Analysis Paralysis and the Threat to Innovation

A much delayed first post of 2023, which has been for a couple of reasons. Firstly I’ve taken a super relaxing break and switched off completely rather than my usual rambling around. I’ve been staying in one of those Caribbean mega hotels beloved by East Coast Americans looking to escape the winter freeze – and whilst that’s enjoyable - it doesn’t really get the creative juices flowing.

Secondly, I wanted to take a break from doom scrolling and the sheer misery of UK news feeds, as I recognised I was in danger of becoming overloaded, inhibited even, by the constant trauma and death spiral updates.

In my privileged all-inclusive adult playground there’s no cost of living crisis apart from the inflated cost of getting here. Covid is a memory. There’s no talk of a climate emergency and politics is a no go. “What happened to your president, the blonde guy with the hair all over the place? We digged him” is the closest it gets. No-one knows who Rishi Sunak is, and frankly why should they?

There’s a great scene in the second season of The White Lotus, in which at their first vacation dinner Harper and Ethan learn that their companions Daphne and Cameron don’t ever read or watch the news (“You can’t obsess”) and Daphne admits she isn’t sure whether she voted or not.

In a later scene that Wired said epitomised 2022, Essex lad Jack is dumbfounded when Portia expresses dismay at the declining state of world “Literally everything is falling apart”. Jack is dumbfounded. What decline? What is falling apart? “You’d rather live in the Middle Ages then, would ya?  We’re living in the best time in the history of the world—on the best f*cking planet. If you can’t be satisfied living now, here, you’re never gonna be satisfied. So let’s get pissed. Ay?” He grabs her by the hand. And off they go.

If you haven’t seen White Lotus, you should, as creator Mike White has perfectly summed up the dilemma many of us face both personally and in our organisations. Should we be hopeful or fearful for the future? And what is the best response to prepare for that uncertainty?

We know that constant exposure to the news is not good for us. “Media saturation overload” exists. Similar terms that have emerged recently include “doom scrolling,” “headline anxiety,” and “headline stress disorder.”

As news organisations and social media feeds prioritise clickbait, headlines become more dramatic and doom laden than they often need to be. Reading about negative events can even be as stressful as being directly involved in them.

A study was conducted into the impact of reporting on the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. The researchers looked at two groups of people. The first group watched 6 or more hours of news coverage about the bombings. The second group were runners in the actual marathon.

Those who watched 6 or more hours of news coverage about the bombings were more likely to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and experienced a higher level of chronic stress than people who were actually at the marathon and personally affected by it.

I see similar things happening within our organisations. As we struggle with competing crises, some real, some exaggerated, we can enter a fugue state of analysis paralysis, a state that you can find yourself in when feeling extraordinarily confused and overwhelmed around a certain situation or set of possibilities.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz coined the phrase “Paradox of Choice” to describe his findings that, while increased choice allows us to achieve objectively better results, it also leads to greater anxiety, indecision, paralysis, and dissatisfaction. Being overwhelmed by a conflicting set of deficit based scenarios is the death of creativity and innovation as it leads to a lack of impetus. Literally nothing gets started. No mistakes are made so nothing ever is learned.

My contention is that organisations cast the net far too wide on the scenarios that affect them. By intentionally limiting the amount of information you consume, you can increase your productivity.

This is the productivity paradox of today – where growth in established economies is minimal compared to the speed of technology adoption. It seems clear that technological innovations aimed to make communication faster and more ubiquitous have clearly failed to boost our aggregate ability to actually get things done

I don’t do new years resolutions but looking back at the Covid and early post Covid era it seems organizations have become stuck in indecision mode as the old world model has ended and the new one is yet to fully emerge. The overwhelming response is, seemingly, no response.

The world is pretty screwed up at times, but is also beautiful and full of endless possibilities. We don’t push things forward by being doom laden but equally it is reckless to believe that our bigger problems will be solved through wide eyed naivety. 

Indeed the next few years will require discussing dangerous ideas that need to be explored in forums free of political ideology. I largely support what Musk is trying to do with Twitter but we don’t yet know whether it will be successful, as our echo chambers are stronger than ever. 

The main problem we face is that viewing the world through the lens of a collapsing health service, an aging population, a digitally distracted youth, and an apathetic and careless community is that we start to see life as an endless succession of deficits. 

It isn’t like that. Life is mostly good. When people are freed from bureaucracy they do amazing things. So let’s enable them to do it.

But right now, I’ll settle for another Margarita.

Related: Designing for Ambiguity