Say the word ‘strategy’, and many people will respond with a glazed look and a sigh. Seen as a Dilbert-esque ‘corporate’ buzzword, people throughout organisations often disengage, seeing strategic thinking as something for those in a ‘corner office’ or an ivory tower. It is often seen as disconnected from the real-world, with bland internally-focussed vision statements and strategic plans festering away twenty-six links deep on a corporate intranet.
Yet as business analysts, we know that pursuing change and innovation without a cohesive set of strategic principles is like setting sail without a planned destination, a compass or a map. All important change requires co-ordinated effort, and this cohesion can be achieved with a clear, crisp, concise strategy. Done well, this ensures we have a laser-like focus on delivering products and services in a way that our customers love. Yet a question that we might often ask is what actually is “strategy”, and what is our role (as BAs) in relation to strategy?
Strategy: A Definition
There are many useful definitions of strategy out there (For example, Michael Porter has written some very useful material on competitive strategy). Yet, the definition I come back to time and time again is from a 2011 book ‘Good Strategy Bad Strategy…*’. By Richard Rumelt. In this book, Rumelt describes strategy as:
It won’t come as any surprise to regular readers of this blog that I have always been somewhat of a ‘geek’. I’ve always been fascinated with computers, and particularly how they can be used to communicate. Long before the Internet went mainstream, I enjoyed dialing up ‘Bulletin Board Systems‘ (or BBS as they were known) on my 2400 baud modem. It was slow, unreliable and seems archaic now, but it felt really futuristic at the time.
One thing I miss about those pioneering days is the discussion forums. They were, by today’s standards, very low-tech. There was a voluntary ‘store-and-forward’ network called Fidonet that allowed messages to ‘ripple’ out to other BBS around the world. I won’t bore you with details of the topology, but in brief each BBS would poll at least one other server a day, and exchange messages. This meant that, over several days, a message posted in a discussion forum by a user in, say, Edinburgh, would be visible to users in London.
This seemed amazing to me at the time. For the cost of a local call, you could collaborate and discuss all sorts of topics from people all over the country (or even the world). And whilst there was very robust debate, there was very little ‘trolling’ and very little need for moderation.
Juxtapose this with today’s Facebook message forums, and there is a world of difference. I am a member of a local community forum where a range of local issues are discussed, and even though there is a lot of constructive debate sometimes things escalate very quickly and turn ugly. The discussion turns from constructive to personal extremely quickly. So why is there so much more conflict now than in those early Fidonet days?
In aviation, I gather, the mantra ‘Aviate, Navigate, Communicate’ has been a staple for pilots for many years. I first heard this expression a few years ago, speaking to a fellow BA at a conference who also happened to hold a private pilots licence. According to the FAA website, the mantra provides a useful aid-memoir for the pilot-in-command, particularly in emergency situations:
Aviate: Keep the aircraft in the sky, and keep it under control
Navigate: Monitor location, and navigate to the intended location
Communicate: Speak to others (presumably this would include those outside the cockpit, e.g. air traffic control and also the passengers on board).
When I first heard this mantra, I was struck by its succinctness but also its usefulness—it is a concise shortcut that helps prioritise activities, especially when time is short and when the pressure is on. It also struck me that it is an interesting model through which we could consider a project. But perhaps, for a business and project environment it might need some adaptation…
When carrying out Business Analysis, it is very tempting (and often considered advantageous) to highlight our objectivity. As professionals looking ‘in’ on a business situation we are, it is said, able to see the ‘wood from the trees’ and work with our stakeholders to co-create solutions that they may not have found on their own. Indeed, this is one of the major benefits of business analysis—we bring a fresh perspective, challenge and a range of techniques that help ensure our organisations meet the outcomes that they are desiring. Yet, whilst appropriate detachment and separation is useful, I am beginning to wonder if objectivity has its limits.
We talk a lot in the analysis community about stakeholders—how to identify them, how to engage them and how to understand their perspectives. We might even talk about how to ‘bring people on the journey’, and how to understand the reactions that people have to change. You are probably familiar with at least one theoretical model that charts the typical emotional responses to change (e.g. ‘SARAH’). Yet in talking this way, are we assuming that as practitioners we have no emotions? That, like Spock in Star Trek we somehow experience no sense of fear, excitement, joy or regret?
I am sure we are not trying to imply that at all, but I wonder whether it is useful for us to consider our own emotional ‘state’ more. After all if we are going to engage with a situation, with the stakeholders, doesn’t that involve being engaging?And whilst there are of course techniques that can help with this, if we ignore our own emotional state then we are going to likely find ourselves giving out incongruous messages. Like the customer service agent who says “uhh, yeah, probably”, we risk sounding seem half-committed—and as crucial practitioners who lead-from-the-middle it is so important that we ‘walk the talk’.
A Different Perspective: “Change Changes the Changer Too”
Value is an important concept in business analysis, and an important part of conducting business analysis is gaining a common understanding of the types of value that our stakeholders are trying to attain with a particular project or initiative. Indeed, ‘Value’ is a one of the focal points in the Business Analysis Core Competency Model (BACCM™) in the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge Guide (BABOK®), which defines value from the perspective of business analysis as:
“The worth, importance or usefulness of something to a stakeholder or in a context”
This is clearly only one possible definition of value, but it is worth pausing and reflecting on. It implies an important distinction that we, as practitioners, instinctively know but rarely talk about. What is considered ‘valuable’ varies depending on who you ask and the context in which we are operating in. In fact, what is considered ‘valuable’ may vary over time, and this has an impact on what we do as analysts and how we do it.
Defining Value: Trickier Than it Might Appear
It is easy to over-simplify the definition of value. We might (quite understandably) think that it is for the sponsor to decide what is valuable. Whilst there is a strong element of truth in this statement, and certainly the sponsor should define the strategically aligned outcomes they are seeking, success often involves balancing the needs of multiple stakeholders and groups—so of whom have no direct power on the project that we are working on. It is important that we bring this view to the fore so that conscious decisions can be made.
Let’s imagine we are implementing a change project which will improve the processes in the contact centre of an insurance company’s claims department. The sponsor may value “efficiency” and may have a specific amount of saving that she or he is looking to attain. Of course, this could be better elaborated with a problem statement and a set of critical success factors and key performance indicators.
Yet, even if we have a clear metric we are aiming for, there will be many other stakeholders in this picture. We ignore their perceptions of value at our peril! For example:
I have never been good at predicting the future. In fact, I suspect all of us find predicting future trends difficult—and predicting medium and longer term futures is even more difficult. As Steve Davidson observed:
“Forecasting future events is often like searching for a black cat in an unlit room, that may not even be there.”
Yet, inaccuracy and uncertainty doesn’t stop predictions being useful for some applications. If nothing else, predicting (one) possible future creates the opportunity for a conversation, for agreement, disagreement and refinement. My intention with this article is to do just that—to set out one possible future and to create debate. So once you have read this, I’d love it if you added a comment below! What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? Be sure to let me know.
So here goes. My top 6 predictions for Business Analysis in 2020:
I’m very pleased to say that my recent presentation at the BA Conference Europe entitled ‘And Then The Magic Happens’: What BAs Can Learn From The World of Magic was recorded. You can view the presentation below, complete with slides and audio — in total it’s just over 45 minutes long.
I hope you find the video useful and enjoyable. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to see the magic tricks I performed–and you might find the audio in the recording is a little patchy–but if you’ve ever wondered what Business Analysis and Magic have in common, this is a presentation you’ll love to watch!
Here is a brief summary of the session:
On projects, it often feels like our stakeholders expect us to be magicians. They expect us to carry out high quality work with far less time and resources than we really need. We have a broad and varied toolkit, but sometimes it feels like we need some real magic to make our projects work.
But what if we really could use magic? Or at least the techniques from a magician’s toolbox?
In this interactive session Adrian Reed explains how a chance meeting with a Magician challenged the way he thought about Business Analysis. You’ll hear:
A range of techniques from magic, conjuring and mentalism that have parallel applications in the world of business analysis
The importance of audience management, and what this means for BAs
How to avoid “magic for magicians” (or “analysis for analysts”)
You’ll take away practical tips and techniques, whilst seeing some magic tricks too.
I hope you find the presentation useful and enjoyable, and if you do, be sure to subscribe.
It is funny how seemingly unrelated events can trigger thoughts and reflections on very different topics. I recently experienced this when setting out for a fairly short journey in my car. It was an ordinary Saturday morning, cold but sunny, and I took the short walk from my house to where my car was parked. As I suspect happens to most of us in these situations, I was lost in my thoughts—thinking about the errands I had to run that day, thinking about plans for the evening and mulling over a few other projects that I’m involved with. I was enjoying the fact it was sunny, even in December.
Suddenly my attention was drawn elsewhere, and my mind focussed on the car. As I approached it, something didn’t look right. As I got closer, my instinct was confirmed and I could see that a window had been broken.
Whenever I’m travelling by air, I’m always fascinated by the layout of the equipment on the plane. As a fairly regular traveller, I suspect I often notice things that other passengers don’t, and probably end up reading signs and notices that are intended for the crew rather than passengers.
After a couple of hours on a recent short-haul flight, I decided to freshen up and so headed toward the “washroom”. As is fairly normal, there was a queue, so I was standing in line for a few moments. While waiting, I noticed that there was a cabin crew jump-seat next to the WC, and just behind the seat there were a series of (what appeared to be) laminated emergency scenario cards. Now, as much as I would have loved to have a good rifle through these, I didn’t because (a) I suspect the crew would have soon stopped me and I’d have been banned from flying with that airline again and (b) seeing emergency procedures from a crew’s perspective probably would have scared the life out of me!
However, I did see part of one of the cards, and my eye was drawn to an acronym which really stuck with me. So much so, that I wrote it down when I got back to my seat:
Nature Intention Time Special Circumstances
Now, I can only guess what the relevance of this acronym is in aviation (so if there are any pilots or cabin crew reading, I’d love to know if my interpretation is correct), but I can imagine two potential uses:
Working on projects can be challenging at times. It can feel like we are spinning a number of plates, desperately trying to keep them from falling to the ground. Add in human factors, power and politics and it is more like spinning plates in a storm (in the dark), with different stakeholders having different views over which plate is most important. This dynamic is one of the things that makes the role so interesting and varied.
In this challenging landscape, part of our time is spent planning and monitoring the analysis work. If you are a Principal or Lead BA this may involve leading and managing the work of others, else it may involve planning and structuring the crucial day-to-day work that we do individually. It is easy to overlook this part of the job as it is something we probably do without thinking, yet it is a crucial enabler for the efficiency and effectiveness of our work. When things get busy, it can become tempting to stop planning and monitoring—there may be a pressure to “just get going”. There can be an unstated pressure for us to spin our plates without considering how many we are tending to (and how long we’ll be spinning them).
This can lead to a significant danger. Without an appropriate plan, we can get caught in a never-ending loop. It is easy to end up over-committed, as it is so temptingly easy to take on just another ‘small task’. But each task takes time, and before long we find ourselves flip-flopping between activities with an uncomfortable sense that things aren’t quite under control. The more tasks we take on, the more this insidiously uncomfortable feeling grows—we’re worried that we’re going to drop a plate without even knowing it! Perhaps you recognise this feeling? I know I do!