Whenever I’m unable to make a decision, I remind myself of the ancient fable about the fox and the cat.
In the story, the two animals discuss how many ways they have to escape their hunters. Fox boasts of having many. Cat, however, admits to having only one.
When the hunters finally arrive, cat quickly climbs a tree. Fox, on the other hand, begins to analyze all the ways to escape that he knows. But unable to decide which one would be the best, he fails to act and gets caught by the dogs.
To me, the story perfectly illustrates the analysis paralysis phenomenon: the inability to act or decide due to overthinking available alternatives, possible outcomes and data.
In this post, I show you how analysis paralysis affects product development and what you can do to overcome it.
What Exactly is “Analysis Paralysis?”
According to the definition:
“Analysis paralysis or paralysis by analysis is an anti-pattern, the state of over-analyzing (or overthinking) a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome. “
A person experiencing analysis paralysis gets so lost in the process of analyzing and evaluating various data needed to make a decision that they become unable to act.
Just like the fox in the old fable.
But Why Do We Tend to Overthink Decisions?
To understand what causes analysis paralysis, let’s first take a look at our decision making process.
According to American psychologist Herbert Simon, we make decisions in one of two ways:
- Some of us “Satisfice.” These people select the first option that meets their need (or pick an option that seems to address the most needs).
- Others “Maximize.” These people never settle for the available solution, but keep on looking for other, better alternatives.
Of the two groups, maximizers are the ones prone to prolonging decision-making in the hope of finding a better solution, offer, or deal, and who often suffer from analysis paralysis.
(On a side note, studies have also proved a negative correlation between maximizing and happiness and positive correlation between maximizing and depression, perfectionism and regret.)
Some of us also use overthinking to guard against failure. When expected to act or make a decision, we use over-analyzing as a means to prolong or delay our actions, in fear of making a wrong choice.
People also tend to fall prey to the “Choice Overload:” the more data we have available, the harder it is for us to process it. In fact, once the amount of data reaches a person’s threshold, their brain’s ability to process it starts to decline, up to a point when the person becomes paralyzed to make a decision.
Sheena Iyengar from Columbia University researched this phenomena with the famous “Jam Experiment” to observe the effect of choice on our decision making process.
Iyengar set up a jam tasting booth in a specialty store. At any time, customers would be able to sample from 24 or 6 different jam varieties.
She first observed which selection would attract greater attention. As it turned out, more customers would stop beside a booth offering 24 varieties.
That interest, however, didn’t translate into sales.
Only 3% of those people purchased any jam. However, 30% of people who stopped to sample one of the 6 varieties ended up buying.
The research proved that we are attracted to anything that offers a greater selection. However, at a certain point we’re unable to process all of the available choices and move forward with a decision.
Even though Iyengar’s experiment aimed to investigate a consumer behavior, its findings translate into product development as well.
We often collect vast amounts of data hoping it will help us make necessary decisions, and then become paralyzed by the abundance of information. (You might consider this the data equivalent of a “food coma.”)
In product development analysis, paralysis typically manifests itself in:
- Unnecessarily long project planning phases.
- Long and exhausting information and requirements gathering sessions.
- Slow movement between various stages of the product development.
How to Overcome Analysis Paralysis
1. Prioritize Your Decisions
Treating all decisions as if they had the same impact on your work can lead to analysis paralysis. As a first step, differentiate between decisions that require your immediate attention and those you can act on later.
Ask yourself these questions before every decision you have to make:
- How important is it?
- Will its outcome affect the next immediate stage of the product development?
- Do you have to make the decision now?
- What could go wrong based on the decision I’d make?
2. Determine the Goal for Making Each Decision
Often the reason for our inability to decide isn’t fear of failure or too much choice; sometimes we just don’t know why we need to make that decision at all. In this case, defining goals for making a decision will make it easier to pick from available alternatives.
For instance, imagine you need to choose between implementing a complex feature requiring slow and tedious development process, and its less sophisticated alternative. You could begin collecting and analyzing data to try and predict which one offers the best prospect for the future. However, knowing that your goal is to ship the product as fast as possible, the “less sophisticated” alternative becomes the smarter, more efficient choice.
3. Break Decisions into Smaller Steps
Instead of trying to make a decision in one step, consider breaking it into smaller actions.
Shifting attention from one big decision to set of smaller but easier-to-make ones can help you make progress while free you from the paralysis of trying to make a big and significant choice.
4. Forget Perfection
Unless you’re making a life-altering decision, you don’t need to demand perfection. Sometimes, picking a “good-enough” decision is the best decision.
Every decision you make will have its downsides. Don’t let this fact keep you from moving forward.
5. Put (Healthy) Pressure On Yourself or Your Team
If you’re one of the people who work better under pressure, enforce a deadline by which you must make the decision.
If your team is involved, schedule a final meeting to discuss the issue. Make it clear that you’ll schedule no other sessions relating to it, and have at it. Sometimes a pressure-cooker is exactly what’s needed (just remember to bring snacks.)
Analysis paralysis manifests itself in the inability to make a decision due to overthinking the available alternatives, possibilities and data. It’s one of the main causes for project delays, exhausting project planning sessions, the gathering of unnecessary data, and slow movement between production stages.
To avoid analysis paralysis, differentiate decisions by importance, break them into smaller steps, and put a healthy amount of pressure on yourself and your team to make a decision.