Is Unconscious Bias Breaking a Productivity Law?

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We have often heard the term “unconscious bias” as something that adversely affects decision making in relation to people.  Is unconscious bias also affecting your productivity?  Your unconscious bias may be breaking Parkinson’s Law of Triviality.

Unconscious Bias and Change

We know our brain is wired up to short-cut many things.  We use stereotyping to clump complex concepts together to make decision making faster and less taxing on our calorie burning brain.  We are semi-hard wired to make fast decisions and keep things predictable.  This drive to keep things predictable makes change hard.   Parkinson’s Law of Triviality kicks in when we need to deal with complex issues and change.  Parkinson came to call this “bike-shedding”.


How did it get the weird name “bike-shedding”?   Parkinson saw that people (groups and individuals) tend to focus a disproportionate amount of time to trivial issues and details.  In Parkinson’s original example this was a committee designing a nuclear power plant.  The committee spent an enormous amount of time on the location and colour of the bike shed.  I am hoping this was an imaginary scenario used for illustrative purposes!
Think about our unconscious bias against change and action.  Bike-shedding gives us a chance to create the illusion of change whilst preserving the status quo.  Think about meetings or workshops where the subject is the change in direction of an entire business.   The group may get distracted by:
  • Deep and lengthy discussions on logos and colours
  • A trivial engineering or technology issue that is two or three levels below that needed in the discussion
  • A rumour heard about a competitor and then a lengthy discussion on whether it is true or not
  • Which method to use to measure ROI
  • What format will we use for communication with employees
  • Data that will need to be collected before a decision can be taken
You can fill out the list yourself for your own circumstances.  These issues get attention because of our very strong unconscious bias towards stability coupled with the need for ‘everyone’ to lend their expertise to the problem-solving.  We end up with very complex, wasteful solutions.  Simplicity is not a simple thing.  It requires effort, thought and leadership.

Five Actions to Stop Bike Shedding

The first step is acknowledging the problem and calling out ‘bike-shedding’ .  This requires a high level of trust and sense of safety in the team.  It also requires a shared understanding of the bigger, more complex issue causing the bike-shedding behaviour in the team.   Preventative measures to prevent bike-shedding are:Facilitation Workshop Unconscious Bias
  1. Problem definition statement:  what are trying to solve for?  Spend time setting up the scope of the problem so you don’t start introducing bike sheds.
  2. Create a Parking Lot:  If working in a group then create a formal parking lot to note issues that are out of scope and allow the group to move on as these ideas are acknowledged and noted.  The Parking Lot is typically a poster or whiteboard in the corner of the room.  If you are working alone then consider Post-It notes or a separate working pad as your Parking Lot
  3. Agree that Subject Matters Experts will problem solve outside the room after the problem / opportunity is defined:  Experts will naturally dive into their area of expertise.  This reminds me of two things I was told on separate occasions.  Firstly, large teams identify problems and small teams solve them.  Secondly,  experts on tap but never on top.
  4. Use an external facilitator or coach who can ask “clean questions” and meaningfully challenge you and the team
  5. Ask frequently:
    • What are possible consequences if we get x aspect wrong?  What happens to the nuclear power station of the bike shed is the wrong colour?  
    • How is this issues aligned to the bigger goal?
    • Will this decision matter in a month, a year or 10 years?
    • How easily is the decision reversed?
    • Establish goals, then measures and then targets as the strategy takes shape.
    • Have we got a team with genuine diversity of thought?
We know that over 70% of a typical project cost is incurred in the design phase and not discovered until reversal or remediation costs are massive.  This often happens because of our unconscious bias towards stability and focusing on the trivial.  Unconscious bias is a tool that saves us time and brain energy.  We sometimes need to bring our biases to our conscious mind to avoid costly mistakes and manage our own change effort.  Understanding your unconscious bias is critical in creating genuine diversity of thought. However, unconscious bias may also be impacting you ability to lead change initiatives other than diversity.
Bike shedding is a symptom of our unconscious bias at work and we need to bring our consciousness and intellect to bear to create simplicity.
Here is a short explainer video of bike shedding and more ideas on managing meeting bike shedding.

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Foresight HR

Foresight HR

Foresight HR helps businesses improve their productivity, culture & performance to deliver sustained bottom line results.

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