Parkinson’s Law of Law of Triviality states that ‘people within an organisation commonly give disproportionate weight to trivial issues’
Supported by behavioural research, the law notes that people tend to spend more time on small decisions than they should, and less time on big decisions than they should.
‘Bikeshedding’ is another common term for wasting time and energy on more trivial details than addressing important matters. That term originates from Parkinson’s observation of a committee organised to approve plans for a nuclear power plant. As Parkinson noted, the committee devoted a disproportionate amount of time to relatively unimportant details—such as the materials for a bicycle storage shed—which limited the time available to focus on the design of the nuclear plant.
This sounds absurd right?
But in truth, we have all experienced examples of people focussing on the smaller details because they are easier to understand than are the more complex matters.
The law of triviality has many implications across the daily activities in a business – not least project planning and management.
It is interesting to consider this quirk of human behaviour in the related context of Groupthink – where, ironically, as groups experience more internal unity the risk of groupthink increases; people don’t want to make waves that might jeopardise that feeling of belonging.
Makes team building seem a bit more complex, doesn’t it?
When thinking about this in the light of projects, it is interesting to consider that in all cases of failed projects we know at least one person knew of the fundamental issues in the project.
One project gone wrong often discussed is that of the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded on January 28, 1986 – 73 seconds after launch.
The cause was a leak in one of the two solid rocket boosters that set off the main liquid fuel tank. The NASA investigation that followed said the failure was due to a faulty designed O-ring seal and the cold weather at launch, which allowed for the leak.
But it was not only a technical error that NASA discovered, but human error. NASA officials went ahead with the launch even though engineers were concerned about the safety of the project. The engineers noted the risk of the O-ring, but their communications never travelled up to top managers who could have delayed the launch to ensure the safety of the mission and its astronauts.
The true details may never be known, but can you imagine the pressure on team members to keep that launch going?
Failure is an unavoidable part of any project process: it’s the degree of failure that makes the difference. If a task fails, there are ways to reallocate resources and get back on track. But a systemic collapse will derail the whole project.
Is there a role here for a ‘devil’s advocate’ – or a ‘Tenth Man’?
Popularised in the movie ‘World War Z’, the concept of the ‘Tenth Man’ derives from one country’s military and states that if there are 10 people in a room and nine agree, the role of the tenth is to disagree and point out flaws in whatever decision the group has reached. The key point is that carrying out that task is the ‘Tenth Man’s’ job – essentially protecting them from the political and social fall-out of ‘disagreeing’.
The ‘Tenth Man’s’ job is to challenge conventional and received wisdom. The aim is to look at things creatively, independently, and from a fresh perspective, to engage actively with and to reconsider the status quo.
The task of the ‘Tenth Man’ is to explore alternative assumptions and worst-case scenarios, and they can do so without fear of damage to their careers. Can the same data used to support one conclusion also be used to support another?
How about combining a few of these ideas?
Let’s take responding to an RFx.
At Plan A we pride ourselves on our nearly 20 years’ experience refining how to go about winning tenders. This is not ‘just about writing’. Yes, translating technical content into winning content tender evaluators can understand and line up with the objectives and risk mitigations that concern them is critical, but the success or otherwise of many tender submissions actually turns on strategy—and nailing the right win themes.
When a group of your people sit around the table for a tender kick-off meeting, how do you avoid Groupthink? What happens if an overbearing Head Office is there helping?
Who plays the role of ‘Tenth Man’ in your business?
Often Plan A consultants take on that challenging, devil’s advocate type role, but we have the advantage of being experts brought in from the outside, and we embrace providing ‘accurate counsel’ as part of our service.
But remember, if you task a person with the role of challenger, or being the ‘Tenth Man’, that is what you are paying them for, so don’t shoot the messenger!