When faced with a problem, do you analyze it or do something about it? My natural inclination is to jump headfirst into a deep analysis. When I’m dealing with a design problem I’ll attempt to look at it from different angles, present it in new forms, or zoom in and out to examine it from varying scales. I start to believe that if I focus on a problem hard enough some insight will pop out at me. Reframing problems in this way can be helpful to see new perspectives, but analysis will only take you so far into a problem. With all this effort, the path forward still feels opaque, what we all know as analysis paralysis.
It was hard for me to describe why I would feel this paralysis until I read a series of lectures by Jiddu Krishnamurti in a book called “The Awakening of Intelligence”. Krishnamurti’s lectures are a dialectical process to examine his philosophy with various audiences. In one lecture Krishnamurti speaks of analyzing the Self. He asserted that “analysis is the denial of action.” Krishnamurti challenges the audience not to spend time simply analyzing oneself, but to live in action because “analysis implies the postponement of action. When I am analyzing myself, I am not acting; I am waiting until my analysis is over, then perhaps I shall act rightly…”
I was struck by the parallels of his philosophy with my work in design. The reasoning behind analysis paralysis became much more clear. During analysis we are stuck in a place in time. There is no movement, only a re-interpretation of what we believe exists.
Analysis implies the postponement of action
Krishnamurti describes the trap we find ourselves in during analysis, there is “a gradual peeling off as it were, layer after layer, and examining each layer, analyzing the content of each layer. And if the analysis is not perfect, complete, true, then that analysis being incomplete, must leave a knowledge which is not total. And the next analysis springs from that which is not complete.”
Analysis of a problem will lead you down one path only to open up and reveal new information, a new route to explore. Whether these paths lead to greater depth or breadth, it never really feels complete. We fall into this trap because analysis feels safe. It’s safer to look at a problem than to enact on it.
Overcoming the Paralysis
If action is all we need to do, then the answer to this paralysis seems simple enough! But it’s easy to see how delaying action in our day-to-day work manifests in two well known forms: project planning and meetings.
Teams will spend weeks if not months planning activities (the action) we intend to do. We create comfort against the unknown by attempting to build logic into a complex world. I can count numerous projects where we spent weeks simply creating a plan, outlining activities, thinking about the perfect sequence of events. Rarely does this plan unfold as desired, and by the end of it, the path looked almost nothing like the plan. You could have reclaimed those few weeks doing something rather than thinking about doing something.
Meetings, talking about an issue, is also another form of analysis (or at least a movement to delay action). How often have you faced a problem on a project, gathered your colleagues in conversations only to talk in circles? Points are made about this and that. But you never really come to any concrete conclusion or resolve. A lot of meetings are like this and why they feel like such a waste of time.
Krishnamurti posits action as the only way of Knowing. “Action means not ‘having done’ or ‘will do’, but doing.” In action, there is creation, a bringing about of something new. And in this newness we can respond, the system can respond. We force a cause and effect relationship in the world to enact learning and knowing. Anything outside of action is a theory, an idea, a concept. Not what is. Action does not re-present a problem, action responds to a problem.
Action means not ‘having done’ or ‘will do’, but doing.
Making, visualizing, creating is action. These things will feel very familiar if you are a designer because design has a bias towards action. Action creates forward momentum through the creation of something new. There is something empowering and fresh in sketching out an idea or making a prototype to explore a problem.
The trap for a designer is when you spend all your energy on the tools of design like journey maps, service blueprints, or [insert canvas name]. These can be great tools for analysis, but they aren’t a form of action. Too many design projects are scoped to deliver a bunch of journey maps and personas. A team is left scratching their heads saying “now what?”
Analysis vs Action?
Of course, action and analysis are not binary choices. They are two sides of the same coin. We do things (take action) in order to learn, and that learning only comes from a period of reflection and analysis. Action without analysis does not lead to learning. The balance we need comes from the proportion of the two activities. The key is not to make your analysis upfront too big. Likewise, constantly doing/making/acting without analyzing what you are doing, why, and if it’s successful won’t lead to the best outcomes either.
Recognizing the tensions between analysis and action has helped me to be more reflective on what is needed at the right time. Most problems will start with at least a small form of analysis. The key is not to get stuck in it. When I start to feel the emptiness of analysis I know it’s time to take some kind of action. The question that I am now posing to myself is:
What form of action can I take towards this problem?
I want to push myself to take action earlier than when I normally feel comfortable and resist my internal voice screaming “you don’t know enough about the problem to start doing anything!”
I’ve put together some questions to ask myself when starting to explore a problem:
- What outcomes are you seeking with this analysis?
- Will these outcomes position you to take action or is it setting you up for a different path of analysis?
- What is the minimum amount of analysis you need to do to feel comfortable taking action?
- How can you build an ongoing process of analysis and action?
- If you were forced to do something, what action could you take right now?
This is all easier said than done. When faced with a request by your executive to create a detailed project plan it can be hard to jump straight into prototyping. When starting to work with a new team, moving to action too quickly might not build a level of trust that’s required to show you understand a problem.
For me, I’m an analytical person (various personality tests have reinforced this trait), and even though I love making prototypes to explore a problem I still feel most comfortable analyzing a problem to death. But I’m starting to recognize where that balance of value exists with spending my time analyzing something and then pushing myself to take action. In the end, doing something is always more valuable than doing nothing.
Action means now, not tomorrow. — Krishnamurti