Analysis Paralysis

From the November 2007 issue of Fast Company:

[Researchers] gave doctors the medical history of a 67-year-old man who’d been suffering chronic hip pain from osteoarthritis. He’d been given drugs to treat his pain, but they had been ineffective, so there was only one viable option: hip-replacement surgery, which would involve a long and painful recovery. Then a final check with the pharmacy uncovered one medication that hadn’t been tried. Would the doctors like to give the drug a shot? 47% of doctors chose to try the medication in a final attempt to keep the patient from going under the knife.

Another group of doctors saw the same facts, except they were told that the pharmacy had discovered two medications that hadn’t yet been tried…. only 28% chose to try either one.

(The article goes on to advocate simplified strategies such as “We don’t want to be first but we sure as hell don’t want to be third.”)

What’s going on here? Did reluctance to make a decision block any action to prevent surgery?

“Dammit Jim, I’m an engineer, not a doctor.”

Do you find yourself spinning in circles over design decisions and business priorities? Perhaps analysis paralysis is perfectly natural because human nature is optimized for a simpler life. We certainly see this with our clients.

Scrum’s insistence on demonstrating a potentially-shippable product increment every Sprint encourages teams to make a choice. The two-week to 30-day Sprint length is a kind of circuit breaker on analysis paralysis. Don’t expect a perfect choice. Do your analysis through exploratory action. Often making a mistake is the fastest way to find out what the right choice may have been.

Download the PDF version: Analysis Paralysis blog

Michael James

Michael James is a software process mentor, team coach, and Scrum Trainer with a focus on the engineering practices (TDD, refactoring, continuous integration, pair programming) that allow Agile project management practices. He is also a software developer (a recovering "software architect" who still loves good design).

Posted in Agile
2 comments on “Analysis Paralysis
  1. Expert says:

    I think this is about the placebo effect or placebo response, the therapeutic and healing effect of an inert medicine or ineffective therapy,because sometimes a placebo effect (or its counterpart, the nocebo effect), occurs when a patient’s symptoms are altered in some way by a treatment, like in drug rehab programs, due to the individual expecting or believing that it will work.

  2. Michael James says:

    Um, maybe my point wasn’t clear. The Fast Company article wasn’t about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of treatment. It was about the human’s reluctance to take action when it would entail a further choice.


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