In the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to a really interesting audiobook. Entitled ‘Shoe Dog’, it is the autobiography of Nike’s founder Phil Knight. It’s an interesting story on so many levels, and I was really interested to hear how Nike (or Blue Ribbon as it was then) was reportedly one of the first US shoe companies to partner with a Japanese manufacturer.
This was five or six decades ago, long before e-mail, satellite communication links and it was even before fax machines were commonplace. When working internationally everything took longer—the author describes sending important messages by airmail, or if it was really urgent by telex. Conversations could take weeks, or even months, and sometimes there was no option but to get on a plane to resolve an issue. Looking back, this seems like a completely different world. It is easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that the world ran on intra-office (typed) memos, with a typing pool that banged out communications as fast as it could.
This is a massive juxtaposition with the world we live in now. We have moved to quite a different extreme where communication is easy. Communication is ubiquitous. You can’t blink without finding there are 25 new e-mail messages, 7 new WhatsApp messages, 12 Facebook updates and a whole plethora of LinkedIN connection requests. And this connected world provides us with so many opportunities; you wouldn’t be reading this blog if the technology didn’t exist.
Yet, it has a darker side too. Over-communication can become a habit—instant messengers set the expectation of an ‘instant’ response. With easy, cheap communication we are bombarded with interruptions 24 hours a day, and as much as we can switch them off, it is a difficult discipline to do so. But if we spend so much time communicating, so much time fielding and fire-fighting our multiple inboxes, what do we lose? And in particular, what does this mean for the quality of decisions that are made in organisations?
As many of you know, I’m enthusiastically believe in the value that good quality Business Analysis can bring, and I love speaking, writing and presenting on this and many other topics! In a break from my normal ‘blog style, I have a very quick update for you.
Attending the conference is always one of the highlights of my year, as it provides a real melting pot of ideas. It’s a great place to meet other BAs and exchange knowledge. There are fantastic presentations from real-world practitioners, and there’s also the opportunity to relax and chat over a beer (or two) after the conference has closed. If you haven’t been before, I’d highly recommend taking a look.
The conference is being held in London, from 25 – 27 September. You can find full details of the conference here:
PS — if you can’t make it to London, I’m equally excited to say that I’m speaking at some other fantastic events. I’ll be at the BA Summit Southern Africa in Cape Town earlier in September. Here are my sessions:
I’m very pleased to say that my presentation at BA Summit Southern Africa (2016) entitled “The Indispensable BA and the Surprising Truth: You Work In Sales” was recorded. You can watch the session below, which is around 41 minutes long. A massive thank you to the conference team for videoing the session, and for providing me with a copy!
Here is a brief abstract describing the session:
Business analysis is an essential discipline for organisational success. Our discipline spans not just projects, but also the definition of strategy and much more. As organisations mature, BAs are often seen as internal consultants acting as a liaison amongst stakeholders and our scope for engagement widens.
As this happens, the skill-set and capabilities required by BAs and BA teams subtly shifts. We might not be guaranteed early engagement on every project and proving our worth becomes essential. The art of sales—building awareness and interest in the holistic nature of the consultant analysis services we provide—becomes paramount.
In this presentation, Adrian Reed will explore the importance of softer “sales” skills, avoiding the clichéd “shiny-teeth-and-cufflinks” sales approaches that we all dislike. You’ll hear practical tips including how to:
Gain wider engagement for the team by articulating a BA value proposition
Sell the benefits of engaging an internal consultant business analyst
Foster and manage ongoing stakeholder relationships
Understanding tricky business situations often requires us to draw upon our modelling skills. There are a wide range of types of model that we might utilise, ranging from conceptual models that help us understand how stakeholders think the situation ought to be operating, right through to process models, data or information models, state transition diagrams and many, many more beside.
Yet with this plethora of models comes a challenge: how do we create ‘views’ of the situation (or requirements) that are actually meaningful? How can we convey tricky and complex information in an understandable way, to a whole range of interested stakeholders, each of whom have different preferences and needs?
This is a perennial challenge. Executive stakeholders often want a “helicopter view” of a situation, and a detailed process or data model may disengage them. I remember working with one senior manager whose mantra was “one slide”. She took the view that if an idea or proposal couldn’t be distilled to a single slide, then it probably wasn’t well enough thought through (yet). She was probably right.
Yet, as well as executive and senior managers we need to communicate effectively with end-users, subject matter experts, vendors, third parties, middle managers and so on, each of whom will have different interests and concerns. Can ‘modelling’ really help us with this? Don’t we risk creating something that is too high level to be useful, or so detailed that it will swamp and overload our stakeholders?
Precision and Accuracy
I was recently discussing this challenge with a client when a useful analogy emerged. We could perhaps consider communication—of any type, but including communication using models—along two dimensions: Precision and Accuracy
It may surprise some readers to know that, although I am from the UK, I spent part of my life growing up in the USA. I have fond memories of Rochester, Minnesota which was the place where I learned what “winter” really means (the British view of what constitutes ‘snowfall’ is very different to a Minnesotan’s). I enjoyed learning about the cultural differences, and learned a lot about how quirky British people really are. Being outside of my own national culture made me realise how over-politeness and an obsession with ‘fair play’ and queuing really does typify the British psyche.
It was a fantastic opportunity, and I enjoyed studying at a US school. The curriculum was different and when I moved up to the next grade at an age of ten or eleven years, there was an increased focus on learning music. I remember, vividly, speaking to one of my trusted classmates who told me:
“This year you have to choose an instrument, and get good at it. If you don’t choose an instrument, you have to join the choir”.
A Common Response: “Choosing the Best of a Bad Lot”
As practitioners of business analysis, we help facilitate valuable change in organisations. We help our organisations strive towards their organisational objectives, and in doing so we help to define, instil and reinforce change. Yet, whilst we may be progressing objectives that seem exciting and empowering to us, we might find that some stakeholders resist the change. We might even sense that some people fear change altogether.
When talking about resistance and fear of change, I am always reminded of a situation I observed over a decade ago, which is as relevant now as it was then. A contact centre was rationalising its processes and office space, and started to standardise workers’ desk space. It was seemingly positive and non-contentious—people would get new equipment—yet one seemingly insurmountable issue emerged. Yet it seemed so minor…
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”