Analysis Paralysis – or: Being clever doesn’t always help

I think there is a general belief that the more intelligent you are the more successful you will be in life. And in theory that makes sense: If you are intelligent, you see more opportunities, are aware of challenges more quickly, can do more excellent work and there you go… success!

Today I talked with a colleague about a typical frustration we experience when working in research projects (where, by definition, you expect people with above average intelligence…): The more complex and in-depth thinkers you are in the team, the more exciting is the initial phase when you throw around ideas, develop the foundations for the formula that will explain the whole world and put each and every aspect of it in relation to each and every other aspect of it. It’s a wonderful moment that broadens your horizon and makes you feel like your brain is a muscle that’s working very hard.

But… in my experience working with a highly motivated, creative, knowledgeable and intelligent team of researchers is not the most reliable formula for getting tangible, timely, understandable outcomes. And I sometimes suspect that that is not despite of the collective brilliance in the room but rather because of it. If you know how complex the world is and have the feeling that, if you only try hard enough, you might be able to come up with the paper about “How everything is linked to everything”, it is nearly impossible to get yourself to write the paper about: “The three major causes for XY (small specific change of something)”  – especially as you know that these three causes are just three out of many interconnected ones and maybe the specific change you look at in your paper is again just a little spec of dust in the whole universe of things.

A friend of mine calls this state of affair: Analysis Paralysis. You don’t move forward until you have analyzed everything regarding a specific issue. But with each step of analysis you find there is another mystery hidden behind the curtain that needs to be analyzed as well and you get more paralyzed the more you know.

And in the meantime, people who know how to limit the complexity walk past you, busy getting stuff done. And I believe there are two types: Some don’t think in such complex patterns to begin with and for others it is more a matter of self-discipline, they can switch into “get-stuff-done-mode” when they know it is time.

Now tying this back into social network analysis: One widely researched issue is that of homophily: People tend to develop networks with others who are similar to them. Sometimes that’s really helpful, because it means that your colleagues and friends know where you are coming from, share your values etc. But when putting together work teams, just relying on the natural processes of self selection or putting teams together with very similar skill sets might not be the best idea, even if everyone on the team is an excellent thinker. So if you recognize yourself (or your team) in my above description, see if you can find someone with a proven “get stuff done record” and see if you can add them to the team to channel your creativity into tangible outputs. Even if they will annoy you with there permanent questions of: “So what does that mean concretely?” and “Who is gonna do what when to get this done?”

2 Responses

  1. […] from yours. We intuitively are drawn to people similar to ourselves (I have written about homophily here and here before) but make a point of finding partners who are weak in the areas you are strong in […]

  2. […] paralysis". I have written about why being clever doesn't always help here:…I do believe and know from experience, that being clever is way overrated when it comes to being […]

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