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Analysis | Bike sheds, biscuits and nuclear reactors

Meeting 3x2

Why do committees never get to the point?

A committee meets to discuss a new nuclear power station. On the agenda is the design for the main reactor building, a bike shed for the staff and refreshments for the next meeting.

Which item garners the most discussion? 

The answer – according to the satirical Parkinson’s Law of Triviality – is the refreshments. Then the bike shed. And then the reactor building.

Historian C. Northcote Parkinson invented his “law” almost 60 years ago, but his simple observation still applies today.

Parkinson claimed that people without specialist knowledge tend to avoid technical subjects in meetings, but are confident to devote extensive discussions to subjects they think they understand – such as what colour a bike shed should be.

We’ve probably all ridden a bike or used a bike shed.

And we can all squabble over Hobnobs, Digestives and Viennese Whirls.

Meanwhile, according to Parkinson, the one committee member with actual technical knowledge will remain silent from fear they will embarrass the other committee members for their ignorance.

Even an experienced engineer or manager will never have complete knowledge of their sector’s obscurities, so there’s always an opportunity for Parkinson’s Law to take effect.

It can happen in any industry. Software developers have adopted the term ‘bikeshedding’ to refer to meetings that prioritise trivial matters in program coding.

We live in a world that is ever more precisely planned, scheduled and organised.

A finger flick on a smart phone tells a manager where their colleagues really are. A Skype meeting can be convened with representatives from Hong Kong, Moscow, and London in a few minutes. Building information modelling (BIM) can provide greater clarity for all stakeholders across the project lifecycle.

What never changes are the unintended consequences that occur when humans try to work together. That’s why Parkinson is still relevant today.

Parkinson’s ghost was in the room last Tuesday (24 May) when MPs on the Energy and Climate Change Committee questioned representatives from EDF on the new Hinkley Point power station.

The MPs were keen to discuss the implications a Brexit might have for the project, and the potential impact from the French presidential election.

Only one raised concerns about difficulties at the Flamanville station already well under construction in France.

The politicians expended ample talk on what they understood – the Brexit and French politics – while paying less attention to the technical issues.

As it happens, Hinkley Point also fulfils Parkinson’s other famous law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”


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