Bikeshedding. What’s that?
If you’ve ever bought a car, you know the process can be excruciating. Particularly at the end.
Once you’re at the negotiating table, everyone starts playing games. The salesperson has to “talk to their manager” 17 times. The manager comes out to close you. And even though you’re talking about spending what could be a year’s worth of your mortgage on a car, you’re negotiating a few hundred dollars in trade in value. You’re willing to walk away over that amount of money, even though you’ve agreed to the purchase price of the new vehicle. Because, dammit your old car is worth more than they’re giving you.
What’s happening here? It’s what C. Northcote Parkinson labeled The Law of Triviality, a.k.a. “bikeshedding.”
C. Northcote who?
Cyril Northcote Parkinson (spoiler alert – he’s British) was a naval historian who wrote, in 1957, “Parkinson’s law and Other Studies in Administration.” There are two famous ideas that came out of that book:
1) Parkinson’s Law – “work expands as so to fill the time available for its completion.” Ever sit through an hour meeting that could have been 15 minutes, or even an email? But you’re in the room (or on the zoom),
2) The Law of Triviality: “[The] time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.”Put another way (this was written by a British guy in the 50s), the more expensive or complex something is, the less time we’ll spend on it.
Let’s focus on the Law of Triviality. To illustrate why this happens, Parkinson describes a committee meeting where 11 men (because the 50s) are discussing the budget for an atomic reactor:
The $10M (~$90M in today’s dollars) reactor only takes a couple of minutes to approve – most of the men don’t know what a reactor is or what it should cost, so they take the expert opinion more or less at face value.
The $2,350 (~$20K in today’s dollars) bike shed is discussed for 45 minutes, including a debate about whether the roof should be made out of aluminum and asbestos (also because the 50s). This conversation could save, at most, a whopping $300 (~$2,700 today), and “members at length sit back with a feeling of achievement.”
Finally, the committee argues for an hour and a half about buying coffee for future meetings, for a grand total of $57 (less than $500 today). They can’t come to a conclusion, so they agree to do more research and talk about it later.
What happened here? Why so much time on the trivial matters? Because they’re topics and amounts of money that people can wrap their heads around.
The amount of money for the reactor is too much for the committee to wrap their head around, plus they don’t really understand the topic, so there’s not much to debate.
People know a bit about sheds and roofing, and the shed is an amount of money that people can wrap their heads around. So it gets more debate – it’s easier to talk about. Even though it costs less than 0.02% of the reactor.
Finally, coffee is cheap and well understood by most, plus it’s a relatively trivial amount of money (especially in the scheme of the project).
Let’s revisit our call example. Once you’ve agreed to spend the purchase price of the car, it’s a lot easier ignore the fact that you’re on the hook for 5 years of payments, and instead focus on the fact that your used car is worth more than the dealer wants to give you (let’s put aside the cognitive bias of the endowment effect – or when we want more money to give something up than we would pay to acquire it).
That, my friends, is the law of triviality, or bikeshedding at work. You argue over the cost of the bike shed, not the reactor. The trade-in, not the purchase price. Because it makes sense.
What does Bikeshedding have to do with demos or presentations?
When you’re selling software – in particular, enterprise software, there can be hundreds of criteria that your client has to make their decision (I’m not being hyperbolic here – I’ve answered RFPs with north of 500 questions). This can be overwhelming to everyone, both on the buying and selling side.
A lot of sales experts would tell you to “take control of the conversation” and keep the client on task. I actually take the opposite view. People are going to bikeshead. Trying to stop it is like trying to stop them from scratching an itch. So instead of stopping them, support them as they do it. And try to understand why the main decision is overwhelming.
For example, let’s say you’re selling enterprise software, and IT is focusing on a relatively trivial item on a requirements document. Well, that IT person may be actually worried that your software is going to make their job harder – or that it could put their job at risk. But instead, they’re focusing on a seemingly trivial requirement. Because it’s easier.
Or, let’s say the business is doing the same thing. Your project sponsor might be worried that, if they make a wrong choice, they’re going to get fired. So instead they focus on some small meaningless features.
If you want to win the deal, the best path is to ask questions. Try to determine the buyer’s real motivation. Understand their concerns. If you are having trouble doing that, one of the most powerful phrases you can use is “tell me more about that.” Or, use Chris Voss’ mirroring technique (more on that later). Anything that gets the client to give you more information, particularly information about what they really care about, will get you that much closer to winning the deal.
And it’s a whole lot easier to overcome an objection if you can get to the heart of it and respond to the client as a person, instead of just throwing features and hoping the client thinks your software is cool.