Analysis-Paralysis and The Sensemaking Trap

Analysis-paralysis is when you get into a loop of continuous analysis that prevents you from breaking on through to the “other side” where action can begin. I am beginning to get a handle on the problem, but it is not going to make much sense to you unless you’ve read the book. So this is in the advanced/extra-credit department. Perhaps after some more thought I’ll be able to capture this idea in a simpler way.

In the Double Freytag model of narrative decision-making, analysis-paralysis corresponds to getting stuck in the sense-making phase. Why does this happen?

The problem has to do with the nature of the insight (or cheap trick) that triggers a gear shift from exploration to sense-making.  If it is an appreciative insight, it will help you make sense of what’s going on in the situation without necessarily creating the focal point for action. But on the other hand, it is not a purely manipulative insight either (i.e., it is more than a mindless hack).  I covered appreciative versus manipulative knowledge in the last post.

My current definition of the cheap trick covers this ground, but clumsily. I am trying to craft a better definition. The Boydian/classical German notion of Fingerspitzengefühl gets at part of what I am getting at here, but it too is conceptually inadequate, since it is more of a continuous notion than the coup d’oeil from which “cheap trick” is derived. The related idea of schwerpunkt also gets at some of what I am getting at, but it describes the locus of action concentration where a breakthrough is most likely, rather than the organizing larger insight that helps you discover where the schwerpunkt might be.

So to slam three concepts together in sequence, a coup d’oeil suggests a fingerspitzengefuhl pattern of sense-making action that triggers a schwerpunkt detection, followed by force concentration and breakthrough to the valley, where you can apply steady effort towards eventual accelerating returns. In the 2.0 notion of cheap trick I am trying to construct, the success of the second and third pieces hinges on the quality and DNA of the first piece (the German outflanking of the Maginot line in World War II is a classic illustration of this sequence).

So there is a lot of phenomenology wrapped into the single cheap trick moment. It is the moment when thinking must shift across the “air gap” between discovery to synthesis. For a sufficiently complex problem, there is always a jump. I’ve never experienced a smooth transition from exploration to (successful) sense-making.

The key to the problem is the idea that there is no such thing as pure analysis. There are only two possible destinations when you make the leap of faith from exploration and discovery: analysis-paralysis and analysis-synthesis.  This is another way of saying that analysis and synthesis cannot be decoupled. If you try, you will find that you cannot break through to decisive action. The shift from sense-making to the stable-tempo action phase (the valley in the Double Freytag) will turn into an impassable barrier. But there is nothing important happening there. The cause of the barrier lies in the cheap trick at the beginning of the sense-making phase: it has some sort of fatal flaw at birth.

If the cheap trick is the right concoction of appreciative and manipulative insight, the shift to the valley will be natural and effortless. If you run into a wall there, you have no option but to go back to discovery and look for a fresh cheap trick. This may not be possible, since life doesn’t offer as many do-over chances as people believe.

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  1. This is a very interesting site. I haven’t got the book, and am not yet sure what it’s about, but the topic of discussion is quite engaging. Thanks for the cognitive stimulation.
    [I generally try to work my way out of ruts rather than analyze them or read self-help about them, as I’ve found action to work across a wider span than thought in most cases. As a guitar player said, “I can play myself into a new way of thinking, but I can’t think myself into a new way of playing.”]

  2. Is a “cheap trick” something like an “heuristic”?