“Do you see what I see?” What constitutes a problem anyway?

Optical illusion: Perspectives: Two faces or a goblet?
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In business, we often point at examples of “problems” and “problematic situations” as if they should be universally known and agreed upon. Certainly, if revenue is dropping, customers are leaving and there’s not enough money to pay staff wages then it’s likely that there would be fairly unanimous agreement that something has to be done and there are clearly a whole set of “problems”! Yet, most of the day to day situations we find ourselves in are far more subtle and nuanced, and defining and pinpointing issues can be much more challenging . Different stakeholders may interpret a situation very differently, viewing particular aspects of that situation  more or less significantly than we do.


Two examples really brought this idea to life for me, and being from the UK, these are of course weather related (if you’ve never been to the UK, talking about weather is like a national sport!).  During September last year, I attended the fantastic BA Summit Southern Africa in Cape Town.  While I was there I was able to see some of the sights, and catch up with my friends and contacts at IIBA SA. Being a British person, I would start just about every conversation with small talk about the weather.  I’d drone on and on (boring even myself) about how we have so much rain, and how it’s great to be somewhere so sunny…


I was floored when a friend of mine said (with complete respect and rapport) “If only we could find a way of swapping your rain for our sun”. They explained that Cape Town is suffering a severe water shortage, with a lack of rain in the winter, and a real chance that the reservoirs will simply run dry.  Water rationing is now in place, with calculations being regularly updated over when “day zero” will be reached—the day that domestic taps are shut off. Wow. Clearly, and quite understandably, my friends in Cape Town have a very different perspective on rain, and I felt pretty insensitive when I realised what I’d said!  That single experience led me to limit my water usage as much as I could. It also made me think differently about the amount of rain that we get in the UK.


What’s Your (And My) Problem?

Continue reading “Do you see what I see?” What constitutes a problem anyway?

A Journey to Parliament

Those of you that follow this blog will probably know I am somewhat of a self-confessed ‘BA Geek’.  When I am not blogging, I am trying to find other ways to raise awareness of our profession, and to encourage organisations to make use of BA tools and techniques.  I still find it genuinely odd that in some organisations, business analysis is not given the recognition that it deserves.  It feels like as a discipline we are (metaphorically) in our awkward teenage years.  We know that we have a huge amount to contribute, sometimes our ideas are new and challenge the norm, but we often feel misunderstood (and, if we’re completely honest, perhaps we don’t always communicate our worth in the most effective way).  Perhaps it’s not a very elegant analogy, but I’m sure you get the point!


One particular interest of mine is studying project failures.  I’ve spent a lot of time over the years delving into the detail of why governmental projects fail.  “Why focus on the public sector?” I hear you ask!  The main, practical, reason is that when a public sector project fails it tends to happen very publically—the information is made available for scrutiny.  I am certain there are just as many project failures in the private sector—certainly I’ve worked on a few ‘stinky’ private sector projects over the years—but getting at the data is much, much harder.   The irony is that there are excellent BAs in the public sector—some of them are my contacts and friends.  Yet the failure reports and research suggest (to me at least) that BAs aren’t always engaged at the right time and in some cases might not be given the voice that they desire.


This led me and some of my fellow IIBA-UK volunteers to submit evidence to a Public Administration Select Committee inquiry back in 2014, an initiative I was particularly proud of as we managed to get cross-organisational agreement from IIBA UK, BCS and the BA Manager Forum.   I have been part of committees that have made other representations to government too, hoping that a regular ‘drip feed’ of information will help raise awareness.


“But why bother with this?”, some of you may ask.  Good question indeed!  My driving motivations are:


  • Save Money: I believe that good quality business analysis in the public sector (as in any sectors) will save money. In fact, looking at some government failure reports it could save a lot of money.  This is compelling in the private sector too… but the optimist in me likes to think that public sector savings could lead to more hospital beds, more public services, in a time when increasingly decision makers are having to “do more with less”.  And creating better public services excites me a lot more than “creating shareholder value”.


  • Set a Standard: I truly believe that once a national government adopts a BA standard, the level of awareness will be raised by default. Things will be better for all  Much as all major government projects must use a particular project management methodology, how awesome would it be if they had to adopt a flexible, tailored business analysis methodology (overseen by a skilled senior BA)?  And it’s highly likely that the private sector would follow…


A Letter to an MP…

I was thinking about these goals as I sat in front of my PC screen in that quiet, reflective time between Christmas and New Year.  In conducting some research, I discovered that my Member of Parliament (Stephen Morgan MP) is a member of the Public Accounts Committee.   The very committee that is responsible (along with the National Audit Office) for providing scrutiny on government decisions and projects…

Continue reading A Journey to Parliament

Variety of Demand: What an Electricity Meter Taught Me About Process Analysis

Electricity Meter
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Process analysis and process modelling are two commonly used and interrelated business analysis techniques. There can be significant benefit in understanding how a particular business process works, improving it to ensure that it is aligned with the needs of the customer and other stakeholders, whilst ensuring that resources are being used efficiently and effectively.  Good processes contribute towards a consistent customer experience—they ensure that the organisation can deliver a reliable and predictable service every time.  An effective process will typically minimise the number of subjective decisions that need to be made ‘on the fly’ by staff, and ensures that staff are empowered with the tools that they need to do the job.


Yet, it doesn’t automatically follow that changing a process will improve it.  I am sure we have all seen process improvement initiatives that didn’t achieve their desired outcomes.  We may have even seen initiatives that made things worse!  As businesses analysts, we have a significant part to play in helping to avoid these failures.


Understand Variety in Demand

There are many angles which should be considered when aiming to improve a process, but one that is often overlooked is variety of demand.  A process, at its essence, will need to respond to a trigger (a business event), then perform a series of actions to create an outcome.  One of strengths of formalising processes is the ability to standardise—yet this can (ironically) become an organisation’s Achilles’ heel.  Standardisation that accommodates the types of customer demand that you want or need to serve is great; anything else risks being perceived as rigid and bureaucratic.


This probably sounds rather abstract, so let’s take an example.  I recently received an e-mail from the company that supplies the electricity and gas to my house, asking me to take meter readings and input them online. Nothing unusual there, except when I input the electricity meter reading, it wouldn’t accept it.  After a bit of digging I realised that the reading was exactly the same as the reading I input six months ago.  The meter’s dials had not moved at all in that period. Some further investigation led me to conclude the meter is completely dead, and had been for some time.

Continue reading Variety of Demand: What an Electricity Meter Taught Me About Process Analysis

Webinar Recording: Systems Thinking – A Crucial BA Skill in an Uncertain World

I recently presented a webinar, hosted by IIBA®, focussing on the importance of systems thinking.  The webinar is entitled Systems Thinking: A Crucial BA Skill in an Uncertain World and I’m pleased to say that the recording is available to watch below. The recording is around an hour long, so grab a coffee, sit back and enjoy.  I hope that you find the webinar interesting!

(NB: If you find this webinar useful, you may be interested in our Systems Thinking Course)

Webinar Description

It has often been said that we live in an increasingly volatile, complex and ambiguous world. The external business environment is complex and fast-moving, yet often our stakeholders are blindsided by ‘silver-bullet’ solutions that assume a neat linear relationship between cause and effect.

In reality, things are rarely neat and linear. More often we’ll find that situations are devilishly difficult, requiring us to understand and engage with a whole range of messy interconnected issues and perspectives.

In this practical presentation, Adrian Reed discusses the importance of systems thinking in business analysis. During the presentation you will hear:

  • What systems thinking ‘is’, why it matters, and the conditions in which it can be relevant in an analysis environment
  • A range of practical techniques from the world of systems thinking that have direct applicability in the BA world
  • How systems thinking and systems practice, when embraced by a range of complementary practitioners and stakeholders, can help an organisation ‘learn’

Continue reading Webinar Recording: Systems Thinking – A Crucial BA Skill in an Uncertain World

Cultural Clues: Who Is Watering The Plants?

Office Plant
Image Credit: © vege – Fotolia.com #149241625

As business analysts and practitioners of strategic change, we probably all find ourselves ‘parachuted’ into new organisational situations from time to time.  Whether we are working with a new client, business unit, team or department, there is a need to get up to speed with the domain and the culture quickly.  In these situations it’s important to learn as much as we can about the organisational situation—whether that’s through document analysis, ad-hoc conversations or other more formal analysis techniques.  Yet understanding organisational culture can be much harder, but it is crucial that we try to do so.


A thorough understanding of culture can only really be achieved through spending time in the organisational environment, but there are sometimes signs that can be useful indicators of cultural norms.  It is almost like our stakeholders leave a trail of clues for us to follow.  And that might even start by looking at the office plants…


Looking for Cultural Clues

Continue reading Cultural Clues: Who Is Watering The Plants?

A Crucial BA Skill: “Making Space” And Avoiding Mud-Digging

Excavator digging mud
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Now, more than ever, the business world seems like a hectic, fast-moving and sometimes volatile place. Businesses operate within fast-moving environments and the rate of change can be phenomenally high.  Data flows around organisations, and in many organisations decision makers can see more and more data about their business and its environment than ever before.  Emerging technology means that previously unimaginable things become plausible, and societal changes and trends mean that customers expect better and better service.


It is an exciting time to be alive, and as business analysts we are front and centre of this ever-changing world.  I suspect many people reading this article will be working on some type of initiative that is responding to (or pre-empting) an external change—perhaps a competitive force, a regulatory edict, or a change in customer need.


Yet with such a fast-moving environment, we risk being a generation of knee-jerk decision makers. With so much information and data zooming around an organisation, it is easy to perceive a trend—to see urgency—when we are actually looking at a “blip” or outlier.  Or if a trend is emerging, it is easy to make a tacit assumption as to the causation. You can imagine a Sales Manager demanding to know why sales from the website are down 30% in the last few weeks, asking for an urgent analysis of the technology (as she fears the server must have been down). This might lead to a whole “infrastructure refresh” programme and significant levels of investment.  But perhaps the real reason (and the bigger problem) is a new competitor has emerged, or an existing competitor ran a temporary promotion.  Jumping straight to solution—without appropriately and holistically thinking through the problem—can be a recipe for wasted effort.


This is where business analysis is essential.  Of course, I could write about pre-project problem analysis and strategic business analysis techniques—but instead I want to discuss something ‘softer’ that is often overlooked. Namely, our ability as professional change agents to create space.


Making Space and Stopping the Storm

Continue reading A Crucial BA Skill: “Making Space” And Avoiding Mud-Digging

Knowing our Customers: Stop Icing the “Non-Cake”!

Iced cake with fruits and cream
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As regular readers of this blog will know, I travel a lot with my work. Travel inevitably involves living out of a suitcase, and staying in hotels a lot. Or rather, returning to a hotel after a long day at a client site ready to fall in to bed to recharge for the next day.


Now, the curious thing about hotels is how many seem to have been designed based on what the hotel industry thinks travellers want, as opposed to what they actually want. Plenty of very logical and plausible sounding ideas have been implemented presumably in order to enhance the customer experience. In recent years, it’s all about the scatter cushions; I lose count of the time I’ve checked in to find the bed adorned with a range of pillows and approximately 27 scatter cushions that have been thrown on the bed like confetti.

Continue reading Knowing our Customers: Stop Icing the “Non-Cake”!

What An Airport Can Teach Us About Communication

Airport terminal with business people waiting
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Read the results of just about any large organisation’s ‘employee engagement survey’, and you’re likely to find communication is amongst the top issues marked as needing attention.  With the (often unnecessary) hierarchies, functions and silos that some organisations create, this is hardly surprising.  I suspect many of us have worked in organisations that encourage over-communication (“better send this to ‘all staff’ to cover our backs!”) or under-communicate (“Stick it on the intranet, 12 links deep. It’s their responsibility to find it!”).  This says a lot about an organisation’s communication culture.


The culture and norms of communication that an organisation cultivates can affect the success of projects too.  Foist a new process or system on an unsuspecting “user” and they are likely to react with shock and rebellion. And who wouldn’t—as human beings don’t we all have a need to feel engaged, considered and consulted?  Underpinning this is the need to engage and communicate at the most optimum times—avoiding the over/under-communication trap.


How Do Airports Handle Information Flow?

Continue reading What An Airport Can Teach Us About Communication

The Business World Needs To Lose Its “Hero” Mentality

Super Hero in Cape
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Delivering large-scale change in organisations is tricky. When the chips are down and tensions are high, there can be pressure to put in long hours to get the project “over the line”.  I’m sure most people reading this will have put in the occasional very late night or early morning at work.  Arguably, there is nothing wrong with long hours in the short term, that is the reality of complex projects, yet left unchecked in the long term a worrying pattern could emerge.


I was going through a box of old stuff a few weeks ago and I came across an old end of year appraisal document from a long, long time ago. I remember the time vividly—I was travelling a lot around Europe as part of a project team, and long hours became the norm. There were tight deadlines—seemingly impossible deadlines at times—but I did what I could to ensure they were met. I still vividly remember working in my hotel room late one evening, being so engrossed in my work I forgot to eat (and by the time I realised it was midnight so the hotel’s restaurant had closed).  I spent weeks in vibrant European cities and saw nothing other than hotels, conference rooms and airports.


On reflection, this was a formative time in my career. I learned a lot and I had a very supportive line manager. Yet, with the power of hindsight I wonder whether I had fallen into the trap of trying to solve underlying project and planning issues by just “working harder” and “working longer”.  And a strange and potentially destructive pattern emerged: the more I worked, the more some members of the project team expected of me…


The Danger of “Project Heroes”

Continue reading The Business World Needs To Lose Its “Hero” Mentality

How Did You Arrive At That Estimate?

Calculator, printed numbers on spreadsheet, calculator
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As anyone who has ever been involved in estimating a large, unique and complex piece of work will attest to, estimation can be difficult.  So often, change initiatives are delivered in a volatile and uncertain environment. With shifting sands, estimates have a high element of uncertainty. We shouldn’t be surprised at this—even seemingly simple and repeatable activities involve uncertainty. Imagine driving to the airport: If your drive to the airport normally takes 2 hours, how long do you allow when you’re driving your family there for a vacation? Well, if it involves a trip on a busy and congested highway where there are often accidents you might take a view that it’ll take between 1.5 – 3 hours, and you’ll likely plan on this basis, or at least take this into account.  If there is uncertainty in something as seemingly mundane as a car journey, is it any wonder that estimating effort on a complex project is difficult?


Yet the real danger is not in the uncertainty itself—that is a given—it is that this uncertainty becomes hidden or opaque, and projects proceed based on an estimate that has been arbitrarily plucked from the air. The uncertainty goes unacknowledged and so often projects act as if it isn’t there at all. A difference of expectations emerges:


Person A: “What is your ballpark estimate for this”

Person B: “Well… you’re putting me on the spot here…. but around 100 days… probably”


What happens next? So often 100 days becomes the figure, it is seen as a commitment. It is treated like a contract that is set in stone, and if it isn’t met then often the “blame game” starts.  “People will just have to work harder. It is their estimate” an aggressive manager might say.


Show Your Working

Perhaps in some cases these types of conflict emerge due to a difference in expectation over what is being estimated, and the level of uncertainty attached to that estimate.  Reflecting on the example above, Person B may be talking about effort rather than duration… they may also be basing this estimate on previous project experiences and there may be some unstated assumptions.  They may, in their mind really be thinking “It’s around 100 days, perhaps with a range of -25%/+200%, as we don’t know enough yet”.  Because this isn’t stated, the level of uncertainty stays hidden, and too often “100 days” is taken as an undisputed objective truth, even though that was never the intent.


A great question to ask when presented with an estimate is:


“Can you tell me how you arrived at that estimate?”

Continue reading How Did You Arrive At That Estimate?