Why Do Groups Fail? Review of the Law of Triviality and Game Theory

The smaller the stakes, the bigger the fight

You organized a group with a clear mission statement with achievable goals. Your participants were congenial professionals with impressive resumes and resources. However, after just a few months,
your group ceased to exist. What happened?  After I witnessed another ending of a once promising group, I pondered on the reasons why. Coincidentally, in a recent discussion about family feuds, a colleague shared a concept about integrated communication, “The smaller the stakes, the bigger the fight.”  As I reflect on circumstances that surround failed groups, a pattern revealed itself known as The Law of Triviality.

The Law of Triviality was documented by C. Northcote Parkinson, a British historian and author of over 60 books, who argued that members of an organization spend an inordinate amount of time on trivial versus important concerns.  Visualize the following scenario: In one hour, Group A must decide to either spend $1,000.00 on catering for a party, or cook the food themselves.  Also on the agenda is whether to buy $100.00 worth of coffee.  Because the coffee is a trivial dollar amount in comparison to the catering versus cooking question, the group will spend most of their time debating about the coffee.  Why? It goes back to the ‘smaller the stakes the bigger the fight’ concept.  When the stakes are small, people in a group have a chance to share their opinions without the risk of making mistakes with major consequences.  Generally, we only feel comfortable talking about what we know for sure.  In contrast, we are silent or postpone discussing concepts that are unfamiliar or not fully understood. In the above scenario, Group A will probably postpone the $1,000.00 catering question until the next meeting, or one or two people, not the entire group, will make the final decision.  Is this optimal decision making?  I do not think so. In a group, each person brings a specific outlook and we need all perspectives for success. If Group A continues to dwell on the trivial, the group will eventually disband due to frustration.  Only groups that last form synergy and are able to grow and tackle bigger tasks. How do we manage group dynamics in such a way that eliminates the power of the Law of Triviality? One way is to study game theory.

To explain how groups interact, social theorists have come up with game theory.  This is a new concept to me, but it is worth studying. I recently read  The Golden Rule & the Games People Play by Rami Shapiro. One assumption of the book is life is a game, defined as natural social interactions. There are two types of games – finite and infinite.  Per Shapiro, “… infinite games …provide us with the deeper sense of meaning and purpose that so many of us crave.” (Shapiro, XIV).  I encourage you to read his book for his definitions of finite zero-sum versus infinite nonzero games. My understanding of Shapiro’s book is that if we learn how to play infinite games well, we will form positive relationships and groups that continuously thrive instead of squander.  Life is a sport, or game, with rules and laws.  As more of us learn how to ‘play’ together and sustain our groups, we will create a better world for all of us.

Groups are usually formed to achieve specific goals.  They are setup to last indefinitely, or as long as possible. In the accounting world this is called a going concern. In game theory, it is called infinite games.  My argument is that some organizations are unable to reach their full potential either because they are unaware of the Law of Triviality, or they do not know how to manage it when it becomes prevalent in their group.  As a result, they end up playing finite instead of infinite games.

What strategies can group leaders implement to lessen the impact of the Law of Triviality and play infinite instead of finite games? Below are my suggestions:

Be Prepared for Group Meetings:The Law of Triviality thrives on fear. We avoid what we do not know or understand. For decisions involving high dollars or complicated concepts, provide your group with sufficient information in a condensed form. Be brief and concise.  Clearly answer these five questions in your handout or presentation: Who, What, When, Why, and How? When groups feel knowledgeable, they are less fearful.  As a result, it will be easier to engage them in a decision making activity. By being prepared, you have a higher chance of soliciting dialogue and feedback which will inevitably support your group.

Regularly Review the Mission Statement/Meeting Purpose: Remind your group of the reason for the meeting whenever the discussion goes off topic. Conversations can grow like webs.  Your group may start off planning a birthday party, and before you know it you are talking about an episode of Black Mirror. Gently redirect the discussion back on topic by saying something like “Hey, I wished we had more time to discuss abc, but we really need to talk about…..”  

The Outside In: Expect group members to bring external topics to meetings. For an example, if an unfortunate event occurred right before your meeting, acknowledge it, but move on, if possible. One tactic I have seen group leaders do is announce, “I know you all just heard about abc. Let’s take a moment of silence. Afterwards, we will proceed with our meeting.” It is difficult for us to turn off our emotions, we are not robots.  However, we must respect the time of others. Skillful leaders are apt to say, “Yes, I agree with you. This topic is important, but we are talking about abc right now. " If a situation is very traumatic, consider rescheduling the meeting. 

Practice Time Management: Make sure the agenda has enough time to cover all items, especially if it was announced in advance.  Often, people attend meetings for specific topics and will be frustrated if that item is tabled. To get an idea of important topics, appraise what group members are talking about the most and plan accordingly.

Remain Calm/Blame Time: We can only control our own choices and reactions to unexpected events.  Even with planning and preparation, the Law of Triviality may still impact your meeting.  Awareness is key.  Understand the circumstances and do your best to rectify the situation.  Remain calm. One way to end a trivial filibuster is to announce, “We only have a few more minutes to discuss this topic before we have to move on.”

Know Your Audience: When planning a meeting, consider the demographics of your group to estimate possible trivial or off-topic issues that may appear.  Keep in mind that what may be trivial to one person is major to another.  Be compassionate when steering the conversation back to the agenda.  You do not want to turn people off.  The goal of infinite games is to play as long as possible.

Include Social Time: After my initial post of this article, I received an idea that I want to share.  A group leader told me that his organization includes time for socializing before and after group meetings.  This time is optional, but it is well attended.  This provides people a chance to be social. When the meeting starts, everyone knows it is time for business.

Conclusion: Just like nature has an ecosystem, universal laws govern human interaction. The Law of Triviality attempts to explain a tendency to focus on minor instead of major ideas. We are comfortable talking about what we know. Successful groups provide structure and opportunities for information sharing.

Further Reading - Articles on Game Theory:
Game Theory by Ashley Crossman
What is Game Theory by David K. Levine


Law of Triviality (2018, July 2). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_triviality.

Shapiro, Rami.(2015). The Golden Rule and the Games People Play. The Ultimate Strategy for a Meaning-Filled Life. Woodstock, Vermont: SkyLight Paths Publishing.

Rami M. Shapiro (2018, August 2). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rami_M._Shapiro

C. Northcote Parkinson (2018, August 1) In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._Northcote_Parkinson

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