northcote Parkinson (30 July 1909 – 9 March 1993), who died 26 years ago. Parkinson was a profilic naval historian, author and academic, and was noted for his satirical writing in the 1950s, in particular, Parkinson’s Law1, which became a bestseller in the USA and the UK, capturing a certain zeitgeist of anti-bureaucratic sentiment. The Parkinson’s Law of the book title is precisely stated as “Work expands so as to fill the time available.” Although intended humorously as a criticism of mismanagement, as with all satire, there was sufficient truth in the description for it to strike a chord.
Parkinson proposed various other related axioms, one of which is his Law of Triviality, which states that members of an organisation give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. The term “bikeshedding” comes from a description of a fictional finance committee meeting that devotes an inordinate amount of time to discussion of a proposal to build a bicycle shed, while giving little time to other far more important items on the agenda. The expression has been particularly popular in software development contexts over recent years.
In academic and business contexts, there are various related concepts, all of which describe sub-optimum performance, in impeding others and oneself from getting things done. Here is a selection:
- Busywork. This is work that usually appears productive or of intrinsic value but actually only keeps one occupied. (Merriam-Webster)
- Dunning–Kruger effect. This refers to the cognitive bias of people of low ability, who on account of their illusory superiority mistakenly believe that their cognitive ability is greater than it really is.
- Fredkin’s paradox. “The more equally attractive two alternatives seem, the harder it can be to choose between them—no matter that, to the same degree, the choice can only matter less.” In other words, we often spend most time on the least important decisions.
- Hofstadter’s law. It always takes longer than you expect.
- Peter principle. Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.
- Procrastination. Putting things off till tomorrow, on a vaiety of pretexts, is a common way of wasting time.
To this day Parkinson is revered as something of a management and public administration guru, and on the occasion of the anniversary of his death, I offer this brief homage to him. Happy bikeshedding!
1 Parkinson, C. N., & Osborn, R. C. (1957). Parkinson’s law, and other studies in administration (Vol. 24). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.