Bikeshedding in Software Engineering Teams

Why teams are more concerned about the trivial and lose focus on the important bits in software development.


3 min read

Bikeshedding in Software Engineering Teams

"What precisely is wrong with our current color scheme for the app's user interface? Should we change it to sharper hues or go minimalistic?"

Here's a question that can easily occupy most of your software team’s next brainstorming session. This phenomenon may be entirely foreign to some or deeply familiar to others – this is called "bikeshedding".

One thing I can almost guarantee you, once you learn what bikeshedding means you will see it everywhere.

Bikeshedding definition

In 1957, C. Northcote Parkinson observed an ironic twist in administrative decision-making that arguably trivial matters often receive disproportionately high levels of attention and debate. In his example, a nuclear plant budget was approved without much ado while choosing materials for assembling an elementary bicycle shed incited extensive discussions.

Borrowing its roots from there, the term "bikeshedding", also called Parkinson's Law of Triviality, pervades modern software teams like wildfire. It refers to unwarranted fascination in discussing minor bugs or deciding on details like color palettes but disregarding other critical aspects such as application design and data architecture.

Basically, a lot of software engineers are concerned about how their project's directory structure looks or whether to use one IDE over the other rather than whether their application solves the actual problem it was created for in the first place.

Why do we fall into this "trap"?

The reason is quite simple and relatable. It happens because it's human nature to gravitate towards simpler problems, where discussions are easy and everyone can have an opinion.

Picking a color scheme or logo design simply seems less daunting than solving complex algorithmic challenges or designing the structural architecture of a software product.

But the trap is that minor details become major distractions, stealing away our focus from critical problem-solving tasks that demand in-depth understanding and expertise. It ignites an avoidant culture pushing us to seek comfort in comprehensible topics rather than diving into intensive, high-impact issues requiring more effort and knowledge.

Pitfalls and possible solutions

When too much time and energy is spent on less important issues, bigger tasks can often get overlooked. This can lead to problems for the software project in various ways:

  1. Delivery timelines - spending countless hours debating trivialities have projects scrambling against shrinking deadlines.

  2. Technical debt - ignoring more important problems in the project will amount to bigger backlogs and later cause slower systems and buggy solutions.

  3. Talent churn rate - struggling sprints to fulfill meaningless targets will disappoint top-level engineers who will most likely move to workplaces where skills matter more than mindless discussions on trivial things.

This is not to say that details don't matter, they do, a lot, but creating balance where a team isn't side-tracked by minor issues becomes crucial.

Defining the main goal, the overall "big picture" of the project, and making sure every team member understands it and does not lose sight of it will optimize the critical development path of the project.

Managers should always set the environment for the team, encouraging open-mindedness, and being willing to engage in subjects beyond one's comfort zones.

Finally, timeboxing should be important when discussing the details of a project. Setting finite time limits on topics will help curb spiraling discussions veering off-topic not just with team members but with the project clients too.

Other fun reads that inspired this article:

  1. Poul-Henning Kamp's FreeBSD thread on "bikeshedding", who popularized the term.

  2. Parkinson's Law by C. Northcote Parkinson


  • Article Cover photo by Alex Fu on Pexels.