The Importance of “Zooming Out”: Elephants and Trains

If you have ever used the tube (metro) system in London during rush hour, you’ll know it isn’t  the sort of place where you can stand around and admire the surroundings.  Like most bustling cities, there is a focus on movement; there is a sea of people filling every conceivable space.  Anyone who dares move at a glacial pace is at risk of getting swept along with the crowd like a twig in a fast flowing river, or even worse they might be greeted by the passive-aggressive ‘tut’ of an exhausted commuter.  It seems that everyone is determined to get to their destination, trying to edge further and further forward without pushing or making contact with anyone else.  Like some kind of silent and choreographed ‘commuter dance’, It is fascinating to watch, and fascinating to be part of. 

I have travelled on the Jubilee Line from Waterloo Station countless times.  Most times, I am navigating my way through the crowds, with my brain and eyes focussed mainly on the immediate few feet in front of me.  Only fairly recently, when travelling very late at night (when the station was empty) did I look up and notice there is literally an elephant in the room.  More specifically, there is a sculpture of an elephant above the escalators.  Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture 🙂

I must have walked past this sculpture thousands of times before I noticed it.  Yet because my focus was on the things (and people) immediately in front of me, I completely missed it.  Because I thought I was in a predictable context (a train station) I didn’t spot the anomaly (an elephant). 

The Elephants on our Projects

A problem that bedevils many a project is the lack of up-front, holistic (pre-project) problem analysis.  So often a ‘solution’ is chosen without a full understanding of the underlying problems or opportunities we are trying to address.  Knee-jerk decision are made, and a diktat is dispatched for us to ‘just get on with it’.

Faced with this situation, it is very easy for us to fall into the pattern of being the rushed, exhausted commuter.  We ignore the context, we accelerate towards the dictated path and we’re drawn along with a pre-determined flow.  It’s only once we’re in a carriage with hundreds of other people, our necks contorted so as not to touch anyone else, that we realise we’re on the wrong train line and now we’re going to have to make a major adjustment to our journey (making us late).  Or, in project terms, we accelerate towards a prescribed solution only to discover later that it doesn’t actually meet the core business needs.  Oops!

This is a crucial area where business analysis can be extremely valuable.  We have a whole set of tools and techniques that allow us to ‘zoom out’, to see the wider context, and to investigate underlying problems and opportunities. There is an entire knowledge area (‘Strategy Analysis’) in the BABOK® which focuses on these types of activity.  Tools from the world of systems thinking can help us a great deal here too.

A perennial challenge we face is that our desire to ‘zoom out’ and understand the situation in more detail may be perceived as ‘analysis paralysis’.  We become the annoying commuter that appears to be moving slowly, with everyone trying to coerce them to just get a freaking move on! As a community it’s crucial that we dispel this myth.  Pre-project problem analysis can be quick, effective and can save time in the long run.  I suspect we’ve all worked on projects where conflict has arisen because we (later) discover that there are multiple perspectives on what problem we are trying to solve.  This can lead to conflict, missed expectations and scope creep, all of which cost time and money.  By working collaboratively with our stakeholders to collectively understand the situation better to begin with, we reduce the risk of these types of issues occurring.  We clearly scope out our ‘hypothesis of value’, and collectively agree how we will test it.  We build a firm foundation on which we can incrementally implement a change, test and learn. Doing so will help ensure we are able to contribute to the realisation of benefits for our stakeholders, customers and wider communities.


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About the author:

Adrian Reed

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com

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Sarah Skedd

Great article Adrian. We’ve been looking at this in our team recently. Very easy to get swept off down a single ‘track’ when there might be ‘multiple tracks’ available – keeping ‘on board’ up with train analogy 🙂

Adrian Reed

Thanks Sarah, glad to hear that you liked the article. Yes, it’s so important to look at multiple possible ‘tracks’, and work with stakeholders to understand which is best 🙂

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