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Analysis Paralysis - how to understand and overcome it

"Nothing diminishes anxiety faster than action." - Walter Anderson

I’m delighted to write this blog for a long time reader on analysis paralysis. I am no stranger to it and it is an important topic.

Today's blog has served its purpose if it helps you recognise when you are at risk from analysis paralysis and have tools to overcome it. Of all the qualities I have admired in leaders, an action bias is amongst the highest. Action requires comfort with uncertainty.

What is analysis paralysis

Procrastination and Analysis Paralysis are blocks in the decision process.

Analysis paralysis is failure to progress through to the execution stage. It is a cousin of procrastination in that it fails to lead to action although in this case, time has been spent on it.

Analysis paralysis - the symptoms

The symptoms of analysis paralysis are:

  • Discomfort with being ready to opine despite having looked at it from all the reasonable avenues

  • Overwhelm that there are things you might have missed

  • A feeling that to conclude you will never have enough information

  • Once you get comfortable with something you chase down the rabbit hole and find something else not to get comfortable with

  • You are constantly chased for your decision and develop a reputation of overthinking low probability things

Why does analysis paralysis occur

From my experience and research on the topic analysis paralysis occurs as stress.

The key stresses are:

  1. You are not on board: In a corporate or family setting, decisions are taken by majority or authority. That means not everyone is on board. Those members who were not bought in to the idea, could either subconsciously construct a high bar to prevent advance or intentionally find reasons not to be comfortable with it

  2. You fear saying yes: You are concerned with the accountability of saying yes because whilst you have no specific objections that you can articulate you are concerned that if it turns out to be a mistake you will be partly accountable.

  3. There are too many things to look at: It's hard to parse the reams of information about it and the feeling you are going to miss something is unsettling.

  4. You don't feel like you have found the perfect solution: you can think of something ok but you have a feeling that there could be a much better way of doing something.

  5. You don't feel you have the whole picture: you have been fed pieces but it does not aggregate to something that makes sense to you

  6. The incentives of being negative: Some people develop their career being the person that can find a hole in something. Being negative sounds smart and people are rewarded for it.

What are the impacts of analysis paralysis

  1. Stress: It's hard dealing with that uncomfortable feeling and constantly being chased. In extreme cases people just deal with you as a blocker which might entrench your feelings of not having the whole picture.

  2. Less productivity: Failing to act has a definite cost. You will just get fewer things done if you do not progress to execution.

  3. Wasted time: Due diligence is essential but obsessing about minutiae is wasteful of your time and mental bandwidth.

  4. Missed opportunities: Self-esteem is often a result of the seeing things through to completion. We can always argue that something is too risky or not appropriate right now, but these may later join your list of regrets, and can weigh on you.

  5. Reduced confidence: If you doubt your ability to conclude, it might reduce your willingness to get involved in things.

Different types of decisions:

There are two key types of decision:

  1. One-way decisions: These are decisions that, once made, are hard or even impossible to reverse. They're like walking through a one-way door – once you've passed through, you can't go back. These decisions carry higher risk and require more consideration, thought, and planning because of the potential consequences and the difficulty in reversing course.

  2. Two-way decisions: These are decisions that are easily reversed if the outcome isn't what you expected or wanted. They're like going through a two-way door – if you don't like what's on the other side, you can turn around and go back. These decisions tend to carry lower risk, and you can often make them relatively quickly and adjust course as necessary.

Recognizing whether a decision is a one-way or a two-way decision is helpful in determining how much planning to invest in making the decision. If the decision is a two-way decision, it can often be made quickly and iteratively. If it's a one-way decision, it is justifiable to spend more time on it.

How can you overcome it

  1. Approach a 1-way door differently to a 2-way door: Knowing whether your decision can be reversed or not should be a key variable into how you frame the work required to make a decision.

  2. Set yourself a deadline: Understand that you will need to opine eventually and give yourself the time to make the decision if available but no more.

  3. Understand when you have enough information: Jeff Bezos splits information into, 'need to know' and 'nice to know', and focuses entirely on the need to know. He realises there will be gaps even in the 'need to know' because the extra time and attention spent returns diminishing value above a certain point. Getting a high percentage of the need to know information should be your goal not perfect information. Fully understand the costs of inaction to help you tip the balance.

  4. Prioritise: Understand when you are going down the rabbit hole to satisfy your curiosity rather than getting to a decision.

  5. Embrace uncertainty: There will be assumptions you will need to make along the way and uncertainty and risk in all of your assumptions.

So what?

How is this relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways before we pick it up next week:

1) Analysis paralysis is when you cannot progress to the execution stage, due to discomfort, overwhelm, a fear of incomplete information and fear of the potential consequences of a decision.

2) Impacts include increased stress, decreased productivity, wasted time, missed opportunities, and reduced confidence.

3) To overcome it, we can treating one-way and two-way decisions differently, set deadlines, have a metric of enough information and embracing uncertainty and risk.

I would love your feedback on this.

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