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  • Writer's pictureJody Glynn Patrick

The “Bike Rack Effect”: why it kills productivity


Several years ago, I left a church over philosophical differences having nothing to do with religious doctrine. Members of the church were expected to sit on committees — which I agreed with heartily. Like many nonprofits, the church faced a constant struggle to “get businesspeople involved,” to raise money or streamline operations. Given expected budget cuts during that year, I opted to serve on the finance committee.

Unlike my more recent and very pleasurable experience sitting on the finance committee at the Salvation Army Board, where most board members do come from the business community, the other church’s finance committee was comprised primarily of folks with limited professional board experience. There, I quickly discovered that I don’t play well with non-business personality types in a committee setting.

I felt our committee fell under the spell of “Parkinson’s Law” — and the corollary now popularly dubbed as “The Bike Rack Effect” — which made the weekly meetings something I absolutely dreaded rather than anticipated. Parkinson’s Law is quite simply put: A task will take as long to complete as the time allotted to it. Whether you allocate one hour or two to an agenda, the business at hand will consume the appropriated amount of time because we all unconsciously speed up or slow down according to attached deadlines.

The “Law of Triviality,” or The Bike Rack Effect, is the additional idea that a group will discuss, ad nauseam, those agenda matters of least cost. As Parkinson put it, “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.” For example, a governmental unit will spend a few minutes approving a nuclear reactor plant but, theory predicts, will spend hours discussing where to site a proposed city bike rack, what color to paint it, etc.

Why would a church committee quickly approve an incredibly expensive capital improvement and then labor over whether to fund root beer floats or save $100 by serving lemonade at the next social? It's because members rely on expert advice when the agenda item is expensive or complex. Who wants to flag a lack of knowledge? Often, even the bravest will begin a question: “I know this is probably a stupid question, but …”. We don’t want to present ourselves as uninformed or ill prepared.

Conversely, everybody has an opinion about the merits of soda and ice cream versus water and lemons. They all have knowledge of church tradition and tangential comments often take center stage. Also, everyone has personal experience spending or saving $100. Everybody, then, holds expert status and expects to be heard.

Long debates over insignificant details drove me crazy. I asked to be transferred to the program committee, but I didn’t fare any better there. I’m far too mindful of losing hours that I can’t ever get back. I volunteered for some solo projects, but eventually I simply faded away. I felt I too often disappointed the congregation with my refusal to consider committee work. I wasn’t being hired to do board development, after all, nor were earlier attempts to streamline or reprioritize items particularly appreciated.

Later, I attended a neighborhood association meeting; that was even more agonizing. But the worst was an experience testifying at a Madison City Council meeting. The council is highly susceptible to the Bike Rack Effect but paradoxically immune to the effects of Parkinson’s Law.

I don’t think businesspeople shun public service or association meetings or even church obligations because they don’t care or don’t have time. However, I do think a business background has provided many of us with a different time orientation. Though an hour is an hour, with fixed second and minute units, it doesn’t feel like an hour when the discussion topic is root beer floats versus lemonade. It feels like an eternity.

That’s my theory. What’s yours?

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