Staying Out Of The Overthinking Trap

overthinkingOrganizations that embark on the endless journey of spending too much time analyzing, discussing, researching, and testing a new idea, without getting anything off the ground, are victims of the overthinking trap. With the overthinking trap, teams spend so much time processing an idea that they never achieve anything. No one—neither team members nor the leader—is prepared to risk taking that important first step of transforming the idea into a concrete innovation.

Consequently, the organization wastes precious time and money, throwing away the opportunity to move toward real innovation. For Kodak, the leap from the short-term trap to the overthinking trap was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Kodak’s troubled launch of the Advantix hybrid film and digital camera, which allowed users to choose the best shot to print, showed the perils of the deliberation trap. It took over twenty years—from the introduction of “filmless photography” (which was greeted with a degree of bewilderment and puzzlement) to the 1996 product release. Kodak spent too much time and $500 million deliberating and analyzing, and consequently was too late to be a player in the digital age.

These cognitive traps create myopic thinking that leads to inertia, preventing organizations from reaching their potential. Such traps are cognitive blinders that steer leaders away from taking bold steps, pulling the plug, redirecting their efforts to their strengths, favoring the present over the future, and taking too long to launch an idea because there needs to be another meeting. Leaders of organizations of all sizes should not ignore the potential danger of these traps. Once a trap is triggered, even well-established organizations can slip down a sinkhole of myopia and be stymied by inertia. The leadership challenge is to identify and disable the traps that can prevent the movement of ideas to execution.

Why do organizations sometimes get stuck? What makes them sluggish? There are two fundamental reasons why organizations experience inertia. The first source of inertia is the clunky tendency. The clunky tendency is usually found in complex organizations, with complicated structures, overlapping missions, unintegrated units, confused lines of authority, and a general sense of organized anarchy. The second source of inertia is the myopic tendency.

Organizations with myopic tendencies are trapped in old ways of doing things and old business models. Clunky or myopic tendencies do not immediately result in organizational failure, but they do result in sluggishness, a slow slope that may lead to failure. Having understood why the organization is sluggish and having evaluated the organization’s clunky and myopic tendencies, the pragmatic leadership challenge is to overcome the resulting inertia and ensure that the organization reaches its potential.

All organizations encounter some degree of inertia. Inertia is manifested by sluggish discovery or sluggish delivery. The leaders of organizations that actively work toward breaking inertia understand that to thrive and reach their potential it is important to continuously engage in robust discovery and focused delivery. They ensure that organizations and units can adapt to new trends and deliver concrete results and innovation. To do so, leaders have to lead with flexibility and agility and create collective organizational synergy.  They don’t dig holes they can’t get out of—that is, they don’t tie themselves to specific products, processes, or customers—but they make sure their organization stays ahead of the game.

The leadership of Amazon and Google (Alphabet) for example are visionaries and pragmatic leaders. When pragmatic leaders are on top of industry trends and have a passion for experimentation, the organizational capacity to discover is transformed. When pragmatic leaders understand how to establish connections with the right people and move their agenda to fruition, it translates into the organizational capability of delivery.

To meet potential and avoid the traps of inertia caused by “clunkiness” and myopia, pragmatic leaders must support robust discovery and focused delivery. To ensure robust discovery, pragmatic leaders must create an environment where ideas can ferment. To ensure focused delivery, pragmatic leaders must create an environment where units and individuals can reach across divisions, turf, and silos to collectively move ideas ahead and make sure that flexibility and focus sustain the momentum to drive implementation.

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