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Author: John Vaught

Analysis Paralysis vs Bias for Action vs Let’s Get Real

I was playing a board game with my kids and my niece and at one point my niece was taking an extraordinarily long time to make a decision.

Like, so long that I was able to make a cup of coffee, get a dessert, and by the time I got back to the table heads were in hands and groaning was the main sound emanating from the room.

“Hold your horses, people,” was her response. “But,” I point out, “we don’t know what you are waiting for; you have no good options!” My niece’s next statement is the classic: “If I keep looking I may find one.”

I’m betting, like me, you have seen or been in a similar situation – playing Stuck by Norah Jones on repeat while staring at a too expensive notepad filled with meaningless doodles because a decision is looming and I don’t feel like I have enough intel.

It’s labeled Analysis Paralysis and is played out in houses, cars, meeting rooms, and in just about any situation where a group wants to make a decision but someone wants to keep researching options beyond the point of good sense. It is not a new phenomenon, having been recognized by Aesop, Shakespeare, and others across the centuries, and by anyone who has ever tried to decide where to have lunch with friends who can’t make up their mind.

Doing new things means some ambiguity. It is easy to search for a better solution than the ones that you have available, or find yourself chasing trails in the elusive search for certainty, in such a way that a decision or action is never taken. You may recognize sayings such as “perfect is the enemy of good enough” or “gilding the lilly” – all leaning towards the very popular public opinion of “enough already, let’s do this!”

But, to quote my niece, “Hold your horses, people!”

Just as it has been rightly recognized that too much analysis can be a bad thing, let’s not automatically jump on the bandwagon of the bias towards action. The same people who are asking us to “get on with it” may very well struggle with sunk cost because they started down the wrong path and now we’re stuck with something everyone hates. Frankly, I’ve seen just as much of Analysis Paralysis as I have with decisions gone wrong because they were made too quickly.

I cringe when I see articles that publish advice like “curb your curiosity” – really? Stop being curious? Let’s make sure we ask our kids to stop asking why as well. Or advice such as setting deadlines. Deadlines are fine if they are just that – the project is going to be dead in the water at this point. Setting a random deadline is just a way to set yourself up for frustration if the milestone doesn’t really mean anything. If there isn’t a true deadline, then when the decision is made is more of a question of comfort than it is of risk.

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Which gets me to this point: what you really want is a way to figure out The Real Question:

How to determine when to make a decision and take action?

It would be nice if there was an app for that, but in the meantime let me see if I can sum it up in a handy-dandy thought equation:

Time to Act = (Cost of Delaying)/(Benefit of Delaying) > 1

First, determine the cost of delaying the decision. If it doesn’t cost anything now, then take more time for analysis. At some time there will be a tipping point. Action is expensive if you are redoing work, and sometimes waiting means that value is lost or expenses can occur, such as not meeting a mandate.

All of this assumes that you have clarity on what you are actually trying to achieve. If you don’t know that, then any action, whether it is analysis or action, is just fuzzy math. It also assumes that you are not confusing certainty with clarity (more on this in a future post).

I like the way that Lon Roberts breaks up Analysis Paralysis into three categories, which can then help you make a more informed decision about the costs of action:

  • Analysis Process Paralysis
  • Risk Uncertainty Paralysis
  • Decision Precision Paralysis

In reality, the best advice is what Lon wittily calls Brainwidth Expansion but basically means get some help; the person slogging through the details often doesn’t have the viewpoint of someone who can see the big picture. Ask them to help you answer these two questions:

  • Can we answer this right now?
  • How could this go wrong if not answered?

So let’s help my niece know when to just play the game and stop looking for a better solution: when more than half of us at the table are ready to kick her out of the game if she takes any longer, it might be best if she picks a move quickly or risk getting no dessert.