The bike shed

29 March 2006 » Politics, Potpourri, Web development

I first heard about this concept a couple of months ago and thought it was a clever observation about human nature. In the past few weeks however, I’ve come to realize that it is, in fact, human nature in a nutshell. I have been subject to it more than a few times recently and find myself doing it to others.

At its heart, the bike shed meme – detailed in a book by C. Northcote Parkinson – encapsulates the idea that when one proposes a simple solution to a simple business problem, regardless of its merits, that solution will be critically analyzed and subject to eternal debate about how the problem can be better solved.

On the other hand, when one suggests a solution to a more complicated problem, the audience tends to accept the proposal because they have nothing to add or because they assume you are indeed correct.

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.

The moral of the story is this: Don’t be a hater.


2 Responses to 'The bike shed'

Subscribe to comments with RSS

  1. Jason said,

    09 April 2006 at 8:43 pm

    We’ve had hours worth of worthless meetings at work for the look of a form, but the function was done in minutes by one person.

  2. Andrew Mager said,

    21 September 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Dan, awesome post. I finally get what bikeshed means :)

Leave a Reply