Diagram hypnosis and analysis paralysis


“Always make room for the unexpected in yourself.”

- Steve Martin


The fear of the blank whiteboard

We’re standing in a project room. Every inch of wall is covered with photographs from the field. Fat black arrows point to portrayals of key moments. Quotes on sticky notes form colorful clusters. Diagrams of space, ritual, and process complement the persona-faces looking back at us from the wall. And now it’s idea time. After the intensity of research and analysis comes the challenge of conceiving the right thing. How do we create concepts that are both good for business and responsible to the lives we have glimpsed through all this data?

We have all experienced that moment when the true complexity of life challenges the powers of our imagination. We are asked to translate complexity into concepts, but the complexity can be overwhelming and its patterns elusive. Together we turn to a blank whiteboard, we crack open a fresh pad of Post-Its, and feel the pressure to find The Answer.


Diagram hypnosis and analysis paralysis

For professional designers, “analysis” is the main tool for making sense of the world. (In our office we refer to it as “swimming in the data.”) But we notice two common patterns among our students, clients, and workshop participants: diagram hypnosis—mistaking the map for the territory, and analysis paralysis—becoming overwhelmed and blinded by complexity.

In our desire to move forward under pressure, we can be tempted to oversimplify: we create frameworks and diagrams that make reality manageable. And this creates a risk. The diagrams and maps bring the comfort of relative clarity, and clarity feels great. So the diagrams hold our attention, and soon we come to believe that we “understand” the complexity. They become the centerpiece of our conversations and plans, displacing the emotion, complexity, and richness of the life they represent.

That, dear friends, is diagram hypnosis.

The opposite risk is that we truly give ourselves to the complexity. We commit to finding the patterns, to gaining insight and understanding without artificial simplification or losing the humanity in the data. But it’s truly complex, insights are elusive, and maybe if we just spent one more day…. And that can lead to the famous “analysis paralysis” syndrome. We get stuck in trying so hard to get the diagrams and maps “right” that we can’t move on. We wind up producing stuff that no one else can understand.  

Let’s imagine something different

We are in the same war room, surrounded by that same wonderful density of data. But instead of going directly into concept generation, the whole team goes for a long walk. Each wanders in silence, reflecting on the journey so far. We’re not thinking about it, We’re just taking a walk, letting our attention, imagination, feelings, and inner storyteller wander wherever they want to go. 

Thirty minutes later we come back to the room and sit down before a blank piece of paper and a can of crayons. There is a simple instruction: “Use the crayons to represent what you feel is possible.”

You don’t feel pressured, you feel relaxed. The long walk helped you step away from the usual internal drive to Get Things Done. It’s quiet in the room, and you’re able to relax into a spacious internal state. You listen for “what is going on.” You take a crayon, start to move it across the paper, and discover that something has started to gel…. 

Fifteen minutes later, everyone reports the story of what they drew. We find common themes and overlaps. We share collective moments of alignment: “Yes, this is right.” A fresh, surprising story of possibility shows up in the room. There is laughter, and “How Might We” sheets start going up on the wall.

What just happened? Tapping our quiet insight

Instead of jumping straight from analysis to synthesis and concepts, we took a long pause. We chose to take time to listen to our intuitive mind: that part of us that has been paying attention all along, but which cannot be heard in our usual business pace, and which does not have a loud insistent voice. It speaks slowly, in metaphor and image. Yet when we listen to it, we access our deep knowing. That side of ourselves is great at noticing patterns, but it doesn’t have language. And it is much closer to our values, our beliefs, our sense of the big important stories. We simply need ways to help it connect what it feels to what it sees, and give it a chance to express itself.

Reflection is a foundation of the creative process

Creative people and groups of all kinds, for all of history, report a similar way of working. It boils down to a cycle of three interlaced movements: paying attention to the world, reflecting, and making.

To reflect means to:

  1. Step back: create a pause in the process 
  2. Get still: do what you can to quiet your relentlessly busy mind
  3. Listen: listen for your deeper sense of truth, of pattern, of image and story

The great reflection drought

This seemingly simple activity has had a terrifically difficult time finding a place in organizations. Productivity as a value is baked into every inch of our culture, and often translates as the need to always do something. Our tight deadlines make us believe that we have no time to pause. Our internal sense of rush and urgency makes it uncomfortable to be still. Our ever-so-productive office seldom gives us permission to stop doing, and when we do take a break we often replace busy-work with busy-play. And finally, our schooling and professional training provides us with no tools to tap into the collective pool of tacit understanding that underlies our constant conversation.

Tiny pools and ponds of reflection

Seven years ago, we became curious about the source of our ideas. Where does that idea to make X or do Y come from? How do we sense what’s really going on in a situation? Does that come from our intellectual smarts or is it born from some less analytical place of discovery?

We all know the value of that “Oh yes!” moment, where collectively we know this is the right course of action, or this is a profoundly true way to see the situations. And we have learned that reflection is a trustworthy addition to our practice, increasing the likelihood that we will arrive at that moment.

We have witnessed…

A Futures Group in an automotive company, in the midst of research, suddenly realize that they were asking the wrong question. The founding question of the project had sent them in a direction that would lead to actual harm. Leaving it for a new question changed the mood from frustration to energetic creative purpose.

A gathering of the quality function from across many departments of a consumer products firm, realizing that the reason they were experiencing conflict was because they had lost touch with their shared purpose, and so had lost trust in one another. At the bottom of it all, they realized that they all truly wanted customers to have reliable products that they love. The group changed their project challenge from “How do we get quality right” to “How do we operate as one?”

An IT organization realizing they had outgrown their image of “order-takers” (“You tell us what you need, and we’ll get it done right!”), and were being invited to take the role of leaders and partners with the rest of the company. It was time to move into the unfamiliar territory of a new identity.

Keep learning in part two

Through these studies and experiences, we have become great believers in the power of reflection. In part two of this post, Four ways to introduce reflection into your work, we’ll offer some practical methods and advice.