Don’t get

Bikeshedding — Why campaign teams waste time on meaningless tasks, and how to stop doing it.

Feb 24, 2020 · 4 min read

via “Urban Dictionary: Another name for Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. It’s when an individual or group fixates on discussing trivial issues or ones way outside their area of expertise because the pressing issues they actually need to resolve are too hard for them to constructively engage with.

Bikeshedding is quickly becoming one of my favorite slang terms because of how perfectly it describes a situation I have experienced all too often working with political campaign teams. Put simply, bikeshedding is the phenomenon where teams spend entirely too much time on tasks that do not deserve the amount of time and energy allocated. Like, for example, if the executives running a massive nuclear power plant spent the majority of a team meeting discussing the specifications of a new bike shed for employees, as opposed to dealing with the more pressing, mission-critical matters at hand.

Political campaign teams are particularly susceptible to this temptation to waste time on things that really don’t matter. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s nearly inevitable that at one point or another every political organization will find itself caught in one of these swirling whirlpools of nonsense. With planning and preparation, your campaign can avoid wasting time and effort and properly prioritize those activities that will make the biggest impact.

Time Limits > Deadlines

Deadlines are great, especially for time-sensitive action items. But if your only real time constraint is election day, then arbitrary deadlines may not be the most effective tool from a management perspective. Remember, a campaign manager’s job is not chief taskmaster. The job is to set the team up for success in doing their job, which is winning votes.

A common default deadline is “by COB Friday” or “by Monday” which means that the team has a few days but usually less than a week to complete a given task. Sounds reasonable enough, but what if that was the only task that the team was working on for that entire duration of time? Would ~3 days, or the equivalent number of available working hours (~36 hours in campaign land) be a reasonable amount of time to allocate towards that task?

For most deliverables, 2 hours is more than enough time. For example, something like “review and proofread the palm card copy” should not take more than 2 working hours. Specify that detail on your list of action items, and if you find that your team has spent more than 2 hours on a simple deliverable, then you ought to reevaluate your priorities. Remember, time is a finite resource.

Limit the cooks in the kitchen.

Campaign teams are notoriously top-heavy. The classic — now-infamous — example of this dynamic taken to the extreme comes from the Romney for President campaign that reportedly required 22 people to approve every tweet. Right about now, you are probably thinking about how ridiculous that is and how your campaign would never allow that to happen under your careful oversight.

In reality, this kind of behavior is much more common than you might immediately recognize. You might even be subconsciously encouraging it with the protocols and procedures you use to manage your campaign team. For example, email threads or Slack channels that include every member of the campaign leadership team are rarely necessary. If a team member doesn’t have final decision-making authority or veto power over a given item, then they probably don’t need to be involved in the conversation.

Agreements can waste as much time as arguments. Allowing “reply all” chains to devolve into feel-good feedback loops, where everyone is empowered to express their approval of a decision that ultimately isn’t theirs to make is pretty pointless when you think about it. It might make everyone feel special, but that is not the task at hand.

Embrace imperfection (and iteration).

This one is especially difficult to track because everyone wants to believe that every single one of their contributions to the campaign is meaningful and important. The truth is, there are very, very few individual choices that will make a significant and measurable impact. Getting things done is far more important than getting things exactly perfect the first time.

Of course, some things can’t be hacked or rushed. If the consequences are serious and permanent, then it is probably best to make sure that everything is tighter than two coats of paint. For everything else (read: almost every decision you will make throughout the campaign) iteration is the best approach. Just get it done! Produce something that can serve as “Version 1.0” and improve it as needed. You may find that “Version 1” serves your needs just fine, and all the time you would have spent tweaking and tinkering can be spent getting the next thing done.

Don’t go it alone.

No one ever said running a competitive political campaign is easy. Even experienced political practitioners will admit that the journey from announcement to election day is a long and treacherous trail — especially if you are navigating unfamiliar territory. This uncertainty makes it difficult to be decisive, which further contributes to the bikeshedding and paralysis by analysis.

Trailmapper gives candidates and campaigners the tools and resources to map out smart campaign plans, and then to prioritize and execute the plan with confidence. Sign up for early access today.

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