I had an epiphany after understanding bikeshedding. It’s very difficult to not get giddy while writing this, because I think I have finally stumbled upon the ultimate answer – why are Masjids always focused on the manifest destiny of construction and expansion at the expense of things that actually matter to the community?
Parkinson shows how you can go in to the board of directors and get approval for building a multi-million or even billion dollar atomic power plant, but if you want to build a bike shed you will be tangled up in endless discussions.
Parkinson explains that this is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far…
A bike shed on the other hand. Anyone can build one of those over a weekend, and still have time to watch the game on TV. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, somebody will seize the chance to show that he is doing his job, that he is paying attention, that he is *here*.
In Denmark we call it “setting your fingerprint”. It is about personal pride and prestige, it is about being able to point somewhere and say “There! *I* did that.” It is a strong trait in politicians, but present in most people given the chance. Just think about footsteps in wet cement (source).
You might want to read that passage one more time before continuing. Let it sink in.
Check out the Wikipedia entry on Parkinson’s Law of Triviality if you need more.
Here’s how the story plays out (if you really want to have fun, pretend they’re talking about a Masjid construction project),
The chapter is a transcript of a meeting of a finance committee. The participants are about to discuss the last three items on their agenda: the budget for building an atomic reactor, building a bicycle shed for the use of the clerical staff, and finally the refreshments supplied at meetings of the Joint Welfare Committee.
Let’s build an atomic reactor
The treasurer presents the 9th item on their agenda: approve the ten million pounds budget for building an atomic reactor. He distributes the plans and the related documents, and shares the concerns of the consultant engineers who previously stated that the reactor could not be finished before the deadline the sub-contractor signed for that there were details that were overlooked during the planning. The chairman thanks the treasurer for the detailed introduction and asks whether anyone has any questions. The committee has eleven members, and out of these eleven members, four – including the chairman – have no idea what a reactor is. Three don’t know what its purpose is. There are only two persons from the rest, who vaguely know how much it costs to build a reactor. Fortunately, both of them can speak up. So the first member suggests giving the assignment to another sub-contractor – a more reliable one – and involving other consultants.
The chairman thanks him for speaking up, but he says that it is too late to involve others in this project, and a significant amount of money has already been paid for the plans. If the committee decides to re-do the whole planning phase, it will cost a lot. Several members of the committee nod. Finally, the chairman asks the other person – you remember, the one who vaguely knows how much it costs to build a reactor – to speak up.
As it turns out, he is the only one who really knows something about building an atomic reactor, and not just vaguely. He also knows that the actual sub-contractor cannot be trusted, the ten million pounds is very strange, and has no idea how it was actually calculated. But he knows something else: the other members. He knows that it would take him a lot of time and effort to teach them the basics of nuclear physics so that they have a basic understanding of how atomic reactors work and what it takes to build one. So instead of speaking up and making this effort he simply says that he has nothing to add.
Since nobody disagrees, the chairman signs the document and moves to the next item on the agenda. The discussion of the 9th item took almost 3 minutes which doesn’t include the time that was necessary for distributing the documents. They are on schedule.
The bicycle shed
The next item is the budget for building a bicycle shed for the use of the clerical staff. But before the chairman delineates it, some of the members feel bad. They are not sure that they have made a good decision, and they promise themselves that they’ll prove later in the meeting that they are valuable members of the committee. The cost of building the bicycle shed is 350 pounds.
One of the members thinks that the price is too high, and suggests building the roof of shed from asbestos instead of aluminum. The other “roof experts” jump in, and one of them even suggests cancelling the project, because the staff doesn’t deserve a new shed.
The debate continues, because most of the members are able to understand what 350 pounds represents, and almost every one of them has seen a bicycle shed before. The whole debate takes 45 minutes with the prospective result of saving about 50 pounds. Now, everybody is happy, because they feel that they did something important, something that also provided results.
It’s about spending a disproportionate amount of time on the things that don’t matter versus the things that do. It’s about shying away from the things you don’t understand, and instead focusing on the things where you can take credit.
People who have no expertise in construction will take on masjid construction projects (and proceed to waste hundreds of thousands of fund-raised dollars unnecessarily) while actual experts are excluded or silenced. Why is it that a doctor will never entertain the medical advice of an engineer, but considers himself or herself an overnight authority on Masjid construction?
Why is the architect for a masjid construction project put through a more rigorous interview process than a potential imam – someone who is going to be spiritually raising the community’s children for years to come?
The reality is, most of the time, board members aren’t equipped to understand the community’s problems. They are put in a position of trust to make decisions for the benefit of the community. This means finding an Imam who can lead them, spiritually nourish them, and help them grow. It means making sure you have a khateeb every single Friday that will deliver a positive and effective message. It means actually involving sisters, youth, and different ethnicities in a meaningful way without feeling threatened. These are the insecurities that caused everyone to debate the bicycle shed.
Hiring a youth director means acknowledging that youth have spiritual issues. It means admitting that your own child might be one of them. It means you have to find someone to entrust the community’s youth to for guidance, direction, and mentorship. It means that the masjid might need to learn how to start dealing with drugs, alcohol, pornography addiction, teen pregnancies, physical and emotional abuse, and other such issues.
It’s why board members will argue over things like how much to pay the cleaning staff, the budget for inviting a guest speaker, and where new classrooms should go. And it’s exactly why while lost in all of that, they’ll never pay attention to who is actually giving the Friday khutbah.
The incessant focus on Masjid expansion is a crutch for these types of people. It insulates you from actually dealing with real community issues. It gives you a wall to hide behind when trying to tell the community why you can’t provide them qualified spiritual leadership. But most importantly, it gives board members something to point at.
They can point at a masjid while driving by and say, “I built that.”
And that is all that it comes down to. All the money, all the elections, all the nasty politics. It’s to be able to say in the end – I DID THAT.
Why don’t board members attend halaqahs? Because it doesn’t let them point at something. Why won’t they hire people to help save their kids? Because that’s not something you can point to (at least not in the immediate future – i.e. before the next election).
The most telling example though is moon-sighting. Masjid boards want to remove the Ramadan/Eid decision making from the imam, and instead adopt their own “policy” that is in agreement with their peers. Removing the decision making from the imam is the key point here. They simply don’t have the knowledge to actually defend their stance, especially not with a scholar (or even a beginner student of knowledge).
Engaging in that conversation at a real level means that you have to get out of your comfort zone. You have to either acknowledge that you lack expertise, or you have to put in more work. Either way, it’s like the example in the beginning of the atomic reactor. Figure out a way to make a quick decision and spend your time on something else. Don’t worry about what’s Islamically correct, or the fact that you’re undermining the Islamic scholarship in your community – focus on which hall you want to make Eid in and on which day.
Once you understand this, you understand why communities stagnate. It comes down to one word – fear.
Fear creates busy work. Instead of transformative work, work is created to fill time.
People are afraid of making change. They’re afraid of putting themselves out there to actually transform the community, much less change the world. If you can’t take the risk, if you can’t be comfortable with your own shortcomings, then you’ll just spend all your time arguing over the color of the bicycle shed. That’s what happens when an imam’s vision for a community exceeds that of the board. It gets into uncomfortable territory, and the imam is either let go or forced to move on.
Mediocrity is comfortable. Change causes fear.
Discussing handing over the reigns to the next generation takes work, and skill that might not be there. Pretending like it’s not a problem to the point that the next generation gets skipped is easy. You can fill that time by coming up with another expansion project and the requisite fundraising for a few more years. And then when it’s done, you can point to 3 new classrooms and let everyone know – “I did that.”
Overcome this by rising to the challenge. Assess the actual needs of the community and start figuring out ways of addressing them. Don’t let fear get in the way. It’s ok if it will be unpopular, and it’s ok if you’re going to lose your position. It’s even ok to let someone else take credit when things go well. Acknowledge that you’re in a rut and take the uncomfortable steps to break out of it. Put in the time to learn the ins and outs of the tough decisions and stop filling your time with easy.
Anyone can do easy. You really want the reward of serving the community? Then actually serve the community. Let their needs shape your projects and decisions – not your own insecurities and need to feel involved or in control.