Leaders are decision-makers, which means they are risk-takers. Risk implies the possibility of failure. And therein lies the fear that stops many from taking action.

When you leave your comfort zone, you are faced with potential positive and negative results. The fear of failure can have you focusing on all the negative possibilities and not taking action. And the longer you wait to get started, the more ways you will come up with as to why it won’t work or you’ll find things to do to delay putting your idea into operation until you get more information. You are not alone in this. Business leaders form focus group after focus group trying to get confirmation that a decision would be totally correct or totally wrong.

The late General Colin Powell referred to this continuous waiting on sufficient information as “Analysis Paralysis.” He said,

“Don’t take action if you have only enough information to give you less than a 40 percent chance of being right, but don’t wait until you have enough facts to be 100 percent sure, because by then it is almost always too late. Today, excessive delays in the name of information-gathering breeds “analysis paralysis.” Procrastination in the name of reducing risk actually increases risk.” (Lesson 15 https://ung.edu/institute-leadership-strategic-studies/_uploads/files/colin-powell-leadership.pdf )

His 40/70 rule makes sense when you are involved in a war, but is probably too conservative in our work world. A more realistic rule for us is 50/80. If it’s under a 50% chance of success, don’t do it. If there’s at least an 80% chance of success, go with your gut.

Lison Mage in Why Overthinking Costs Us Our Best Decisions? is writing for the business world, but, as usual, his advice is applicable to us as well. Using the analogy of basketball, Mage asks us to imagine playing the game with a teammate who froze every time you passed them the ball. There they are on the court unable to decide whether they should shoot, dribble to get closer to the basket, or pass the ball to someone else.

Too often, we are like that basketball player. Mage says, overthinking comes from a learned trait dating back to the days when we were searching for cues that would lead us to water, food, and shelter while avoiding predators. The skill worked for us then as it helped us survive. Keeping the habit in a world with information overload works against us.

Even skilled researchers that we are, we cannot gather every bit of data on every decision we are considering. Mage says when we can’t be sure we have all the information, we become anxious and have a paralyzing fear of not knowing what we should do. In our world we need to recognize “More Is Not Better. More Will Not Make It Perfect.”

Back to the basketball analogy, Mage asks, “What is best? Attempting a shot and missing it, or not shooting and handing the ball over to the adversary after the 23-second shot clock has elapsed? He quotes the French national lottery slogan, “100% of the winners did buy a ticket.”

According to Mage, the problem lies in focusing on clear success as the only favorable outcome. The focus needs to be on the process, looking at the success in achieving the small steps to getting the job done. No matter the outcome, there are things to be gained whether that’s from the collaborations you created, the learning that occurred, and maybe discovering that something doesn’t work.

One more quote from Colin Powell, “Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible.” Overthinking may ensure that you won’t experience failure. It also guarantees you and your program won’t grow. You will never have a 100% success rate, no one does. We learn from failure. It’s part of life, and part of being a leader. Take the shot. It’s worth it.


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