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Analysis paralysis or paralysis by analysis is an anti-pattern, 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, when on the way to a better solution.
The phrase 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, in contrast to extinct by instinct (making a fatal decision based on hasty judgment or a gut-reaction).
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". A related concept is expressed by the Centipede's dilemma and by the tale of Buridan's ass.
In software development, analysis paralysis typically manifests itself through exceedingly long phases of project planning, requirements gathering, program design and data modeling, with little or no extra value created by those steps. 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 can be used to describe the way that information affects workplace productivity. An overload of physical mail, email, internet websites, voicemails, instant messaging, telephone and cellphone calls, memos, faxes, and interpersonal communication can make it difficult or impossible for employees to make decisions.
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.
Casual analysis paralysis
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.
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:
- Human rights
- China's one child policy
- Moral implications
- Individualism versus the common good
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.
In board games, analysis paralysis denotes a state where a player is so overwhelmed by the decision tree that he or she faces that the player's turn takes an inordinate amount of time. The connotation is often pejorative, implying that the slowing of the game diminished the enjoyment by other players. In chess this is referred to as Kotov Syndrome and, in timed chess matches, can result in time trouble.