Trapped in Analysis Paralysis? Try Sense-making Instead

By R Bruce Hull For RealLeaders

Like most professionals, you are wary of making decisions or offering advice when uncertainty is high, when you are likely to be wrong, and when the blame for failure will be yours. So, you err on the side of caution and pause to collect additional information in the search for clarity and certainty.

But the situation is complex, dynamic, and unique, so further information is unlikely to help, and you get stuck in analysis-paralysis. That means you’ve delayed the decision, which means you’ve allowed the status quo to continue, which means you’ve probably enabled worse outcomes than if you had acted and failed. Moreover, by not acting, you missed the opportunity to learn how the system responds to interventions, which is one of the critical tenets of learning-by-doing and what you need to do to make sense of the situation. 

But you know that if you rush into a decision, you may misinterpret it because you’ve seen research showing that experts don’t do well in ambiguous and uncertain situations: experts tend to fall victim to the confirmation bias that selectively identifies observations that fit their theories and past experiences. You’ve also read that people make poor decisions about unique situations when stressed, hurried, and have limited information. In such cases, most people instead invoke stereotypes, see patterns where none exist, and ignore anomalies. So you pause, ponder, and analyze.

And, importantly, you are aware of the sunk-cost fallacy: once a decision gets made, people tend to defend and repeat the same or similar decision, regardless of whether it is working, because to stop and try something different is to suggest that the time, resources, and people who supported previous efforts were wasted. So, if you commit to an action, you worry that changing direction will be difficult. Knowing this, you are cautious about making quick decisions, trapped in analysis-paralysis, and supporting the status quo, which you know is bad and what to avoid. The cycle repeats, and you are trapped in analysis paralysis. 

If you find yourself in such situations, then sensemaking provides a way forward. Sensemaking has two aspects: mindset and practice. 

Sensemaking as a mindset requires being flexible, taking time to consult others, broadening your perspective, and searching for the next decision without getting trapped in searching for the right decision. When things are highly uncertain, better decisions emerge when ideas are proposed, tested, rejected, and replaced with new ideas to retest, again and again, and again. That means you must be courageous enough to propose and make decisions while being humble enough to abandon what does not work, following the vital sensemaking principle of strong ideas weakly held. A sensemaking mindset encourages course corrections rather than rigidly following a planned path toward a predetermined solution. It promotes tolerance for results that differ from those that were predicted. It views failure as an opportunity to learn rather than an opportunity to cast blame.

Sensemaking as a practice can be equally powerful. When confronted with ambiguity and overwhelming complexity, sensemaking provides a place to engage the problem. Here are several tools you are probably familiar with:

– sSWOT: The Sustainability Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities and Threats analysis helps organizations take action on environmental challenges by exploring collaboration with internal departments, as well as suppliers, customers, or other stakeholders on strategies to create and sustain long-term value. Most importantly, it can help identify and communicate possible decisions.

– 3SO: Every sustainability situation has four dimensions: Stakeholders, Strategies, System, and Outcomes. Stakeholders use Strategies to change Systems to produce desired Outcomes. To quickly make sense of a situation, iteratively work through each of these four dimensions. What you learn from one dimension (i.e., stakeholders) can inform and help you more effectively see relevant information in another dimension (i.e., strategies the stakeholders are using and the outcomes they seek).

– Cynefin: The framework sorts the issues facing leaders into five contexts—simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder. It helps leaders diagnose situations, so they respond in contextually appropriate ways, make better decisions, and avoid the problems that arise when they otherwise respond with their preferred/default management style.

– PEST/PESTLE/STEEPLE: Helps analyze the Political, Economic, Socio-Cultural, and Technological challenges you face. It helps understand the “big picture” forces of change you’re exposed to and take advantage of the opportunities that they present.

– Natural Step’s 5-Level Framework: Most every situation has five levels: (1) the System in which it is embedded, 2) what counts as success, 3) the strategies that produce success, 4) the concrete actions or tactics associated with those strategies, and 5) the tools those actions use such as life cycle analysis or ISO 14001.

– VISSI.  The Vision and goals describe what success looks like. The indicators help gauge progress towards those goals. The System maps the causes, effects, and leverage points where Innovation is needed to create change, and the Strategies produce the required change. 

The scale, complexity, and uncertainty of sustainable challenges can be daunting. Where do you start? Who should you talk to? What can you do? The familiar parable about blind men encountering their first elephant illustrates how easy it is to misinterpret complex situations and how easy it is to become stuck in analysis paralysis.

Six blind men encountered an elephant. Not knowing what it was, they decided to explore it. “It’s a pillar,” said the man who touched a leg. “No! It is a rope,” said the man who touched the tail. “It is a tree,” said the man who touched the trunk. “It is a hand fan,” said the man who touched the ear. “It a wall,” said the man who touched the belly. “How can that be. What I feel is a solid pipe,” said the man who touched the tusk. 

Because the six could not make sense of the situation, they could not respond to the risks and opportunities it presented. We can only hope they are well and did not extend the analysis of the elephant much further.  

R Bruce Hull is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability and co-author of a book hat explains and illustrates many strategies for dealing with wicked problems: “Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems.”

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