“What is it about this bike shed?” Some of you have asked me.
It is a long story, or rather it is an old story, but it is quite short actually. C. Northcote Parkinson wrote a book in the early 1960s, called “Parkinson’s Law”, which contains a lot of insight into the dynamics of management.
[snip a bit of commentary on the book]
In the specific example involving the bike shed, the other vital component is an atomic power-plant, I guess that illustrates the age of the book.
Parkinson shows how you can go into 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 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.