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🕺 Let's Get Trivial 💃
⚛️ Parkinson’s Law of the Little Table ⚛️
"A lot of people don't do well simply because they major in minor things." -Jim Rohn
Six years ago, Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, Ohio, made an incredible video for Purim entitled “The Little Table.” If you haven’t seen it, you should:
“The Little Table” tells the story of a synagogue board that is so dysfunctional that it cannot even buy a small table for its lobby. I cannot decide if it’s incredibly hilarious or sad, but perhaps the answer is both simultaneously.
Join the Revolution
Attention to detail is a funny thing. On the one hand, I never met a great leader who was not attentive to detail, even details others are inclined to ignore. At the same time, how is it that some groups spend all their time on the wrong details?
Perhaps you think that fighting over a table is ridiculous. Your organization would NEVER succumb to that kind of trivial pursuit (pun intended).
Let’s raise the stakes and pretend we are building a nuclear power plant.
I know nothing about nuclear physics, although perhaps more than Homer Simpson (which I suppose is scary):
However, I know enough to understand that building a nuclear power plant requires robust academic knowledge and high technical precision. And, of course, the stakes of doing a good job are incredibly high.
So what if I told you that most of our first committee meeting was spent deciding what color to paint the bike shed where staff members can park their bikes?
Presumably, you would think this committee should be fired en masse.
And yet, let’s change our example and pretend we are not building a nuclear power plant but are the local synagogue board of directors or a fundraising committee that never seems to fundraise. Could we imagine these committees spending an inordinate amount of time debating the finer points of the equivalent of the color of this nuclear power plant’s bikeshed?
I imagine you are saying to yourself, “Josh, I don’t need to imagine it. I live with this dysfunction EVERY SINGLE DAY.”
Of course, you do, so welcome to Parkinson’s Law of Triviality!
Also known as “bikeshedding” in honor of the nuclear power plant’s bikeshed, historian C. Northcote Parkinson develops what becomes known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality in his 1957 book Parkinson’s Law or the Pursuit of Progress. Parkinson’s book includes the above case study about the nuclear power plant and describes how while it might seem absurd that people working on something so critical would spend their time on something trivial, it is unsurprising. Every one of us has been there before, and raising the stakes of the group’s work does not automatically result in time being used well.
(Except when filling out TPS reports.)
Many aspects of human nature lie at the heart of Parkinson’s analysis, but my favorite is what this example says about knowledge and comfort level. In Parkinson’s example, a nuclear power plant involves a level of expertise that most people do not possess; as a result, while the committee might be present to read detailed proposals on centrifuges and safety regulations, most people will not have an opinion about those matters because they do not know much about them.
But what do they know about?
In other words, one of the reasons committees focus on trivial matters is that there is a gap in knowledge about the heart of the matter that people may not be willing to acknowledge. And this provides a sensible, albeit troubling, answer for why so many committees focused on critical issues focus on largely insignificant minutiae and delude themselves into believing they are productive:
Why would a board of directors spend more time debating one word in a mission statement than doing outreach and recruitment to underserved Jewish communities?
Why would a fundraising team spend more time complaining about their CRM than soliciting donors?
And why would synagogue board members spend more time hearing someone gripe about the rabbi not saying hello to them instead of building a leadership pipeline?
In each case, one key answer is that these groups of people focus on something trivial because they lack the knowledge or skills to focus on something meaningful, thereby making focusing on the trivial a clever avoidance tactic.
But remember: Avoidance does not necessarily mean incompetence. More likely, these groups are focusing on trivial matters because they are insecure about learning how to focus on meaningful ones. Effective leaders help people learn what they need to lead effectively, thereby focusing on what really matters.
Who Gets What and Why
Parkinson’s Law reminds me of the danger of people feeling embarrassed to admit what they do not know. And while the consequences of arguing about paint colors or table sizes can seem small, Parkinson’s case study of the nuclear plant demonstrates that those same insecurities come into play when groups make highly important and consequential decisions.
Economist Alvin Roth analyzes this topic in Who Gets What and Why, exploring market design and the best ways to make decisions about distributing scarce resources. Roth’s greatest accomplishment was improving patients' ability to find the right kidney donor, which is certainly of incredible importance. And yet Roth expands his original work to analyze other market decisions.
Roth wants the reader to understand that “the design of markets…is an ancient human activity, older than agriculture.”And markets appear everywhere, everything from online dating to deciding who gets which office when an organization changes headquarters. Roth’s book explores all of these markets and more.
While Roth makes no reference to Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, it’s important to link these concepts because what they share in common is a focus on how a bad process leads to bad results.
Some of us may dislike organizations that have intricate and time-consuming processes to make key decisions, like a federation’s allocation process or receiving funding from the Israeli government. However, these processes are designed to regulate the market of resources that will affect the Jewish people. And while market design can always be improved, it’s better to attempt to design a fair market than not try.
In our case, if we assume that many of our professional or lay committees are bad at making even trivial decisions, how well do you think they will make decisions that have major consequences, like a rabbi search committee, a grant allocation process, or doing a performance review of a CEO? These decisions are also markets because they are part of a larger ecosystem. We need to do a better job tending to that ecosystem by thinking through how large and small decisions get made.
By the Way…
Alvin Roth Won the Nobel Prize in Economics.
How Not to Let Your Job Define You: Careers are an important part of a person’s identity, yet there is more conversation than ever about what it means not to make one’s career the sum total of their identity. Here’s a new book on the subject I look forward to reviewing.
When Good Incentives Lead to Bad Decisions: Economics is the study of incentives, but incentives are value-neutral, and just because we give a good incentive does not mean it results in good decisions. Read this introduction to learn more.
Movement Economies: As we’ve learned before, the ability to engage people and foster social capital is an under-discussed form of organizational wealth. This piece in the Nonprofit Quarterly is a fantastic discussion about the economics of dynamic social movements.
Weight-Based Discrimination in the Workplace is Real: More continues to be written about this subject, and thanks to reader Aviva Baskin for sharing this article on LinkedIn. Important read.
Reality is a Controlled Hallucination: As artificial intelligence continues to remain in the public conversation, we all need to learn more about the idea of consciousness, how our brains perceive reality, and our place in it. Here is an interview with Anil Seth to help get us started.
Some of you may be familiar with Parkinson’s law, and the idea that work somehow magically expands to fit the amount of time allotted for it (kind of like luggage). Anyone who ever attended a meeting where the facilitator started off by saying, “Well, this should be a quick meeting,” only to find that nothing was accomplished two hours later is nodding glumly…
This idea is from Parkinson, but I wanted to focus on the bikeshedding element of Parkinson’s law because it provides a tangible example of how this relates to our everyday work.
Alvin E. Roth, Who Gets What — And Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design (Boston: Mariner Books, 2015), 220.
Yes, that is also a market.