In 1940 and 1941, Germany attempted to conquer Britain by airstrikes. The Battle of Britain ended well, the island resisted heroically and that turned the tide of World War II. Sir Robert Watson-Watt was one of the British who had a great contribution in repelling the German attacks. He invented and implemented an early warning radar system that was quickly installed on the east coast of England in 1937, to counter the rapid growth of the German Air Force.
The system was built to detect the Luftwaffe aircraft early, when they flew over France, giving RAF pilots crucial tactical information. The timely development of this system was due to a solid principle of Watson-Watt, which he called “the cult of the imperfect”. According to this principle, we must always choose the third best solution. Because the second best comes too late. And the perfect solution doesn’t exist.
The best is the enemy of the good. Voltaire wrote this a quarter of a millennium ago, quoting an Italian proverb. As the business world moves faster and faster, a good solution today is much more efficient than a very good one tomorrow. And yet, many managers fall into the trap of postponing a decision until they have all the data and they weigh all the possible solutions.
I wrote here before about how Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, uses two simple rules to overcome analysis paralysis: he makes reversible decisions without thinking too much, and acts on irreversible ones when he has about 70% of the information because he says: “when you get to have 90% of the information, it’s already too late”.
Analysis paralysis, the tendency to act only when you are ultra-confident about the chosen solution (which translates to “almost never”), can be the result of two psychological mechanisms: the fear of making mistakes and the belief that, choosing a solution now, we miss the chance of finding a much better one. Let’s take them one at a time.
The fear of making mistakes can have individual (psychological) or organizational causes. The classic individual cause is perfectionism, a very common managerial trait in our country, which leads to lack of productivity, tense climate, micromanagement, and burnout. The organizational cause can come from a culture in which exists fear of failure, a culture in which failure is analyzed not to see what we can learn from it, but to find and punish the guilty, a culture that punishes action, but not the mistakes made due to inaction, causing a total lack of initiative and the establishment of the CYA tactic (Google it).
The Nirvana fallacy
The second mechanism of analysis paralysis is the reluctance to choose a solution because maybe, if we think about it one more day, we will find a much better one. The perfect solution fallacy is called Nirvana fallacy and it prevents us from seeing the effectiveness of the solutions we have at hand.
The father of Decision Science, Herbert Simon, divides people into satisficers and maximizers. In English, satisficing combines satisfying and sufficing and it characterizes people who stop searching when they have found a fairly good, adequate, useful solution. Maximizing characterizes people who are looking for the best possible solution.
It is obvious that satisficers are ultimately more efficient, as I illustrated by the example with Watson-Watts. They are also happier. A study by Barry Schwartz (the author of a famous TED Talk – The paradox of choice) shows that satisficers are more optimistic and self-confident, while maximizers have more often reported regret and depression. What type are you?
But let’s get back to efficiency and productivity. Ed Batista says in a Harvard Business Review article that managers focus too much on choosing a solution and too little on implementation. In the article, Batista quotes Scott McNealy, founder and CEO of Sun Microsystems: “It’s important to make good decisions. But I spend less time and energy worrying that I’m not making the right decision and more time and energy to make sure that the taken decision is going well”.
How do you counter perfectionism?
OK. All well and good, it seems that the excessive analysis is harmful, but what do we do if we understand this rationally and yet we cannot refrain from weighing a thousand times every decision? Here are four ways to counter this tendency:
The founder of a very dynamic Romanian company once told me that, in order to counter the tendency to find tons of data, to analyze scenarios in Excel and to compare IRRs, he imposed onto himself a simple rule: to pilot the project as early as possible.
A small qualitative market research (talking to a few potential customers), followed by the launch of a minimum viable product, an imperfect prototype, can bring more valuable information than any analysis made in front of the computer.
The motto of the entrepreneur I was talking about, which he says every time the discussion and analysis drag on, is about the same as the Nike slogan, except he adds a four-letter word (gerund), for a boost of adrenaline. The piloting mechanism also applies to decisions when we fear their size. Can’t decide whether to resign in order to pursue your passion for opening a café? Don’t. Better start by taking a barista course. Or take a week off and ask a friend, who already has a café, to have you as an intern for a few days.
2. Give yourself a deadline.
At some point you must decide on one of the options and close the debate (with yourself).
Parkinson’s law says that work expands to fill all the time allotted. The same goes for decisions, we make them as late as possible. And sometimes it is too late when we find out it is too late.
That is why it is good to give ourselves clear deadlines for deciding. Short deadlines, which we put on our calendar. With reminder. Deadlines that we should even make public.
3. Define a main goal, a target, a purpose, a “what am I about?” or “what are we about?” and decide based on the alignment to this purpose.
My goal, for example, is to bring information about healthy thinking to as many people as possible. This is why I teach; this is why I write. And when a student association asks me to hold (for free, obviously) a one-day workshop for 40 students, I do not think I have a full schedule, I do not think what my price would be for a day,
I think it aligns with my goal and I say “yes” without analysing too much.
By the way, I can’t wait, it is in ten days, so I need to make the decision fast. Knowing what I want helps.
4. Flip a coin
Most of the times, choices are hard to make because in each scenario we lose something. In such situations, the Economic Theory speaks of opportunity cost, the Decision Theory speaks of minimizing regret, but the best articulated advice is given by the Danish poet Piet Hein, who tells us to solve our dilemmas by flipping a coin.
Not to let luck decide. No. But because when the coin is in the air, we will know what we want to get.
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