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Trivial Pursuit: Why small decisions require so much attention

Taylor Otstot Dashlane
Taylor Otstot VP Finance at Dashlane

This article originally appeared on Tots blog. Thank you to Taylor for agreeing to share his work with our community.

The world is insane, with tiny spots of sanity here and there. Not the other way around. - John Cleese

You’re not crazy.

Maybe it was the all-day offsite about closing a multimillion-dollar budget gap, half of which was spent on a line item worth merely thousands. Or maybe it was the business review prep meeting where the entire hour was spent focused on the formatting of slide 10 (but don’t worry, we’ll grab time tomorrow to talk about the content of slide 10).

Maybe it was all of this.

At some point, it hits you that what’s going on around you seems so trivial. And yet, they’re still offering opinions. Debating minute details. Scheduling follow-ups.

This is a run-of-the-mill epiphany that so much time is spent on such little things.

No, you’re not crazy. We all are.

In his book, Parkinson’s Law, historian C. Northcote Parkinson coined his Law of Triviality:

The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.

You may have heard of this described as “bikeshedding,” a term that arose from his example of a fictional finance committee with three items to discuss:

  1. A $10 million nuclear reactor

  2. A $400 employee bike shed

  3. And $20 for employee refreshments in the breakroom

In Parkinson’s example, the nuclear reactor is approved immediately.

The bike shed, on the other hand, gets considerably more debate. Should it be wood or aluminium? Why a shed when a rack would suffice? How will the employees who ride unicycles be impacted?

Employee refreshments take up the remaining two-thirds of the meeting time. How many coffee options should be offered? Are chips and cookies sufficient, or do we have a moral responsibility to offer healthy snacks instead? What can be done to prevent Jane in Accounting from raiding the snack drawer on her way out the door?

You’re not crazy. Someone was so fed up with organizational nonsense that he wrote a book about it.

Parkinson’s book was published in 1957 and, yet, these absurdities continue to play out in our day-to-day lives. Why are we cursed to spend considerable time on inconsequential things?

There are a few factors at play:

  • We swap difficult questions for easy ones. In Definitely, Maybe, I wrote about our preference to operate on quick-thinking intuition (System 1) versus more resource-dependent deep thinking (System 2). One way this preference manifests itself is to swap a difficult question (should I invest in Ford stock?) with an easier one (do I like Ford cars?). We’re happy to have made a decision, and our brain is happy to have avoided a lot of work. We’re so good at this that we rarely notice the substitution.

  • We (usually) don’t know what we don’t know. We love to voice our opinions, so long as we’re confident enough to share them. The problem is our confidence doesn’t always correlate with our competence. The Dunning-Kruger Effect illustrates how our confidence is high when we know a lot about a subject, or we know so little that we don’t realize we know anything. We have to know enough about a subject to know we’re ignorant to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Given our predilection for shallow thinking, you can guess how often we end up in this Valley of Despair.

Dunning Kruger effect

Source: Wikipedia

  • We prefer the safety of the herd. As I discussed in my article They’re Only Chasing Safety, we prefer to go along with the herd if it reduces our chances of being singled out, even if that means delivering below-average results. Hard problems outside of a group’s circle of competence will naturally skew towards a consensus because, realistically, the boss can’t punish everyone. Easy problems, or those that we’re intimately familiar with, will naturally spur more debate because being silent in a broad discussion will only serve to single you out.

Putting it all together, let’s return to our fictitious finance committee example.

The nuclear reactor is approved immediately because the team knows they know nothing about nuclear power. With no one weighing in, there’s clearly consensus to avoid being fired for wasting $10 million, so they flip the harder question (should we do this?) to an easier question (is anyone opposing this?)—plenty of time for important things.

Or not…

The bike shed and refreshments get considerably more attention because the topics are easy to conceptualize. The committee members may have never built a bike shed, but they’re familiar enough with the materials and the concept to make a case that they know enough to speak up. Even if they can’t add value, each committee member feels compelled to weigh in because everyone else is talking. In this case, failing to talk singles you out as the only fool who doesn’t know anything about bike sheds or potato chips.

People will naturally gravitate towards the insignificant, but you can do things to reduce these trivial pursuits.

  • Provide a clear, focused agenda with desired outcomes ahead of time. It’s easy to wander off the path if you don’t know where you’re going. A clear agenda and desired outcomes enable questions like “Can you help me understand how this connects to the topic at hand?” and guide the conversation back.

  • Ground ideas in numbers. Sometimes the trivial topics gain traction because no one realizes how small they are. For as long as ideas stay ethereal, the emotional investment in the idea will outweigh its value. Shift the conversation from the idea to its impact. This forces the wanderer(s) to admit they don’t know the scale (in which case table until an analysis can be provided) or provide a number that the team can consider.

  • Consider the invite list. The more people present, the more likely a tangent will become a priority. If the intent of the meeting is to make a decision, consider who needs to be there decide versus who needs to be informed afterward and act accordingly.

  • Avoid the meeting altogether. There are no shortages of meetings that could have been an email. While email can lead to exhausting reply-all threads, the medium's asynchronous nature will allow for some space between voicing the idea and giving it momentum. Consider your objective and determine if a meeting is really the best way to solve it.

About the author

Taylor Otstot has more than 14 years' experience in finance and strategy leadership, including at GoDaddy, EY, and Spirit Realty Capital. Today he's VP Finance at Dashlane, providing simple password management for individuals and businesses.

Taylor is the author of Tots Blog, from which this post has been syndicated. Other excellent posts include: