The Law of Triviality

The Law of Triviality

As the meeting started (late) we began to go over deep dive topics that were meant to bring attention to different positive and negative project trends within the group.  Rarely would we get past the first couple of slides.  We would jump from one trivial topic to the next, ultimately the meetings were an ineffective use of time.

IT Services and Project Management
  1. Don’t be afraid to dive into the complexities behind a topic, even if it means revealing to your subordinates that you don't fully understand what they do or why they do it.
  2. Do develop a culture that welcomes honestly and frankness, let go of the ego - nobody likes a bully.
  3. Take a hard look at the re-occurring meetings you have in place today, are they effective and accomplishing their intended purposes?

The Full Scoop

In a boardroom far, far away - I was sitting with a number of managers waiting for an executive leader to arrive to a governance meeting.  The meeting often started late or not at all, but a lot of fear and worry went into this seemingly insignificant meeting each month.

I call it a seemingly insignificant meeting because nothing of value tended to occur during the meeting, it was supposed to be an opportunity to give executive management the chance to hear what was really occurring within the group; this rarely occurred.  Rather it was a painful check-box item during the month that had to happen, the ability of those in attendance to turn it into a positive experience was limited by the autocratic management style of the executive team.

As the meeting started (late) we began to go over deep dive topics that were meant to bring attention to different positive and negative project trends within the group.  Rarely would we get past the first couple of slides.  We would jump from one trivial topic to the next, ultimately the meetings were an ineffective use of time.  The attitude was corrosive and intimating, management was fearful of the executive team and spent the majority of the meeting either silent or practicing the art of saying as little as humanly possible (unfortunately, often a very good idea).

The proper definition of a word or phase, a status request meant to catch a subordinate off guard, an update on an item that everyone knew would never get accomplished but seemed to be of special interest to the executive team; rarely did we stay on topic and rarely was a true and transparent report given.  We had an agenda but the executive team typically had "their" agenda, heaven forbid we allow subordinates to give an accurate and frank report for the month.

On the plus side, at least the conversation was easy to follow.  If you're going to waste your time for an hour, and you have no choice in the matter, at least a basic understanding of grade school social norms and survival will buy you 15 more minutes until the meeting ends.  Just smile and nod.  It would have been much more difficult to accurately explain why a project was behind schedule; are the right resources engaged and responding to requests, is their management supportive, do we have resources available to take on the project, is our timeline realistic, technology gaps, etc.

One explanation for this is referred to as Parkinson's law of Triviality.  A man named C. Northcote Parkinson was a British naval historian.  In 1957 he made the argument that members within an organisation will "give disproportionate weight to trivial issues".

He observed that a committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant spent the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike-shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important but also a far more difficult and complex task.

This has come to be known as bikeshedding.  The short version is, people will focus on what they can understand - not necessarily what is important, especially if the topic is complex.

It is much easier to debate the correct definition of an industry phrase or ask for feedback on an urgent (albeit not important) trending topic, than to really dive into why a particular project is months behind schedule.  If you don't understand the technology or industry at the executive level, many will indirectly feel they need to drive the conversation down a path they can understand.

For managers it is important to know what is really occurring within the teams that report to them, not to get stuck on trivial topics that will be easy for you to understand - but result in no actionable change.  This will only occur when there is a level of trust that allows for open and effective dialog.  Do your employees feel they can speak up without retribution?  Can they approach you when a difficult situation arises?  Do they feel afraid of how you may react when less than positive information needs to be communicated?

If you don't know or don't care, you might as well cancel those re-occurring governance update meetings with your direct reports.  The meetings may in fact be nothing more than an hour long tap dance from your employees, by letting you keep the topics simple they'll avoid needing to have the hard complex discussions that would allow for an open and effectively discussion on the true state of your organisation.