At the corporate level, analysis paralysis usually spans several levels of management, and it’s almost always accompanied by varying levels of Whiner and often Weasel behavior. Look A few years ago, at early stages of the growth of the Internet, I encountered a classic case while working on an advertising and marketing project for a well-known multibillion-dollar telephone company. The company was considering an innovative marketing campaign to attract consumers to sign up for its new Internet service. Because of its market position, huge brand name, and massive resources, it was natural for this company to take a leading role in online services.
My initial contact at the company, a vice president named Ted, told me that, although he was very much behind the project, he needed to be able to demonstrate to his boss that it was going to work. He therefore authorized us to do tens of thousands of dollars worth of research before actually authorizing the creation of the marketing campaign. I objected, explaining that for the cost of the research, we could actually just create and test the campaign and know if it worked, rather than waste money on research. “Why spend money finding out if we should test it, when for the same price, we can just go ahead and see if it works?” I argued.
“Nope,” Ted said. “I know that you are right, but if it does fail, I need the backup of the research so it looks like I did my job. It’s just corporate policy here, and I can’t leave myself open to question.”
So let me get this right,” I asked, somewhat confused. “You want to spend twice as much money, because if it doesn’t work, it will be better for you than if we spent half as much?”
“Exactly,” Ted smiled, obviously privy to some bizarre economic formulas only available to massive and wasteful major corporations.
The research was positive and indicated we should go forward with the new campaign, but Ted’s boss had her own set of testing parameters that we had to deal with. Sarah, who was new to her position, was concerned that our approach was too innovative and that we did not know enough from the research to guarantee success.
“It is impossible to guarantee success no matter how much research we do,” I argued. “Ultimately, only the consumer decides whether or not they buy a product, and if we could just research everything with guaranteed success based on the results, this would be the biggest and most profitable company in the world. Let’s just do the test without wasting any more time or money.”
Sarah was unmoved by this argument, and she explained that her boss was a big believer in a new focus-group technology. She instructed us to spend another huge sum of money for more research. Again, the focus groups responded positively, but just when I thought we would move forward, Ted explained that he and Sarah were changing departments, and the project would have to go through an entirely new review by their replacements.
The new group wanted fresh research (undoubtedly to protect themselves in the corporate hierarchy), and to make a long story a little shorter, nobody in the company was ever able to make a decision. They failed to move forward, but their smaller and stealthier competitors were not stricken with the same analysis paralysis. Perhaps that is why this once-great company’s stock is now worth a fraction of what it was ten years ago, and the company is a relatively minor player on the Internet. In comparison, companies like Google and Yahoo, which didn’t even exist a few years ago, have eclipsed it.