The most effective way to beat analysis paralysis

When you research a topic, a tech field for example, it is easy to get into analysis paralysis. Why? Because there is no cookie cutter approach to researching a tech field. There is a high degree of uncertainty, and you probably keep asking yourself questions such as, “What’s the best way to structure the field? How is the field even defined?,” and so on. Then, you probably think, “Great, let’s just get some more information“. After all, having more information is supposed to reduce uncertainty, right?

So you keep searching, and collecting, and searching… Then you check your watch, and you notice that you have spent half a day just searching and collecting, but not deciding or concluding anything. In other words, you haven’t made the kind of progress that really counts, such as exploring how your findings could help you build something better or faster. Ooops…

This is analysis paralysis. Analysis paralysis affects both teams and individuals. Here, I talk about the “individuals” variety. The “teams” variety involves many other factors that are out of scope here.

Why having more information can hurt more than it helps

Before we talk about how you can quite effectively beat analysis paralysis, I would like to show you a somewhat counter-intuitive research finding.

Back in 1973, Paul Slovic wrote a paper, Behavioral problems of adhering to a decision policy. One of Slovic’s findings was that having more items of information available leads to an increase in judgment confidence but not in judgment accuracy.

Chart from Slovic, P (1973). Behavioral problems of adhering to a decision policy. The chart shows that having more items of information increases confidence but not accuracy of a judgment.
Chart from Slovic, P (1973). Behavioral problems of adhering to a decision policy.

As you collect more and more information, your confidence in your judgment increases but your accuracy does not.

This is tricky. The implication of Slovic’s finding is that it is easy to fool yourself into thinking that having more information will also improve your judgment accuracy.

By the way, these findings have made it into a classic book on intelligence analysis, Richards J. Heuer’s Psychology of Intelligence Analysis (p. 54 in the book). You can download the whole book as a PDF from the CIA’s web site (yes, really).

So, what to do?

To beat analysis paralysis, set an alarm clock to 20 minutes

Of the many things I myself have tried to beat analysis paralysis, this is by far the simplest and most effective tactic. Because it is so simple and as far as I can tell risk-free (what’s there to lose? 20 minutes?), I really recommend you try it out.

Why 20 minutes?

First, it is 20 minutes because this is roughly how long your brain can focus on something. A good entry point into reading more about the science behind this claim is this Wikipedia article on “attention span”.

There is even a time management method, called Pomodoro Technique (pomodoro = tomato), that is based on this (although it is 25, not 20, minutes in the classic Pomodoro Technique).

A great alarm clock for the Pomodoro Technique, a time management technique that helps you beat analysis paralysis. Image from Wikipedia.
A great alarm clock for the Pomodoro Technique. Image from Wikipedia.

How does setting an alarm clock help beat analysis paralysis?

Quite simply, if you only have 20 minutes, you have the finish line in sight. Of course, you can’t research many topics comprehensively within 20 minutes. But this is not the goal.

Rather than trying to be comprehensive, the goal is to get a first useful approximation.

Let me break down what I mean by “first useful approximation”:

“First”

It means just that. It is an initial step, more steps may follow. But even if you approach a topic in more steps, the key is that in between steps, you reflect, prioritize, refocus, and discuss with your team and colleagues. In other words, you can iterate and tread lightly, which is always a good idea when moving in uncharted territories (and by definition, with any tech field analysis you enter uncharted territories).

“Useful”

“Useful” means that your findings should somehow result in concrete action. Concrete action is the ultimate analysis paralysis breaker. A finding that triggers concrete action could be a company, for example, that makes something that you could buy instead of building it yourself, which enables you to innovate faster and stronger; or they might be competition. A research publication could be useful too, for instance, if it describes a method or an algorithm that you could implement in your own products. A market estimate could also be useful. Particularly if it helps you connect a technology to an application (we wrote about how you can explore market segments in a previous blog article). There are many other examples of useful findings, but you get the idea. Here are a few questions you could ask to determine whether a finding could be useful:

Company

  • Could you use their products or solutions to boost any of your products or solutions?
  • What terminology do they use? (you could use the terminology for tracking the topic later on)
  • Do you know any of the people there?

Market estimate

  • Does the market represent an interesting or new application for your products or tech?
  • Does the market estimate mention any relevant companies?

Scientific publication

  • Do you know any of the authors?
  • Could what’s presented in the paper directly boost any of your activities (e.g. new algorithm, new synthesis method, etc.)?

Blog article

  • Does the article provide an interesting future scenario?
  • Does the article reference a scientific publication that may be relevant to you?
  • What terminology does it use? (as with companies above, you could use the terminology for tracking the topic later on)

“Approximation”

This may be the hardest part to accept, particularly if one is a perfectionist. Yes, we know that we will most likely not get to 100% in 20 minutes, but even 20% of something is better than 100% of nothing. Good innovation analysts know this. This is about intelligence gathering and analysis, not about mathematical axioms (I adapt a tweet by Christopher Ahlberg here). The nice thing about the alarm clock is that it really forces you to accept the “approximation” part, so you do not have to consciously fight the perfectionist instinct (which is usually what gets you into analysis paralysis). The alarm clock does this for you.

By the way, we also think that 20% of something is better than 100% of nothing when you do game-changing innovation discovery. It is why we advocate a divide-and-conquer approach there.

And what should I do when the 20 minutes are up?

What exactly is the best course of action depends on your circumstances, of course. But let’s assume that within the 20 minutes you discovered (and perhaps even explored a bit) 2-3 findings (companies, research papers, market estimates, patents, blog articles, or clinical trials, for example).

Armed with this first useful approximation, you could now decide what to do with your findings, and prioritize your next courses of action. Here, at Mergeflow, we use a simple spreadsheet for prioritizing what we do next (click on the link to read more about the spreadsheet, and to download it, either as GSheet or Excel).

Based on this deciding and prioritizing step, perhaps you decide to put in another 20 minute discovery sprint. In this case you will probably notice another nice aspect of the “alarm clock method”, besides beating analysis paralysis: it is a lot easier to schedule a 20 minute time slot than it is to schedule an open-end analysis session.

OK, now it’s time to go discover and explore. I hope you find this approach to tech discovery useful!


Mergeflow offers a range of tools that help you discover and explore:

Discover Ideas & Players helps you discover and track people, organizations, concepts, materials, and other entities.

Markets & Investments extracts the latest market data, venture investments, and research fundings from news and other sources.

Emerging Technologies enables you to track disruptive technologies from across various industries, live and continuously.

For tracking future developments in a topic, such as new venture investments, science publications, market estimates, or blog articles, you can use Mergeflow’s weekly email update reports to stay in the know.


Featured image of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, by Ed Menendez.

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