Analysis paralysis or paralysis by analysis is the state of over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome. A decision can be treated as over-complicated, with too many detailed options, so that a choice is never made, rather than try something and change if a major problem arises. A person might be seeking the optimal or "perfect" solution upfront, and fear making any decision which could lead to erroneous results, while on the way to a better solution. On the opposite end of the time spectrum is the phrase extinct by instinct, which is making a fatal decision based on hasty judgment or a gut reaction.
The phrase "analysis paralysis" describes a situation in which the opportunity cost of decision analysis exceeds the benefits that could be gained by enacting some decision, or an informal or non-deterministic situation where the sheer quantity of analysis overwhelms the decision-making process itself, thus preventing a decision. The phrase applies to any situation where analysis may be applied to help make a decision and may be a dysfunctional element of organizational behavior. This is often phrased as paralysis by analysis.
The basic idea has been expressed through narrative a number of times. In one "Aesop's fable" that is recorded even before Aesop's time, The Fox and the Cat, the fox boasts of "hundreds of ways of escaping" while the cat has "only one". When they hear the hounds approaching, the cat scampers up a tree while "the fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds". The fable ends with the moral, "Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon". Related concepts are expressed by the Centipede's dilemma, how unconscious activity is disrupted by conscious thought of it, and by the tale of Buridan's ass, a paradox of rational decision with equal options.
In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the main character, Prince Hamlet, is often said to have a mortal flaw of thinking too much, such that his youth and vital energy are "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought". Neema Parvini explores some of Hamlet's key decisions in the chapter "'And Reason Panders Will': Another Look at Hamlet's Analysis Paralysis".
Voltaire popularized an old Italian proverb in French in the 1770s of which an English variant is "Perfect is the enemy of good." The meaning of "The perfect is the enemy of the good" is that one might never complete a task if one has decided not to stop until it is perfect: completing the project well is made impossible by striving to complete it perfectly.
"Analysis, paralysis" appeared together in an 1803 pronouncing dictionary and later editions stating how those words are pronounced similarly. The usage of rhyming words can make aphorisms sound more truthful and be more memorable by their usage of the rhyme-as-reason effect and ode mnemonics.
In 1928 at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, Reverend C. Leslie Glenn, National Secretary for College Work. spoke that the religious collegiate world was at risk of "paralysis by analysis" from being too speculative instead of definitive, needing real work instead of investigations.
During World War II, Winston Churchill, after hearing that the landing craft designers were spending the majority of their time arguing over design changes, sent this message: "The maxim 'Nothing avails but perfection' may be spelt shorter: 'Paralysis.'"
In 1956, Charles R. Schwartz wrote the article "The Return-on-Investment Concept as a Tool for Decision Making" in Changing Patterns And Concepts In Management stating, "We will do less guessing; avoid the danger of becoming extinct by instinct; and, by the adoption of one uniform evaluation guide, escape succumbing to paralysis by analysis."
In 1965, H. Igor Ansoff wrote the book Corporate Strategy: An Analytic Approach to Business Policy for Growth and Expansion. He used the phrase "paralysis by analysis" in reference to those who used the approach to excess. Ansoff had referenced Schwartz's paper in couple of his papers.
In a paper published in 1970, based on a speech in 1969 and other works, Silver and Hecker wrote:
The Duke group has used the term "analysis-paralysis" to point out that, if we wait until we have completely answered all the questions and solved all of the problems before training the personnel we need, we will never reach a solution. The insistent demands for further study and extensive evaluation suggested by some may only be a defense by those who do not wish to change or those who fear change.
In software development, analysis paralysis typically manifests itself through the Waterfall model with exceedingly long phases of project planning, requirements gathering, program design and data modeling, which can create little or no extra value by those steps and risk many revisions. When extended over too long a timeframe, such processes tend to emphasize the organizational (i.e., bureaucratic) aspect of the software project, while detracting from its functional (value-creating) portion.
Analysis paralysis is an example of an anti-pattern.Agile software development methodologies explicitly seek to prevent analysis paralysis by promoting an iterative work cycle that emphasizes working products over product specifications but requires buy-in from the full project team. In some instances Agile software development ends up creating additional confusion in the project in the case where iterative plans are made with no intention on having the team following through.
Analysis paralysis is a critical problem in athletics. It can be explained in simple terms as "failure to react in response to over-thought." A victim of sporting analysis paralysis will frequently think in complicated terms of "what to do next" while contemplating the variety of possibilities, and in doing so exhausts the available time in which to act.
There are additional situations in which analysis paralysis can be identified, but in which the phenomenon is often accidental or coincidental.
Casual analysis paralysis can occur during the process of trying to make personal decisions if the decision-maker overanalyzes the circumstance with which they are faced. When this happens, the sheer volume of analysis overwhelms the decision-maker, weighing him or her down so much that they feel overwhelmed with the task, unable to make a rational conclusion.
In some cases, the decision-maker can analyze every possible outcome of an action and write it all out, but then delete it because of how they analyze the outcome to be and how they may be viewed.
Although analysis paralysis can actually occur at any time, regarding any issue in typical conversation, it is particularly likely to occur during elevated, intellectual discussions. During such intellectual discussion, analysis paralysis involves the over-analysis of a specific issue to the point where that issue can no longer be recognized, and the subject of the conversation is lost. Usually, this happens because complex issues (which are often the basis of elevated, intellectual conversation) are intricately connected with various other issues, and the pursuit of these various issues makes logical sense to the participants. Below is an example of how analysis paralysis might affect a conversation about human rights:
All of these issues are closely related and each issue brings up yet another related one. The assumption is that, eventually, the analysis will move on so far astray that the initial issue of human rights becomes a sub-issue or is no longer even recognizable to the current topic under discussion.
Games provide a microcosm for decision-making where there can be adversaries, hidden or missing information, random events, complex options, and consequences. In this context, analysis paralysis denotes a state where a player is so overwhelmed by aspects of the decision tree that he or she faces that the player's turn takes an inordinate amount of time. This can be compounded in a losing position where the player is exhaustively searching for a win or purposely stalling to prevent officially losing the game. The connotation is often pejorative, implying that the slowing of the game diminished the enjoyment by other players. Some games explicitly add time deadlines (e.g. with a chess clock or egg timer). In chess this slowing of play is referred to as Kotov Syndrome and, in timed chess matches, can result in time trouble. Good game design can reduce the likelihood of analysis paralysis in gameplay. Game design itself can also be susceptible to analysis paralysis.
There are many ways to help prevent or overcome the logjam of analysis paralysis. There may be many factors contributing to the cause. Lon Roberts breaks down the common definition of "analysis paralysis" into three possibly overlapping conditions of paralysis: analysis process, decision precision, and risk uncertainty. He uses this to give specific actions for each condition. Becky Kane and others give these following suggestions:
Set initial constraints (deadline, time, people, money, resources,...) to what you are willing to commit for this plan. Setting deadlines: "Set a 'drop dead' date." "Set a deadline and hold yourself accountable." Limit the amount of info: "Curb your curiosity." "Intentionally limit the amount of information you consume."
Having a clear goal can simplify your decisions and actions for any project. "Know your main objective."
"Recognize that the moons will never align."
Agile development and design thinking are two recent movements emphasizing small iterations to discover the problem space. "Approach problems with an iterative mindset." Decide something: "Stair step your decisions." Resorting to Flipism, at least to reveal your preference, can resolve seeming equal choices. Do something: "Start before you feel ready."
Increasing the number of options in the beginning increase the likelihood for a good solution. Decreasing the number of options later simplifies the decision process (Paradox of choice).
Decision making works best with a mix of rational, intuitive and emotional thinking.
Talking with someone can get another viewpoint. This can also help reduce groupthink. "Get a sanity check." "Get out of your own head and talk it out with someone else." It doesn't even have to be a person (see Rubber duck debugging).
Decision fatigue can affect or even prevent good decision making. "Structure your day for the decisions that matter most." When you do make your decision, support it. "Make your decision the right one."