Thanks for being a follower of my blog. It suddenly occurred to me that some people who follow my blog might not be on my main mailing list, and you might be wondering why my blog has been a little quieter than usual. There’s a couple of really exciting initiatives that I am keen to…
In recent years, it seems that many organisations have become blindsided into maximising the speed of technological change. Being able to get technological innovations to the consumer quickly is of crucial importance, but in some cases it appears that technology is moving much faster than the rest of the organisation. Put differently, whereas once technology was seen as ‘the bottleneck’, this really doesn’t have to be the case today, and other parts of the wider organisational architecture and business context appear to be the things that are slower to adapt.
One illustration of this phenomenon is the electric scooter. Where I live, in Portsmouth (on the south coast of the UK), these things are ubiquitous. You can’t walk more than a few hundred metres down a sidewalk without one whizzing past you. The technology is very well-established now, however the legislation, regulation and (arguably) enforcement are lagging behind. You see, technically speaking, it is illegal to use privately owned electric scooters in public spaces. Or, it is probably illegal, unless they fulfil the requirements of a motor vehicle (car/motorbike), have the necessary lights and mandatory safety equipment and are insured and the relevant vehicle excise duty (‘road tax’) has been paid.
This creates a bizarre situation where it is legal to sell an electric scooter, it just isn’t legal to use one, unless you are using it on private land. To confuse things further, certain local councils (municipalities) have created bylaws allowing e-scooter rental schemes to be deemed legal. Meaning you can ride a rental scooter on the road (but not the sidewalk), but you can’t ride a privately owned scooter on the road or the sidewalk. Confused? I’m not surprised!
Why Don’t We Talk About ‘Legislative Agility’?
This illustrates a situation where the pace of change of the technology (the e-scooter), the processes to sell them and appetite for people to use them has far outpaced the speed of:
In college, I bought a set of disco lights. They were fairly basic by today’s standards, essentially consisting of a box with four coloured bulbs that would respond to the beat, flashing in a fixed pattern. However, they helped to create a real party atmosphere. There’s something about colourful flashing lights that just invites people to dance. Throw in cheap beer and Britpop and you’ve got a classic 1990s house party.
Although I bought the lights to use at my own house parties, I found that owning them had an unexpected (but positive) side effect. It meant that I got invited to more parties too. We could perhaps question the motivation of those inviting me (did they really value my presence, or was it just that they wanted to borrow the disco lights?), but back in those days I didn’t really care: a party was a party, and once you were in the door you could meet people, dance and have fun. And generally when people realised the lights were yours, you’d get invited to another party….
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I’d stumbled upon a really important lesson: Some things are seen as highly desirable, but expensive to obtain and are only used occasionally. It makes no sense for everyone to invest in them, but those that do will be in constant demand from a string of different people. In this example it was disco lights—at the time they seemed hugely expensive (I had to save up for them), were fairly scarce (there were only a few shops you could buy them from) and it just wouldn’t make sense for everyone to have their own set.
Zooming out, we could say that this pattern holds true of many other things too, including skills and competencies. Properly mastering a skill takes time, and nobody can be a master of everything. Skills that are essential or highly desirable can sometimes be a way of getting a ‘foot in the door’ with stakeholders that might not otherwise engage. This becomes interesting for those of us that practice business analysis. I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where stakeholders have involved us too late. Perhaps having our own (metaphorical) ‘disco lights’ is the way to gain earlier engagement. But what would those ‘disco lights’ be?
Sharpening Up Hybrid Facilitation
Facilitation is a core skill for business analysis. It is hard to imagine how any BA could function without conducting different types of facilitation amongst a community of often conflicting stakeholders. Facilitating in a virtual and hybrid environment is nothing new, I suspect many people reading this will have worked in dispersed teams for years, but the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 have changed the expectation of what ‘work’ will look like.
This post is written by Kathy Berkidge of Mind at Work Consulting. I first met Kathy at a conference and I was absolutely blown away by her presentation, and I’m so pleased she agreed to write an article. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! — Adrian
Effective stakeholder engagement can mean the difference between successful project delivery and project failure. We BAs work closely with stakeholders to understand their needs and ensure they are translated into solution requirements. If we don’t engage with our stakeholders successfully, requirements may be missed or misinterpreted leading to products and services that fail to deliver the outcomes expected.
There are many barriers that may affect a stakeholder’s engagement, including:
- Lack of vision or not understanding the project context
- Resistance to share information
- Failure to understand what’s in it for them
- Misinterpretation of their needs
- Lack of available time
- Poor communication
- Lack of trust
- Previous history or negative perceptions from past experiences and projects
- Fear of change
Also, stakeholders often have very different expectations on what is, or is not, going to change. Something that seems like an improvement to one group of stakeholders may be perceived as a retrograde step for others. For example, an energy company that wants householders to download an app to submit meter readings and receive bills – the householders just want to keep things the same as they are now – it’s much easier!
When I was in primary school, some of the most exciting lessons were the ones taken in the “television room”. Upon entering the room, a seemingly giant CRT TV stood on a metal stand on wheels, and the lesson inevitably started with the teacher fiddling with cables and working out how to use the VCR.
I remember one year in late December a teacher showed us “The Snowman“. For those of you not familiar, The Snowman is an animated children’s film focussing on a snowman that comes to life. It has no dialogue, but features the signature tune “Walking in the Air”.
I distinctly remember me and my friends watching in a state of ambivalence and confusion. I mean, as a five or six year old it seemed like there were much better cartoons out there, and although the animation was certainly more artistic it didn’t seem as colourful and exciting as other programs. Without dialogue it requires the capability to interpret a story arch and subtext that, well, I’m not sure I had at that age. In fact I don’t think I had the attention span at that age either!
Then, much to my confusion suddenly The Snowman seemed to be everywhere. Friends parents would put it on. It became inescapable.The signature tune was forever on the radio. All the adults seemed to think that children loved it, but I just didn’t understand why people thought it was a big deal. “Maybe it’s just like Star Wars. You either like it or you don’t” I can imagine myself thinking as I build another spaceship out of Lego.
I was reminded of this experience a few months ago when discussing the film with someone who had the exact same experience. Which led me to wonder if any kids liked it at all!
(Of course, I’m being provocative here, I’m sure many kids did, but roll with me for the rest of this blog 😃)
It’s About The Customers/Beneficiaries
In situations like this, it’s worth asking “who are the real customers here?” and “who are the beneficiaries?”.
Ostensibly, the kids watching the film are the beneficiaries. But, given a choice, how many kids in the early 80s would really choose The Snowman over The Smurfs, Masters of the Universe or Jem? If the supposed target audience doesn’t value the film, then we should probably look more broadly. Perhaps we might argue the following stakeholders are likely to be the real customers or beneficiaries, in addition to (or even instead of) kids:
It’s difficult to imagine how any practitioner could improve without seeing, seeking and considering feedback1. There’s an often cited phrase that you’ve probably heard before, it’s the kind that adorns LinkedIN memes and motivational posters. It is:
“Feedback is a gift”
It’s difficult to argue with the underlying intent of this statement—it takes effort for someone to explicitly consider a situation and provide their feedback, and this is something we should be grateful for. However, in this short blog I want to consider:
- Is all feedback a gift (is it always consciously given)?
- Is feedback always a gift?
Most Feedback Is Tacit
Gifts, I would assume, are consciously and explicitly given, they might be wrapped up with a bow added to make them look pretty. When giving somebody feedback, there is often a similar temptation—feedback is (quite rightly) packaged into a neat box using words that are deemed constructive and appropriate.
Yet in many cases feedback is tacit and some may even be unconsciously given. If you or I were facilitating a workshop and 80% of the attendees didn’t return after a short coffee break then that is a form of feedback!. The people leaving are sending a signal, even though they may not consciously be intending to provide ‘feedback’. The fact you are reading this article now (as opposed to other articles on this blog) is a form of feedback; indeed there’s an entire discipline behind understanding web analytics and continually optimising websites.
The trouble with tacit feedback is:
Defining and implementing change is an inherently human endeavour, and working closely with stakeholders is a crucial part of the BA role. Different stakeholders will, quite naturally, have different perspectives on the various situations that we find ourselves trying to change and improve. This will be no surprise to anyone reading this blog—I am certain we’ve all worked in situations where there has been stakeholder disagreement and we’ve probably all worked with individuals who seem to have ulterior motives.
When analysing the stakeholder landscape it’s very tempting to start assessing stakeholders by their actions. This may seem a completely logical approach, after all as the saying goes “actions speak louder than words”.
The trouble is that people are somewhat more complex than we might imagine, and if we judge people by their actions alone, without speaking with them to gain their perspective, then we risk making assumptions that may prove to be completely wrong. “Ah, that stakeholder is rejecting all of my meeting requests therefore they must be completely uninterested in the project.” Well that might be true; equally they might be swamped with work, recovering from a long-term illness or balancing some other urgent non-work tasks alongside their project obligations. Just because something is possible and maybe even plausible doesn’t mean it’s accurate.
Beware The ‘Cartoon Villain’
One of my more unusual “claims to fame” is that I’ve performed magic in front of a paying audience at Caeser’s palace, Las Vegas. I’ve also performed the same act in London, Johannesburg and Minneapolis—although all of this becomes far less exciting when you find out it’s actually a presentation that draws similarities between business analysis and magic (and there are a surprising number of similarities….)
Preparing for that presentation meant that I carried out research into various branches of magic and I was particularly interested in cold reading. This technique is used by magicians who want to appear to be able to read a subject’s mind. There are a whole range of ways of achieving this effect, from illusions and misdirection to clever language patterns and use of psychology. One that particularly stood out to me was the Barnum Statement.
Barnum Statements can be described as:
“…artfully generalised character statements that most people will accept as reasonably accurate” (Rowland, 2015)
A good Barnum statement may well feel personal, but it actually applies to a significant chunk of the population. It somehow simultaneously feels specific but actually says very little. Take the following statement:
If you’ve ever read the fantastic book ‘Mastering the Requirements Process’ by James & Suzanne Robertson, you’ll be familiar with the ‘Brown Cow’ model. If you’ve not read it, I’d highly recommend you get a copy, and in the meantime you might want to watch this short video which explains it.
The ‘brown cow’ model gets its name from English elocution lessons where well-to-do students were taught to annunciate correctly by repeating ‘how now, brown cow’. When used in a business analysis context, it reminds us that we tend to start a situation with a “How Now” view, a current state.
The brown cow model has two dimensions: it separates the ‘real world’ from the ‘conceptual essence’ (how vs what) and it separates what’s happening now from what could happen (now vs future). Although it isn’t designed to be used in a strict order, one way of navigating it when looking to understand problematic situations and solve them strategically is to look at the situation through all four of the brown cow ‘lenses’. It is usually the ‘above the line thinking’, the redesigning of the work between the ‘what now’ and the ‘future what’ where the innovation really starts to take shape. See the diagram below:
Time really does fly! I can’t quite believe it’s just over two weeks until the start of the virtual Business Analysis Conference Europe 2020 (#BA2020). I am speaking at the event with a presentation entitled “Systems Thinking: Practical BA Techniques for Business Agility.“, and so I can’t help but get a little excited about the event. It’s always a…