How to Overcome Analysis Paralysis
When every project, plan, decision, and solution depends upon the meaningful analysis of goals, requirements, alternatives and consequences, can there ever be too much analysis? Can there ever be too much input? Can reasonable deadlines be set when new information is always waiting around the corner? The answer to these questions is a resounding yes! It has to be. Once "analysis" crosses the cost/benefit line, it becomes counter-productive, impeding forward movement and tangible progress. In common terms, this is known as "analysis paralysis".
According to the Wikipedia encyclopedia, analysis paralysis occurs when "... the opportunity cost of decision analysis exceeds the benefits. Analysis paralysis applies to any situation where analysis may be applied to help make a decision and may be a dysfunctional element of organizational behavior. ....In software development, analysis paralysis manifests itself through exceedingly long phases of project planning, requirements gathering, program design and modeling, with little or no extra value created by those steps." In order to maintain forward momentum, and deliver required projects and services, "analysis" must serve a specific purpose, whether to aide a decision or produce a deliverable. Analysis related activities must be executed to move a project or process forward. Once in "paralysis mode", activities cease to contribute to the bottom line, becoming "empty and excessive".
Analysis paralysis is usually caused by a well-intentioned, but misplaced focus on "work instead of results", characterized by one or more of the following:
1. The uncontrolled collection of excessive amounts of data.
2. Ongoing unproductive activities (meetings) creating an appearance of forward movement (activity is confused with "accomplishment").
3. Excessive attention to process deliverables (reports and studies).
4. Decision avoidance ... i.e. frequent requests for changes and/or additional information just at the point at which decisions could otherwise be made.
5. Fear of failure or error - "If I don't take action, I can't make a mistake".
6. Fear of obsolescence ... "What if something better comes along, what if some new information is available?"
Analysis has a simple goal.... to reach the best conclusion possible, based on reasonable, verified information and informed consensus. How can this be achieved without excess? The first step towards avoiding, or at least minimizing, analysis paralysis is to define appropriate process limits and expectations. Analysis is not a deliverable in and of itself, it is a process used to create a deliverable, and as such, it must be defined by specific goals, tasks, deadlines and results. This can be achieved through the creation of an analysis framework.
The analysis framework is used to establish (5) defining parameters for the ensuing process, setting the stage for the work to be done. Using the framework, you can avoid the type of open-ended, undefined process inevitably leading to "analysis paralysis".
Step 1: Set process goals and objectives.
What is the driving force behind this analysis? Why is this analysis necessary and how will it add value to the project or issue at hand? What is the urgency? What are the risks if this analysis is not undertaken?
Step 2: Set process limits with a defined scope.
How will this analysis be used to influence the decision, plan or project at hand? Note: If the pending analysis cannot be tied to a specific need or result, it is time to rethink the whole thing. What are the expected results (deliverable) of this analysis? Note: Depending on the project, problem or issue at hand, analysis deliverables can include decisions, recommendations, plans and problem "plans of attack". What is the minimal amount of information required to reach the desired result? Can this analysis occur in "phases", to allow other work to begin even if all "analysis" is not yet complete?
Step 3: Set a deadline.
Every analytical process should proceed along a defined timeline, with an established (and communicated) deadline. Without a firm deadline, analysis can become a never-ending cycle of "wait, here's some new information", or "let's have another meeting". Analysis should never be open-ended, it should always be tied to a specific goal and a specific deadline. Any and all changes to this deadline should be considered carefully, and allowed only when absolutely necessary.
Step 4: Define tasks, with assigned roles and responsibilities.
How will this analysis process be executed? Who will be involved? What tasks are required for data collection, organization, analysis and deliverables production?
Step 5: Establish success criteria.
Success criteria will help you to set expectations and avoid "analysis" scope creep. Defined success criteria will also help you to respond when and if problems arise, and you are in need a "plan B".