When was the last time you felt paralyzed? We’ve all felt the horrible crush of competing options, priorities, and initiatives. In fear of making a wrong decision, many of us have succumbed to doing nothing when faced with cognitive overload.
I’m talking about decision paralysis, the crippling state of overwhelm that leads to costly delay and inaction.
When you’re working in the nonprofit or social enterprise world, the costs of inaction are even higher. Individuals, families, and communities who could benefit immensely from your programs suffer every extra day you linger in decision paralysis.
Taking action (any action) can unwind this process. But how do we know what to work on first? And how do we prevent paralysis from happening in the first place?
The Tyranny of False Urgency
John Kotter is a Harvard Business School professor, and recognized authority on leadership and transformation.
Kotter argues that urgency, and specifically urgency for change, has become an essential ingredient in the health of any organization, nonprofit, social enterprise or otherwise.
But there are downsides to running an organization on urgency. What’s urgent and what’s important aren’t necessarily the same thing. And the confusion over true urgency and false urgency can result in endless cycles of analysis and deliberation that result in no action.
Kotter distinguishes between three different states:
- True urgency creates energized focus on critical issues.
- False urgency creates anxious, frantic attention divided among many issues, some of which are not critical.
- Complacency creates slothful or rigid thinking. Complacency is suicidal in a fast-changing world.
The state of paralysis often reflects Kotter’s false urgency. Everything seems like it needs to be worked on right now, with no clear sense of priority.
We all lead hectic lives with many supposed emergencies vying for our attention at any given time. This is especially true in the world of nonprofits, where underfunded, undermanned projects are the rule, not the exception.
Kotter’s rubric forces you to sort through true and false urgencies by asking, “What breaks if I don’t get this done?”
If nothing breaks, nothing fails, and nothing gets destroyed in a permanent fashion if you let this one go, then you are probably looking at a false urgency, not a true one.
How Does Agile Break Through Decision Paralysis?
Agile is an approach to management. It is a mindset. There are a number of frameworks that translate Agile thinking to tactical action steps, of which Scrum, XP, and Lean Startup are just a few.
Agile was developed by software developers in order to solve a recurring problem in large software projects:
What happens when the end product you build doesn’t address the needs of the customer?
Traditional management (by that I mean Industrial Age, scientific management, factory-style sequential management) requires that every phase of the project be completed before the next phase can begin.
This is the dreaded “waterfall” method of managing projects. It leads to enormous decision paralysis, as all the thinking and planning needs to be done up-front, often before anyone on the team has begun executing.
Waterfall is not good with changing requirements. Waterfall is not good at reflecting the realities on the ground in turbulent environments.
Agile breaks through the rigidity of waterfall by building a feedback loop into the process. By working in short iterations (called “sprints” in Scrum) and responding to feedback, Agile teams can improve the product in the next iteration.
The BUILD – MEASURE – LEARN loop is the Lean Startup version of this fundamental cycle.
Because teams are planning and executing in the same timeframe, decision paralysis becomes less problematic. When you stop and re-evaluate what you’re working on every week or two, there are always opportunities to course-correct.
Think Before You Leap, But Not Too Much
Decision paralysis doesn’t go away entirely when you put Agile and Lean Startup thinking into practice. For example, paralysis can often take root in the planning stages.
Some members of the team want to know every last scrap of relevant information before they make a decision. Others don’t look at all before they leap.
Especially in the non-profit space where funds can be tied to specific proposals, the camp that wants to take action must be tempered by deliberation.
But what about the team members who are prone to paralysis? How can we jumpstart them to take action?
(By the way, does this describe you?)
4 Steps to Defeat Decision Paralysis in Any Team
1. Establish an initial plan.
The first major deliverable, a time table, and estimated costs are all you need for an initial plan. Having an initial plan is more of a psychological trick to get you going than a plan that’s set in stone. Often what you need to take action is simply a starting point (even if the starting point turns out to be wrong).
2. Adapt & improve as you go.
The plan will change. Lean Startup methodology and Agile thinking are responsive to change and committed to continuous improvement and learning. Smart leaders set themselves up for success by anticipating and guiding the change, instead of merely reacting to it.
3. Set up failure triggers.
Ask yourself at the onset, What would cause this project to fail? By working backwards, you can set up triggering events for when the project is in danger of getting off-track. When those events are triggered, you can reevaluate your plan and iterate appropriately. Having a system in place to course-correct will give you peace of mind to keep taking action.
4. Ask what is truly urgent.
As John Kotter points out, “urgent” issues aren’t necessarily critical ones. You don’t have to be reactive all the time. You can reject the mode of overreacting to every false emergency. Continuous planning allows you to adapt to changing circumstances, but it must be bolstered by principles and a solid vision of what your true goals are.
Decision paralysis can be defeated. Remember that inaction is a choice too. But rarely is it ever the right one.
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