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Nestlé, Phoenix water, the bicycle shed problem, and Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

A bicycle shed.

John Fleck explains how big and little problems can get tangled in one’s mind. His essay is called “Nestlé, Phoenix water, and the bicycle shed problem“:

“Back in my errant youth, when I worked as a volunteer documentation writer for the big free software GNOME project, I became intimately familiar with what we called ‘bicycle shed’ discussions, a shorthand drawn from the work of 1950s management scholar C. Northcote Parkinson [pictured below]. Here’s a nice short explanation:

Parkinson shows how you can go in to the board of directors and get approval for building a multi-million or even billion dollar atomic power plant, but if you want to build a bike shed you will be tangled up in endless discussions.

Parkinson explains that this is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far….

A bike shed on the other hand. Anyone can build one of those over a weekend, and still have time to watch the game on TV. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, somebody will seize the chance to show that he is doing his job, that he is paying attention, that he is *here*.

C. Northcote Parkinson.

“Sometimes also called “Parkinson’s law of triviality“, it’s popular among geeks and mostly applied to software development discussions. But it generalizes, a nice shorthand for why people attach to simple things they think they can understand and act on, while ignoring the more important but vast and complex. I get why bicycle shed discussions are inevitable. But that doesn’t mean they are not a problem.

“Here’s why, in the case of Phoenix and Nestlé.


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