Innovation and progress come not from working harder, but by working smarter and taking an axe to the time wasters and the trivial.

Most of all, stop focusing on the trivial. If I had a nickel for every hour I’ve witnessed trivial debates over orange vs. blue envelopes, or closed-face vs. window envelopes, I could buy Tom a fresh typewriter ribbon.

In an earlier post, Wasting Time by Exalting the Trivial, I illustrated some all-to-common examples of wasted time and exalted triviality. I urged readers to become familiar with Parkinson’s Laws.

If you’re not familiar with C. Northcote Parkinson’s 1957 Parkinson’s Law, you’re in for a real treat. This stylish, witty and sometimes satirical work cuts through all the management theory and nonsense to show how and why bureaucracies waste time.

His famous dictum — “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” — applies to virtually every human enterprise, including our nonprofit world.

Not quite as famous, but hugely important for understanding the barriers posed to effective action and the efficient use of time, is his corollary ‘Law of Triviality’ that states, “Organizations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues”.

Parkinson illustrates his ‘Law of Triviality’ by chronicling a Finance Committee meeting in which there are three items on the agenda: 1) the signing of a multi-million contract to build an atomic reactor; 2) a proposal to build a $2,500 bicycle shed; and, (3) a third proposal to supply refreshments for the Joint Welfare Committee of the organization.

The multi-million $ number is too big and too technical, and it is passed in 2.5 minutes. The bicycle shed is a subject understood by the board and the dollar amount is within their life experience so the debate rages for 45 minutes on whether to use an aluminum or galvanized iron roof. “The board members sit back with a feeling of accomplishment.” The third item — $57 for refreshments — consumes 1.25 hours. While some members of the committee may not know galvanized iron from aluminum, everyone knows about coffee — how it should be made, where it should be bought. After an hour and a quarter the committee votes to ask the Secretary to procure further information, leaving the matter to be decided at the next meeting.

I don’t think anyone in our nonprofit world has captured Parkinson’s Law of Triviality as well as the folks at Temple Sholom Synagogue in Cincinnati, Ohio.

These folks sure have their act together and when it comes to understanding — and mocking — the dangers of wasted time and exalting the trivial.

Take a look  — and share with others — this video gem from Temple Sholom titled “The Little Table”.


Sound familiar?




This article was posted in: Board Meeting Swipe File, Breaking Out of the Status Quo, Nonprofit management.
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