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Paralysis by Analysis: The Challenge of Going from Being an Analytical to a Visionary Leader

Analytical thinkers represent a resource and value that is truly extraordinary to our society.  They encompass a wide variety of careers from accountants to auditors to actuaries to programmers to market research statisticians to research scientists and many others.  Their contributions to our society are priceless from sophisticated software programs to wonder drugs.  Every day we enjoy the benefits they have created without ever realizing where they came from.

As a career strategist, I never cease to admire their intelligence and focus.  When an analytical wants me to help guide their career into a leadership role, I face an enormous challenge.  Sometimes their greatest strengths become a liability in their attempt to transition to a leadership role.

Let’s look at it like a spider web.  A spider can spin a beautiful silk string that runs from one branch to another.  It is strong and can endure high winds.  It is linear.  The spider’s short term goal was to connect one branch to another.  So it is true with an analytical.  They are linear thinkers moving painstakingly from one point to another—in depth structured process moving in a straight line.  It is the scientific method—moving step by step with the goal of getting from point A to point B.    The analytical sees the immediate goal, but often fails to see the ultimate desired outcome.

When the analytical is confronted with breaking from this linear thinking, they often become frustrated.  Every decision, particularly outside their realm of expertise, becomes an exercise in paralysis by analysis.  While attention to minutia is important in research, it can lead to slow death of an organization.

Leaders see the bigger picture.  They are focused on outcomes rather than the objective of moving from point A to point B.  Let’s go back to the spider web.  The goal of the spider is not connecting to the next branch, as important as that is to the final outcome.  The spider’s realgoal is to catch its dinner….a tasty insect.  To achieve the goal, it must build a complex web connecting hundreds or thousands of silk threads in a pattern that will achieve the desired outcome.  As beautiful as it is, the pattern is often not perfect (frustrating for the analytical), but the spider has the bigger goal in mind.  He couldn’t care what the web looks like or how perfect it is.  He just wants dinner.

I have dealt with many analyticals from every functional area.  Their “decision making process”  often frustrates their attempt to lead.   They can enter into long term debate on minutia.  How does this tendency create obstacles to opportunities instead or opening doors?

I recently had a discussion with a scientist who wanted to move into a corporate leadership role.  I presented a new blog that had just been developed for one of our clients (Example). I was trying to illustrate how he could reveal his leadership qualities by sharing his insights on leadership issues.  He didn’t get it.  He simply stated that he didn’t have the time to commit to it.  Despite attempts to explain that it shouldn’t take more than an hour or two each week, he couldn’t accept that.  He wanted a corporation to hire him into a leadership role because of his scientific expertise and former high level roles as a director of research (which were considerable).  Being hired into a corporate leadership role is not likely to happen for him solely based on his scientific performance.  He MUST find a way to demonstrate his leadership qualities.

I have also entered into long discussions with analyticals on mundane topics like the proper use of grammar.  Even when confronted with evidence on the grammatical construction, they wanted to continue the debate.  “What about this situation?”  “What about that situation?”  Classic analytical.

While attention to detail for an analytical is an outstanding asset, it can mean death when they are confronted with leadership decisions.  Here is one example I like to use when discussing these issues.

In the civil war, General McClelland was a great strategist.  He planned every conceivable option for attack.  He evaluated troop strength, enemy strength, resources, weather and every other potential factor.  He never attacked.  He always found a reason to say “Not now.”  Paralysis by analysis.  President Lincoln sent General Grant to the same battlefield.  Grant pointed the troops toward the enemy and said:  “March”. 

If an analytical wants to make the transition from linear thinker to visionary leader, they MUST cultivate the ability to point the troops toward the enemy and say "March".  They can achieve that goal in todays economic climate by becoming digitally savvy, adapting to new technologies,and having the courage to implement tough decisions that are the hallmark of leadership.

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Reader Comments (2)

Hi Don, Interesting read for me - I have been recruiting statistcians in business applications for 26 years. While I think your comments may have some validity for today's more senior quant executives, times are changing. Wait ten years and let's see who becomes our business leaders.

As Bill Gates once said: “Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.”

September 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Burtch

Paralysis by analysis is alive and well and lives almost exclusively in pockets in Big Pharma. In biotech companies that are successful there is neither the time nor the money to take the mamma-dada-poppa approach and it is only really manifest when pure researchers try do undertake development.

The Big Pharma malaise is culturally both acceptable and frequently necessary due to the risks attendant on getting it wrong, the "More than my job's worth," phenomenon if a decision turns out badly. With more experienced candidates, using adaptive unconsciousness rather than introspective analysis may be a hindrance rather than a help in being accepted at a senior strategic level.

It is absolutely correct that expertise in analysis without lateral thinking can be a major impediment to functionality as a leader but it still has a place where there is plenty of time and plenty of money.

September 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterColin Scott

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