Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 34;   August 21, 2019: Perfectionism and Avoidance

Perfectionism and Avoidance

by

Avoiding tasks we regard as unpleasant, boring, or intimidating is a pattern known as procrastination. Perfectionism is another pattern. The interplay between the two makes intervention a bit tricky.
An abandoned railway

An abandoned railway. When some projects are deferred long enough, the weeds of obsolescence can take root even during execution. Deferred long enough, some projects are cancelled before they even get started.

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 analysis
scenario, 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Playing at Work  Next Issue

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsProjects never go quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is filled with tips for executives, senior managers, managers of project managers, and sponsors of projects in project-oriented organizations. It helps readers learn the subtle cues that indicate that a project is at risk for wreckage in time to do something about it. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just . Order Now! .

Footnotes

[McGlone 2000]
The widespread popularity and credibility of the phrase "analysis paralysis" could be related to the fact that it's a rhyme. Rhymes are well known to achieve credibility beyond their due, in part, perhaps, because of a cognitive bias known as the rhyme-as-reason effect. See Matthew S. McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh, "Birds of a feather flock conjointly (?): Rhyme as reason in aphorisms," Psychological Science 11:5 (2000): 424-428. Back

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