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When Analysis Becomes Angst: Preventing Paralysis in Data-Driven Management

Most of us have been there—poring over spreadsheets or dashboards, filtering different cuts of the data, and trying to form a narrative around the numbers. Whether it’s your sales forecast, employee engagement survey, or your customer health metrics, sometimes the data doesn’t tell a clear story. After hours or even days, you may reach a point where anxiety and fear creep in, maybe you start to feel a migraine coming on, or all the numbers start blending together giving you a sense of vertigo. The “what ifs” and “if thens” begin to mount in your head—or on paper—and pretty soon you’re overwhelmed with uncertainty. Welcome to analysis paralysis—a dreaded state in which your brain is overloaded with information and scenarios to the degree that you literally don’t know what path to follow to achieve your desired outcome. So how do you move through this state of angst around your data to make informed decisions?

Back Away from the Data

Sometimes when those feelings of frustration make their way to the surface you just need to step away. I liken this to a software engineer struggling to architect a feature or function, spending days poring over possible paths forward, and finally finding inspiration for a solution while having her coffee on a Saturday morning.

Intentionally creating space for the data and insights to sink in and be absorbed is an important piece of the decision-making process for many leaders. And unless you’re making off-the-cuff decisions on the regular, having the self-awareness to know when you need a break from the analysis is key.

RELATED RESOURCE: Democratizing Data to Create Citizen Data Scientists

Recognize All Decisions Are Not Created Equal

Operating from the viewpoint that all decisions have the same impact on the business can lead to analysis paralysis. It’s helpful to differentiate between decisions that need to be addressed immediately versus those you can take action on later. When it comes to making decisions, consider asking yourself:

  • What is the level of importance of the decision at hand?
  • Will its outcome affect the next immediate stage of your operations or growth?
  • What is the timeframe for making the decision?
  • What could go wrong based on the decision you would make?

Understanding the answers to these questions can help ease those feelings of fear and anxiety by creating a sense of clarity. Having a clear process brings focus to your decision making as well.

Break Decisions Into Smaller Steps

Once you understand which decisions need your undivided attention, it can be helpful to break each one into smaller steps. Big decisions that impact multiple areas of the business are most likely to strike fear within. And fear is the one emotion that can literally paralyze us and prevent us from moving forward. Acknowledge: What you have is right now. You might not have figured out everything yet, but ask yourself “what is the first step in making this decision?”

Focusing your attention on a set of smaller easier-to-make decisions rather than one big decision can help you make progress and free you from the paralysis of tackling a significant decision.

Analysis paralysis, in effect, prevents us from making decisions—in life and in business. The good news: it’s incredibly normal to overthink decisions. The bad news: if you’re a leader experiencing analysis paralysis, your business is still moving forward in the absence of a decision. In the startup world, stalled decision making can lead to lack of clarity and direction, misaligned expectations, low employee engagement, and even a halt in your growth as an organization. In the absence of clarity, chaos can ensue. Taking intentional steps to navigate a state of paralysis when it comes to decision making is critical to continued scaling and success.

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