Bikeshedding

Email guidelines

When you join any new organisation, there’s jargon terms that you need to get up-to-speed on. These are often acronyms or shorthands to people within a defined community. At Mozilla, a term I heard a lot was “bikeshedding”. I didn’t really know what I meant, so I asked.

In a nutshell, and as explained here, the concept comes from a book called Parkinson’s Law:

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. Richard P. Feynmann [sic] gives a couple of interesting, and very much to the point, examples relating to Los Alamos in his books.

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*.

In Denmark we call it “setting your fingerprint”. It is about personal pride and prestige, it is about being able to point somewhere and say “There! *I* did that.” It is a strong trait in politicians, but present in most people given the chance. Just think about footsteps in wet cement.

It’s a useful concept to bear in mind, but even more useful would be an email program that implemented the prompts the author suggests — see the image at the top of this post!