Bikeshedding - CodeProject


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I learned a new term today, bikeshedding. After reading about this term, I reached clarity regarding a number of phenomena that I have experienced as a software developer. This term is an example of Parkinson's law of triviality, which was defined by, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, in one of his books, Parkinson's Law: The Pursuit of Progress (1958).

Parkinson's law of triviality:
The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.

Parkinson's Law

The law of triviality is actually only a corollary to the broader adage, Parkinson's Law, which I am almost certain that you have heard before:

Parkinson's Law:
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

This book is a series of cynical essays that satirizes government bureaucracies and their tendency to increase in size over time, until they eventually become irrelevant. Parkinson's law of triviality is an example of a committee's deliberations for the expenses of a nuclear power plant, a bicycle shed and refreshments.


Why is it called bikeshedding?

Parkinson dramatizes the committee's discussion, and selected a nuclear reactor because of its vast difference in complexity and expense compared to the bicycle shed. A nuclear reactor is so complex that the average person cannot completely understand it. Contrast this with the relative simplicity of a bike shed. Anyone can visualize a bike shed, and therefore anyone that wants to contribute will add suggestions to show their participation.

Simpler topics will elicit more discussion and debate. Agreement is hardest to achieve for simpler technical problems or organizational topics that can be argued indefinitely.

The Agenda

Let's return to the dramatization of the committee's discussion. Here are the results for each of the three topics:

  1. The contract for the reactor with a cost of £10 million passes in two and a half minutes because it is too complex and technical.
  2. The bicycle shed costs £350 and the discussion lasts forty-five minutes as everyone in the committee can grasp the number £350. Also, the shed is simple enough that each member has an opinion regarding the building materials and the possibility of saving £50. They are all pleased with themselves with this item concluded.
  3. Finally, a discussion regarding £21 for the yearly supply of refreshments takes seventy-five minutes. The conclusion is to as the Secretary to gather more information and they will resolve this issue in the next meeting.

There is a funny email on The Internet called, Why Should I Care What Color the Bikeshed Is?[^] written by, Poul-Henning Kamp. He prefaces the email with this summary:

The really, really short answer is that you should not. The somewhat longer answer is that just because you are capable of building a bikeshed does not mean you should stop others from building one just because you do not like the color they plan to paint it. This is a metaphor indicating that you need not argue about every little feature just because you know enough to do so. Some people have commented that the amount of noise generated by a change is inversely proportional to the complexity of the change.


What sort of clarity did I find? A few months ago, I wrote a few entries regarding software design patterns. I briefly mentioned the commonly vilified Singleton and promised to follow up with a more detailed exploration of the Singleton. While collecting my thoughts and determining what I wanted to say about the Singleton, I experienced The Singleton Induced Epiphany[^].

I have always had a hard time understanding why so many developers are quick to criticize this design pattern, and I have heard very few criticisms of any other software design pattern. I reached two conclusions by the end of that post:

  1. The majority of the arguments against the Singleton are criticisms about the languages used to implement the Singleton. For instance, up until recently C++ did not have a construct built into the language to be able to create a portable and thread-safe implementation of the Singleton, and therefore the Singleton is bad.
  2. The Singleton is the simplest design pattern, and most likely the only design pattern that everyone understands completely. Therefore, it is the only design pattern everyone feels comfortable arguing about.

At the time, I was unaware that a very succinct term existed to describe the phenomenon that I observed, and now I know that it is called bikeshedding.


Now that you know of bikeshedding, you should be able to recognize this phenomenon. You can then start to curb the pointless discussions about the minutiae and redirect everyone's time and attention to the more important and technical discussions at hand.