Elizabeth Milias: Aspen’s ‘bike-shed’ effect

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, also known as “bike-shedding,” posits that the amount of time spent discussing an issue is inversely correlated to its actual importance in the grand scheme of things. The major, complex and weighty issues get the least discussion while the simple, minor and often least consequential ones get the most. Sound familiar? Been to a City Council meeting lately?

British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson coined the concept in the 1950s, illustrating it with his “bike-shedding” example, and I paraphrase. Picture a management committee with two items to approve, a $100 million nuclear power plant and a $10,000 bike storage shed.

The nuclear power plant discussion goes quickly. No one understands its complicated technicalities and most of the committee members don’t know much about nuclear power plants to begin with, and certainly not how to construct one. The one member who knows a few things is incapable of explaining these to the others. There is very little argument or deliberation. Another member proposes an alternative, but this seems like a complicated distraction so the committee opts not to consider it. The complex issue is tabled.

The discussion then moves to the bike shed, where everyone’s an expert. Each member is right at home sharing their thoughts and strong opinions because they know a lot about bike sheds, what they do and what they look like. Several members start an animated discussion about the latest recycled materials for the roof and a possible green LEED design. The committee debates the bike shed in painstaking detail for far longer than the power plant, and everyone leaves the meeting satisfied with their personal contributions to the overall discussion.

The bike shed metaphor is a management spoof that illustrates how silly and wasteful it is to argue and deliberate over every little detail based simply on the perceived knowledge to do so. In other words, the amount of noise generated by a change is often inversely proportional to the complexity of the change.

Aspen plays small-ball better than anyone. Here’s some recent bike-shedding:

• Ann Mullins, upon learning of the city’s projected $25 million post-COVID revenue shortfall, proclaimed, “Council has that discretionary fund, which I think is approximately $30,000 now. I would like to have the staff look at that more closely … and take a look at all of council’s expenditures and really scrutinize them.”

• Ward Hauenstein wants air and noise quality studies done at the Lumberyard in order to determine the proper density of housing there, never mind the critical decision needs to be made in a matter of weeks. This classic punt neglects the obvious fact that if the air and noise quality make the site uninhabitable for some wouldn’t that imply it’s uninhabitable for all?

• Rachel Richards hesitated in her support for the reopening of construction after the shutdown for fear that workers might “carpool into town to buy lunch.”

• In an effort to save energy, Mayor Torre requested that the 50% of strings of downtown holiday lights not connected to photovoltaic power (automatically turning on at dusk and off at dawn) be turned off at 2 a.m.

• Skippy Mesirow can always be counted on to impart his esoteric idealism, recently contemplating “what we can do to lower barriers to entry, remove restrictions, and create a better environment for more local, sustainable, green and community-oriented conscious businesses.” Huh?

Aspen’s City Council clearly does more than its fair share of bike-shedding. It’s a disturbing pattern where the more simple the topic, the more painfully long-winded the debate, and as a result, the most critical and difficult issues do not receive the attention and consideration they deserve.

When something is well outside their knowledge, instead of simply remaining quiet, each of our electeds loves to pontificate, with few results other than a lot of time expended. In reality, the most important contributions are inputs from those who have done the work to have an opinion.

According to Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger, the work to hold an opinion means that you can argue against yourself better than others can. Ponder that for a second. The concept is to contribute when you have something truly valuable to add that will improve the outcome of the discussion, not merely to hear the sound of your own voice.

Where are the truly big ideas? As we watch the fiscal disaster that is Aspen’s budget unfold, the travesty that is the Taj Mahal City Hall project, and questionable leadership decisions made by the city manager, not to mention critical decisions on the future of the Lumberyard, it’s not too soon to point out that the next election for mayor and two council seats will be held in early March. Calling all candidates, your campaigns begin when ski season does. Aspen cannot afford more incessant bike-shedding, therefore we must not encourage those without relevant knowledge or experience to run for elected office. And let’s certainly not support those who seek election merely to hear the sound of their own voice. Getting the leadership, consensus-building and big ideas we deserve depends on having the right people in the room.

It’s never too soon to start recruiting good candidates. Contact at