Leading Problem Analysis

Paralysis by analysis is a common phrase used to caution leaders not over analyze a situation before taking action or making a decision. There are many on causes for such paralysis to include fear of moving forward and not understanding how or what to analyze. Leadership analysis should help leaders and their support staff to understand a situation to they can develop a course of action that helps resolve problems, adjust strategic course, and implement change. Conducting a proper analysis reduces fear, provides answers to important questions, and allows leaders to make quality decisions in a timely fashion. Here is a way, but not the only way, to improve leadership analytical skills.

There are several key steps to making a good situational analysis. Analyze key relationships, Figure out what data are available to inform decisions. Use data to identify relevant trends. Identify available resources. Figure out tasks required to implement the decision.

Identify Key Relationships

Key relationships are tied between individuals, positive and negative, as they relate to the problems or issue. Key relationships are those strong ties between people, not just associations. For example a husband and wife work in the same company and one would think they have strong ties. However each works in different parts of the organization and at work, rarely work together. An example of a positive strong tie might be between a particular sales person and a supervisor in the shipping department, or a project manager and a company supply buyer. Take the time to map out these relationships indicating their strength and whether or not they are positive.

During this step, you also want to identify each key players known position on the issue under consideration. Identify whether they against, neutral, or in favor of the position. Determine how likely they are to change their position on the matter. Identify what risks you face and controls you can implement to mitigate the risks. What messages do you want to communicate to internal and external audiences? Develop courses of action and use criteria to reduce options to the top two to four. Select a course of action and execute. Tailor the steps to meet your needs by prioritizing steps and the depth of each step to improve good choices.

What Data Is Available?

Data is important. It helps you identify the current state of affairs, and when things begin to change. You need data to identify trends. You also need to determine if key data is not available but can be produced. If the data cannot be produced, what methods may inferences about data can be made?

Data helps you identify what kind of problem you have. With simple problems you can easily identify the cause and effect. Therefore you can quickly apply best practices with little additional analysis. You categorize events and respond.

With complicated problems, you can distinguish the cause and effect from analyzing data. Once you identify the issue you can determine a set of good practices and apply them accordingly. You analyze complicated problems then respond.

When faced with a complex problem, cause and effect are not readily apparent. Frequently cause and effect are only identified in hindsight. Complex problems require you and your team to probe by asking analytical questions, sense potential courses of actions, then respond.

Cause and effect are not perceived with chaotic problems. To address chaotic problems, take action, step back to sense the results of those actions then respond with the action that appears to provide the greatest result. Develop selection criteria. Develop courses of action.

Identify Relevant Trends (internal & external)

With data in hand, organize it so you can identify trends related to key analytical questions. Such questions may include things like:

  • How do sales projections compare to actual sales?
  • How do production projections compare to actual production?
  • What relationship do interest rates have on other key performance indicators?
  • Where are the biggest buyers?
  • Where are sales non existent?
  • Which products and services are in greatest demand?
  • Who is our target audience?
  • How has our target audience change?
  • When can we expect regulations to change that affect our organization?

This range of questions imply that the team should look at a series of Who, What, Where, When, How, and Why questions related to the issue. Use caution answering Why questions at this stage.

Identify Available Resources

Available resources expand or contract reasonable options available to decision makers. Think about the smart phone in your pocket. How much of the technology was know to computer designers and software engineers in the 1960s and 1970s? The basics have not changed much since the introduction of transistors. What has changed in how to write code better and the manufacturing process required to reduce the size of the components. So why did we not have pocket smart phones before men walked on the moon? Answer, the resources were not yet available. The very things needed had not been figured out, effective code and micro transistors. There is more computing power in your smart phone than was on the entire Saturn V rocket that brought the astronauts to the moon. I would wager there is more computing power in that phone you are reading this on than was in all of mission control! NASA used the available resources to send men to the moon. They did not wail for the days of smart phones.

An example of available resources comes from Apollo 13. When the support module exploded ground and space crews had many problems to work out. It was not possible to introduce more resources to the crew in space. The crew had to work with what they had to return the crew and space vehicle safely to earth. The first steps in solving each of those problems included identifying the available resources.

An important part of analyzing available resources included figuring out resources that other posses that you can leverage. For example a small nonprofit trying to expand their community messaging mission could rely on a friendly ccorporate sponsor to provide staff part time from their marketing department. The nonprofit cold never justify hiring a marketing person but they cold use a corporate sponsors resources.

Identify Tasks required to complete change

Again another simple task. What needs to happen to make the project happen. The steps can be as bask or as involved as time permits. The end result is knowing what needs to be done, in what order, and what can be done concurrently.

Identify risks and controls

Risks imply danger. You can reduce the danger by developing adequate controls. For example in every building there is a risk of fire. To reduce that danger buildings have fire alarms, fire extinguishers, and sprinkler systems. Many workplaces conduct periodic fire drills. None of these controls prevent fires from occurring, but they do reduce the frequency of occurrence, the amount of damage to the building and increase the likelihood of people surviving fires.

Leaders should look at several layers of risk management. The first things risk management should look to do is decrease the likelihood of an occurrence. Using our fire scenerio, leaders would do things like ensure furnaces are maintained regularly and closed within a fire resistant room, or prevent employees from ganging extension cords. Controls should find ways to identify danger early, like those fire alarms. Early notification allows organizational leaders to start responding the the potential danger to reduce the loss. Controls that slow the consequences of danger help leaders develop solutions to stop what ever event is occurring to cause damage. The example from above are sprinklers and fire extinguishers. Neither will likely stop a fire alone, but both slow the spread enough to reduce the damage until professional help arrives. Finally, no controls work unless they are rehearsed. Like a fire drill leaders must make sure everyone knows what to do when things go sideways.

Identify strategic messages for internal and external audiences

Messaging often gets lost in analysis. It is an important part of any plan. Remember you have both internal and external audiences. If you do not plan to tell your story, rumors slowly grow until they become forecasters of the future. Take the time to develop messages for your key stake holders and put them out into the world. Communications plans that are developed and then filed away are about as helpful as an empty fire extinguisher!

Develop screening and evaluation criteria

Screening and selection criteria are important to help leaders make good decisions. We all know stories about low bidders. Be sure to think about what criteria defines success so the course of action achieves what you envision. Screening criteria is used to delete options that won’t work within your given perimeters. Evaluation criteria is weighted in some way so the important things receive more points, or weight, than less important things. If we thing back to the low bidder stories many times they happen because a low price item or process was allowed to be used rather than requiring a more expensive option. Even though chopping wood will eventually dull an ax blade, no one would opt to use wood to wear down steel. You probably want someone to use something like diamonds or carbide which cost more that a cord of wood but will get the job done quicker and better.

Develop courses of action

Charles M. Russell (1864-1926); Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia; 1905; Opaque and transparent watercolor over graphite underdrawing on paper; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; 1961.195

Use some brain storming or mind mapping or whatever the popular term is when you read this to develop a bunch of ideas about how to solve the problem facing you. Throw them out there. Bad ideas will be caught during the screening process using the criteria set above. Okay ideas will be whined out by the evaluation criteria. The best ideas are likely to receive the highest, or lowest, score (depending on your rating system) and become obvious answers.


Now you have done all the work. You identified the problem and tasks. You developed messages. You created criteria and courses of action. You ran your courses of action against your criteria. Now it is time to decide. While it is appropriate for leaders to use all the time available to make a decision, do not avoid making a decision when the correct answer slaps you in the face. Frequently you may find more than one option has the potential to succeed. You still have to select one. If the path still is not clear, pick one option and start to work it before jumping in with both feet. You may find a few small adjustments result in peak performance, or that the idea was not as good as it appeared. That is okay; just go back and try one of the other options. Putting off a decision is deciding not to do anything and never solves the problem.


Execute means to communicate the ideas and answers you selected to those who will do the work. Assemble the required resources and do it, whatever IT might be. Failing to execute is the same as not deciding. It is still a decision to do nothing. This is often the hardness part as leaders often question if they did a good analysis going back and forth. You must pick one option and go with it.

Analysis often receives bad press because it hold leaders and organizations back from making decisions when faced with problems. Paralysis by Analysis only happens when you fail to follow a formula that ensures you conduct a good analysis that results in good options. Good analysis provides leaders two or more good options to move forward. It is up to the leader to make that decision. When done well, the leader can sit back and watch other execute making a few course corrections here and there. When done poorly leaders languish in the fog of information not sure what questions to ask or how to formulate ideas. Follow this method when faced with your next problem. I will not promise you will always find the perfect solution, but you will find one that probably will work. Avoid paralysis by using good analytical practices and make better decisions.

Photo Credits

All images are open source with CC0 license or in the public domain. Attribution in the caption if available.

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