Why Simple Problems Are Often the Hardest to Solve

According to the "bike shed effect," people waste time on trivial issues.

Posted Dec 28, 2019

Ryan McGuire/Gratisography
Ever been stuck in an endless meeting?
Source: Ryan McGuire/Gratisography

Ever been stuck in an endless meeting? The kind that makes you want to bang your head against a wall and (even though you resist the temptation) always leaves you with a headache?

Well, I’ve certainly been there. I recently attended a work meeting scheduled to take two and a half hours, but it ultimately lasted 40 minutes longer. We started off with an ambitious agenda of 26 items, but never made it to the end of our list. Instead, we got stuck at Item #8 and engaged in a detailed but ultimately fruitless discussion that lasted 90 minutes and meant I missed my after-work yoga class.

A curious reader may wonder why Item #8 merited such a lengthy debate. And trust me, so did I! It was neither important nor particularly complex. In fact, it was rather trivial. So why did a room full of clever people waste their time discussing trivial matters? Agenda Item #8 was our version of the “bike shed problem!”

The bike shed effect

Also referred to as the Law of Triviality, the bike shed effect describes the all-too-common situation where “the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the complexity of the topic.” Put into plain English, this means that the simpler an issue, the more debate it attracts.

The bike shed effect is deeply counterintuitive and explanations are typically illustrated by the example story of a managerial committee meeting. In the example, a group of senior managers only take minutes to approve the controversial construction of a nuclear power plant, but spend hours on a draining discussion about the company’s new bike shed. Indeed, they engage in a nit-picking debate over different colour options for painting the shed. Anthracite grey or duck egg blue? And how about a bright shade of atomic tangerine to highlight the entrance gate? It is possible that the managers’ lengthy debate reflected well-meaning concern for company aesthetics. However, its ultimate usefulness was questionable.

Now that we’ve named the surprising phenomenon, let’s turn to its explanation. Why are simple problems often so much harder to solve than complex ones?

The crux of “simple” problems

The unexpected difficulty of seemingly simple problems is rooted in a number of additional problem aspects.

1. The solution seems too easy.

Many decision makers have a tendency to overthink simple tasks and second-guess their initial responses. In extreme situations, this may lead to endless procrastination, disproportionate worry and – as a result – lengthy discussion.

2. The solution is subjective.

Another aspect contributing to unnecessary debate is the lack of an objectively optimal choice or a formal framework to guide decision making. The selection of a colour, for example, is a highly personal one and every decision maker is likely to have different preferences. Unless there is company guidance (e.g., based on a corporate colour scheme), there is no systematic way to compare different colour options, identify an objective solution, and bring the discussion to an end.

3. The problem is common.

The bike shed effect is heightened if the problem is common. Thinking back to the example committee meeting, all managers were likely to have previously encountered a task similar to choosing a colour for the bike shed. In fact, anybody who’s ever picked the colour of a garment, accessory, paint or floor tiles should be able to relate to the task, thus feeling qualified (and motivated) to get involved in a detailed discussion.

4. It’s easy to have an opinion.

Given the problem’s simplicity, it’s easy to have an opinion and formulate an argument. After all, anybody can voice a personal colour preference (e.g., “I like orange because blue makes me feel sad”) without requiring a logical argument or scientific evidence to back up the statement. With subjective viewpoints therefore likely to dominate the conversation, simple problems make ideal topics for passionate, long-winded discussions.

5. There is plenty of time.

Finally, flexibility in the meeting schedule can tempt people to throw themselves into unnecessary discussions. According to Professor Parkinson, who first described the Law of Triviality, any task can take up the time it has been allocated. Hence, if people know they’ve got another couple of hours to go in a meeting, a single agenda item can easily be stretched to cover the time slot.

How to approach simple problems

The bike shed effect is surprisingly pervasive, but it can be overcome following a simple strategy of prioritisation, planning, and strict time keeping. By prioritising important topics and putting them first on the agenda, it is possible to ensure that all essential issues are addressed in the meeting.

Additionally, it can be helpful to identify potential bike shed problems by considering the checklist of problem aspects described above. A detailed plan of the meeting schedule can serve to set maximum time allocations for each topic, and an assertive meeting chair can help to reinforce the planned timeslots.

Overall, a sense of focus and concentration can go a long way in mitigating the effects of simple, yet oh-so-tricky bike shed problems, and my personal favourite for creating this mental clarity is the hand-tossing brain-booster move demonstrated in this fabulous quick yoga class by Yoga With Adriene. And while yoga is unlikely to help you pick a colour, a stimulating practice might be just what you need to put a trivial problem into perspective.

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