The Law Of Triviality

The danger of wasting time and energy with details.

The law of triviality, also known as the "bicycle-shed effect", is the argument that within an organization, people typically give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. Decision-makers often spend considerable time on minor details while neglecting more important matters.

The most common example used to illustrate it is of a fictional committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant. Most of the committee's time was spent on discussions about minor but easy-to-grasp issues - such as what materials to use for the staff bicycle shed - while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is a far more important and complex task.

How does this apply to you, who's leading a consulting practice?

Last week a partner told me he spent an entire day designing a presentation for a client. He got bogged down in details such as what font to use or what color scheme would be most visually appealing. But are these really the most important considerations? I don't think so.

He spent 6 hours worrying about the design of a specific presentation, but didn't take 10 minutes to discuss with his partners if that presentation is really worth doing:

  • Is it going to help move the project forward with the client?
  • If yes, is it worth their time? Is the format right?
  • If yes, what's the best way to frame it?

Answering these types of questions will prevent you from getting caught up in trivial matters. Sure, a consistent identity design and attention to detail matter. But in this case, the presentation was the bicycle shed.

The design of the plant, or the big challenge for that partner, was to effectively communicate key ideas to his client. Maybe he didn't even need a formal presentation - a conversation followed by a 1-page status report, or a workshop where he actually show their work, would be more helpful for the client.

At its core, the law of triviality is about perception. When we are faced with a complex task, it can be daunting. We may not feel like we have the knowledge or expertise to make decisions about it. So, instead, we turn our attention to trivial details that we feel like we can control.

This is "single-issue thinking." By fixating on one small detail, we convince ourselves that we are making progress on a larger task when, in reality, we are not. Remember, you get no points for trying.

The next time you find yourself getting caught up in small details, ask yourself: Am I getting distracted with the bicycle shed, or is this really worth my time?

Thanks for reading. You can get more specialized and actionable growth insights for micro consultancies in our newsletter. Every Tuesday, you get one idea from Danilo, one quote from other experts, one number you need to hear, and one question for you to level up your consulting practice.

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