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The Paralysis of Analysis

“A good plan violently executed right now is far better than a perfect plan executed next week." - George S. Patton

Clearly the General was talking about a battle plan, but I've heard this point paraphrased in regard to just about any activity. A lot of authors on a wide variety of topics agree with General Patton.

What makes this so? I’ll call it “the perfection of information curve.” As you begin to learn or gather information the quantity and quality of what you learn rises rapidly at first. As time passes, the rate at which useful new information comes in slows down and gradually the learning curve flattens out. Waiting longer yields only minimal improvements in the quality of the facts gathered.

There is an optimum point at which good information can be applied to yield a good decision. That exact point isn't defined. As public officials, we’re often faced with decisions that require us to obtain additional information from specialists. We depend on planners, engineers, public safety professionals, and others with specialized training and expertise to give us the background we need so we can decide and move on. Unfortunately, too often the public sector is plagued with the “paralysis of analysis,” so much so that it has become a punch line. Regrettably, this is somewhat understandable given the competing interests that frequently want diametrically opposing outcomes. It’s often easier to order another study than to make a decision. That’s the time to remember the General’s words and ask:

Will the value added by further study yield an improvement in the final decision that is equal to or greater than the cost of the delay or simply even the cost of the study itself?
Sometimes this is easy. You know intuitively when you've got a clear picture of the facts and an answer seems obvious. In other instances, one or more interest groups is urging more study or advocating a completely contrary decision.

Is this a legitimate policy choice or merely a delaying tactic? As I said, the optimum point isn't predetermined. Your relationship with and confidence in those that advise you, as well as your own experience, are what you have to rely upon. Consider all the information you've received and then decide whether you have gathered what you need or whether you have not yet reached the decision point but do whatever you can to avoid the “paralysis of analysis."

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About Lynn Nordby

Lynn’s public sector career included over 30 years in local government management and experience in virtually all municipal services including the operations of a wide variety of municipal utilities. He is now retired.