Talking Past the Law of Triviality

Power Oct 25, 2020

Have you ever noticed in your relationships that small decisions can be the hardest to make? Have you and your partner agreed on a big goal, then found sticking points in the details? Thank bike-shedding for this communication breakdown!

Suppose that you are a committee member deciding whether or not to approve plans for a new nuclear reactor. After spending a scant five minutes blazing through the approval for the plant itself, you reach the plans for a bicycle shed for the plant's workers. There the committee grinds to a halt and spends the next fifty five minutes debating details: what colour to paint the shed, a cheaper place to buy the paint from, whether to use wood or aluminium for constructing it, and so on.

This hypothetical scenario is the origin of the term "bike-shedding" and is a fantastic example of the law of triviality. There are various reasons why group dynamics might break down in bike-shedding: each individual's desire to add a personal touch, analysis paralysis, multiple "experts", limited ability to contribute, denying personal responsibility, no pressure to proceed, or argumentative conviction over tiny details. What results from bike-shedding is a lot of wasted effort.

Bike-shedding is obviously a problem found often in complex work such as engineering, but a similar derailment also applies to personal life.

Photo by Metin Ozer / Unsplash

Reaching consensus with multiple opinions:

When you have a single expert for a given decision, it is easy to trust their judgement and go with it. However, if you have two or more experts you are at risk of discord. If they get hung up on differing opinions and aren't willing to step back, then consensus gets dragged to a halt. If there is no a strong decision-maker able to step in and make the call, the debate can continue indefinitely.

Problems that everyone can understand and weigh in on lead to multiple "experts." This is especially problematic when there are no objective best answers. Matters of opinion such as "What colour do we paint the room?" can get out of hand and end only when the participants are exhausted and give in.

This is why the burden of decision-making falls upon me alone in my dynamic with my dearheart. I reserve the right to end debates if they persist for too long. Though I seek to let us reach accord without falling back on my final say. I find facilitation tools to be helpful for this. Normally a facilitator should be impartial, but I find the tools themselves useful regardless of my stake in any discussion.

Focusing on the details instead of the broad picture:

Recently my dearheart and I had a conversation that went something like this:

MoHaF: "What do you think about getting a roommate?"
DH: "Sounds like it could work."
"In our area our best bet is probably going to be college students."
"I don't like that, what if we get someone who talks on the phone all night?"
"Then we can have a noise curfew."
"What if we get someone who wants to party all the time?"
"We can screen them and make the lease cover that too. Look, I think you're focusing too much on tiny hypothetical problems that haven't even come up yet. We don't know who we might get. When problems do come up, we'll deal with them.
So do you have problems with getting a roommate, in general?"
"Not really."
"All right. So one of the issues with rooming college students is their lack of stable income..."

It's my duty as the Dominant to recognise when our communication has failed, understand why, and then short-circuit the failure. In this case my dearheart had gotten fixated on the metaphorical trees such that he missed the forest.

That isn't to say that my dearheart was in the wrong – quite the opposite, as discussing specific scenarios is an important step of planning. The problem lies in misalignment: I led the conversation into generalities, and my dearheart tried to dive into minutiae before we finished the basics.

Getting a bundled solution:

Another hard-to-quantify problem associated with bike-shedding is that when you speed through approval of the complicated task (like the nuclear power plant in the example), you're losing any value oversight could have added.

When I present a completely finished proposal to my dearheart, he feels the pressure to give it the immediate go ahead. If he instead had asked questions and delved into the decisions I made the get to that finished proposal, there's always the chance that we would have discovered problems or found more efficient solutions.

When this expedited approval happens, it is usually because my dearheart sees no obvious faults to pick at. However, there is another reason why you can end up approving something quickly: analysis paralysis that leads to blind approval.

When you're presented with a finished proposal, it can be hard to know where to start. You don't have the luxury of walking through each decision and knowing what alternatives work and which fail – so you have to rediscover them, if you have expertise to do so. Because this is so difficult to do, instead you may be daunted and doomed to leave it be. So you trust in the experts presenting it and approve what they have.

To help distinguish between the two reasons for a fast approval, I like to ask a couple follow-up questions to make sure that my dearheart's understanding and mine are aligned.

Deciding between alternatives isn't that big a deal:

Appointing a decision-maker mitigates the effects of bike-shedding because most decisions aren't about right and wrong. Instead most decisions are about tradeoffs with diminishing returns. Whilst it's nice to choose the outcome that gives you the best outcome, if quickly choosing any decision gets you eighty percent of the way to that optimum then you're well off.

Thus as the Domme, I reserve the right to act decisively and put an end to lingering discussions. Sometimes my decisions may be poor, but that is an acceptable risk of being in Command. After all, I would rather make forward progress than freeze whilst seeking the "best" solution.



Mistress of the Home, responsible for all matters financial. A loving Domme tempered with ambition and attention to detail.