Cries of ‘analysis paralysis’ are more often fiction than fact. Every time I’ve heard someone call out the phrase in a meeting it’s to end a argument over some particular solution preference rather than an attempt end to an overly long analysis process. The problem isn’t too much analysis, it’s too little. Surrounded by weak, muddy and conflicting information we often fail to find a clear call to action that we can easily latch onto and end up playing what if with the weak solutions that we can find, unable to commit to one. We need to take a more structured approach to traveling from problem to solution – scan, focus and then act – and apply our judgement rather than trying to skip directly to the end of the book and then arguing about the conclusion.
Reasoning by analogy is a powerful tool; it’s much easier to explain that problem X is like problem Y, aside from a few differences. It’s explanation by exception, showing you something new by explaining how it’s different from something else that you already know. ‘We’re Google for video’, ‘Star Trek is wagon trains to the stars’ or ‘Like a milkshake, only crunchy’. Analogies are powerful because they play to our tendancy to see patterns all around us and make connections between them: this is like that or these two are not the same.
Present a group of people with a problem and you’ll find that they each latch onto some analogous problem from their past, a problem that they successfully solved and which they feel is similar to problem in front of them. They’ve lept from problem directly to solution, skipping over analysis. The debate that follows is really an argument over which solution is ‘the best’. The team becomes paralysed, arguing over the pros of cons of each solution, unable to realise that they might be assuming that they’re trying to solve very different problems. Finally someone calls out ‘analysis paralysis’ and a decision is forced.
Present an individual with a problem and you find that they can become stalled, unable to find an analogy in their past that is similar to the problem in front of them, or finding too many that might fit. They slice and dice the information they have, applying decision frameworks and solutions that they’ve used in the past, hoping to find something that is familuar, something that they recognise as a problem that they’ve already solved and something which provides a clear call to action. That is until someone points out that they’re stuck in ‘analysis paralysis’ and they’re forced to pick a direction to head.
Analogies are a great shortcut to understanding a problem, except for when they’re not. Sometimes X looks like Y, but it’s not really, and by associating X with Y we might be ignoring important facts that can mean the difference between a bad and a good solution. The challenge is to be aware of your own thought processes and realise when you’re leaping to conclusions prematurely; metacognition is an under apprechiated skill. If you apply some structure to the path from problem to solution then it will be easier to manage the journey.
Scan, focus, act is a consulting trick that has been around for a long time, but it still does a good job of managing the journey from problem – through analysis, design and planning – to solution.
Scan. Review what is known about the problem, how it is similar to other problems and where it is different, and how these other problems have been solved in the past (or how the proposed solutions failed).
Focus. Enumerate the possible solutions to your problem, drawing from what was learned during Scan. Test each solution, measuring it against your particular problem to where it works and where it fails in this context.
Act. Pull the best elements of each solution from Focus, and synthesise a new solution that integrates these elements to solve your specific problem.
Sometimes the journey will be quick as the analogy we first thought of really does hold. Other times it may take a little longer, when you realise that your analogies were sending you down the wrong path, and you need to pull ideas from a range of sources to create a new solution. Its these times when your judgement (something many people are loath to apply) tells you to take the longer path that you create the most valuable solutions, the new tools to solve new problems built from the best parts to the existing tools you already had at hand. Refusing to use your judgement, however, will leave you stuck in the mud, arguing over the details of solutions that are not really relevant.
Image source: Tim Fishburne