Of the many obstacles to successful team collaborations, perfectionism and avoidance strike me as the most difficult to overcome or even control. At first thought they seem to be unrelated or even opposites of each other. But surprisingly, in some situations they're so closely tied together that we can justifiably regard them as two manifestations of the same dysfunction. Understanding their connection is most important when we're devising interventions. Let's consider how perfectionism and avoidance relate to each other using the planning activity to illustrate the connection.
"Analysis paralysis" is one of the best-known phrases identifying dysfunction associated with planning and analysis [McGlone 2000]. It captures the idea that a team has devoted so much time and effort to analyzing a task that it can no longer make significant progress toward its objective. The analysis activity has paralyzed the team, blocking forward progress.
Although that scenario undoubtedly does occur, the phrase "analysis paralysis" suggests that the inability to make progress is due to excessive planning and analysis. To solve the problem all we need do is stop planning, and to prevent the problem, all we need do is limit planning.
But consider this alternative explanation of analysis paralysis. Suppose the team is intimidated by the prospect of actually executing any plan that might attain the objective. One way to avoid what the team fears to undertake is to keep on planning and keep on analyzing — to keep perfecting the plan and perfecting the analysis. In this way, perfectionism provides a means of avoiding executing the plan, when the prospect of executing the plan — any plan — terrifies the team.
In this alternative "Analysis paralysis" is one of the
best-known phrases identifying
dysfunction associated with
planning and analysisscenario, it isn't the analysis that paralyzes. Rather it is the paralysis that leads to excessive analysis. We can observe analogous interlocking patterns between risk planning and risk aversion, and between aversion to conflict resolution and persistence of toxic conflict. (I must admit I haven't been able to devise rhymes for these other interlocking patterns.)
As a team member or as a manager interested in the team's success, distinguishing between cause and symptom is important when devising an intervention. For example, with analysis paralysis, suppose that the alternative explanation is valid, and the team is using analysis to avoid executing the plan. And suppose we devise an intervention that focuses on ending the extended analysis activity. Such an intervention will likely yield disappointing results, because bringing the planning to an orderly close will only compel the team to find another way to delay execution.
Whenever forward progress slows, perfectionism and avoidance are potential contributing factors. Deciding which of the two is more nearly causal is rarely easy. But considering all possibilities is a necessary preliminary to devising effective interventions. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I
- We continue our exploration of confirmation bias, paying special attention to the consequences it causes
in the workplace. In this part, we explore its effects on our thinking.
- Why Scope Expands: I
- Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction,
has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?
- Why Scope Expands: II
- The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often?
One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
- Wishful Significance: II
- When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking"
was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations.
Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.
- The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
- When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we
tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 18: The Planning Fallacy and Self-Interest
- A well-known cognitive bias, the planning fallacy, accounts for many unrealistic estimates of project cost and schedule. Overruns are common. But another cognitive bias, and organizational politics, combine with the planning fallacy to make a bad situation even worse. Available here and by RSS on September 18.
- And on September 25: Planning Disappointments
- When we plan projects, we make estimates of total costs and expected delivery dates. Often these estimates are so wrong — in the wrong direction — that we might as well be planning disappointments. Why is this? Available here and by RSS on September 25.
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- The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership
On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program.
Here's a date for this program:
- Baldwin-Wallace University, 275 Eastland Road, Berea, Ohio
44017: November 7,
Kerzner Lecture Series/International Project Management Day, sponsored by Baldwin Wallace University and the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Project Management Institute.
- Baldwin-Wallace University, 275 Eastland Road, Berea, Ohio 44017: November 7, Kerzner Lecture Series/International Project Management Day, sponsored by Baldwin Wallace University and the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.