The Law of Triviality: Why Everyone Cares About Things That Don’t Matter

Categories Leadership
Why do we care so much about things that don’t really matter? I was thinking about this recently in the specific context of the church. If you’ve been connected to a local church for very long, you may have noticed how people can sometimes be more passionate about music style, pastoral habits, and worship times than they are about theology, discipleship training, or evangelism. At first look, it’s hard to imagine why this would be true. One might call it immature and short-sighted, and I suppose both could be true, but the Law of Triviality may actually be to blame.

The Law of Triviality

“What’s the Law of Triviality?” you ask. In 1957, C. Northcote Parkinson made the argument that “organizations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.” The idea was that people are often more interested in the details of a bike-shed (Parkinson’s example) than with the development of a nuclear power plant. His hypothesis was that people are more likely to share their opinion if the feel they know something about an issue, and it turns out that paint color and building materials for a bike shed are less complicated than a nuclear plant.

I suppose there is some logic in that, but the sad reality is it often means people are willing to jump into a discussion about trivial matters and even sharply disagree about a preference (i.e. something I feel like I am qualified to speak about) whereas truly important matters with more depth go without discussion because many of the group do not feel qualified to offer up an opinion and simply leave those decisions to “the experts.”

This Forbes’ article cited a series of experiments showing the tendency of people to mimic those around them when they do not have a strong opinion. Basically, this shows the reverse effect of the Law of Triviality: when people don’t know, they don’t care. The unfortunate side effect of this truth, then, is that the lack of information leads to complacency while “perceived” knowledge (familiarity) can lead to contentious committee meetings, extended timelines, frustrated shareholders, and more.

The Law of Triviality, then, threatens to paralyze churches and organizations by keeping them occupied with the insignificant while being blind to the crucial issues that could make a lasting difference.

How to Avoid the Trap

So what can be done? How do we ensure that we are focusing on the things that are truly important? At the very least, how do we keep from spending valuable time and resources on things that mean very little in the long run? Here are just a few suggestions that may help us think more clearly about leading with the Law of Triviality in mind.

  1. Talk about the decision making process
    One of the things that can get us into trouble when it comes to making decisions is to base the decision on bad information. This happens for a lot of reasons, but here’s a really helpful chart that highlights common pitfalls like confirmation bias, availability heuristic, and the bandwagon effect. The key is to guide your leadership team, congregation, or committee through the process first. Explain how good decisions are made. Practice with unrelated debates (i.e. what is the best movie from the ‘90s?). Once the appropriate ground rules are established, it becomes easier to identify when baseless opinion has taken over for fact.
  2. Gather as much actual information as possible (research is your friend)
    The only way to separate fact from fiction is to be as informed as possible. Research and experts are your friend. This doesn’t mean those who know more automatically get to make the call, however. It simply means better information will usually produce a better decision. This is especially key when the matter is complicated. You see, the Law of Triviality tells us that everyone knows, cares, and has an opinion on the simple things. I feel like I’m qualified (at least a little) to make a decision about the best razor blade, baseball coach, and musical group because those are all things I have experience with. The fact of the matter is, though, that there may be data out there about razors, coaches, and artists that would trump my personal experience. Finding and sharing this data can be vitally important to helping people move from “what I think” to “what is true.”
  3. Label issues as crucial or trivial from the beginning
    Let’s face it. There are going to be times when there is actually no right answer. No one choice is better than the other and everyone feels like his opinion is just as valid as the next one. When this happens, it can be very helpful to have identified the decision as a trivial one from the beginning. This puts everyone on the same page to know it’s not the end of the world if the bike shed gets painted blue instead of red. We can even empower inexperienced leaders or teams to make these decisions on their own and avoid being the overbearing, control-freak leader some of us tend to be (*sheepishly raises hand*).
Have you ever witnessed the Law of Triviality in effect? Do you have any other suggestions on how we can keep our focus on the most important issues? I’d love to hear thoughts in the comments below.

 


“It’s no big thing, but you make big things out of little things sometimes.” – Robert Duvall