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

Excavator digging mud
Image Credit: © rpferreira – #126024037

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

Too often ideas, projects and initiatives take on a momentum of their own. They become “too big to fail” and become tricky and political.  Throughout the innovation and change lifecycle it is important that we make space, press pause (briefly) and cultivate conversations that lead to reflection and reflectivity.   It’s important that we ask the “Why” question not just at the beginning of our work, but also throughout.  An initiative may start to solve a particular problem and achieve a set of objectives—but the environment or the problem may change!


When things get tricky and stakeholders are caught in a political storm they often (understandably) just want the whole thing to stop. They see their only option as ploughing through the mud, even though they may know in their heart of hearts that any victory will be a shallow one.  They may know that the “solution” proposed three years ago that has been delayed, deferred and passed around the internal ‘bureaucracy of busywork’ is no longer valid—but they may figure that it’s too late to change now. Hey, anything is better than nothing, right? Maybe. Maybe not.


It is at times like this that we need to play our joker—be bold—and call out what we see.  We have a duty to serve up the cold hard facts so that decision makers can objectively decide how to proceed. Of course, they may be aware of bigger macro-level factors—perhaps even confidential ones—but by cultivating a conversation and making space for discussion we ensure that the initiative stays on the rails.


It takes guts to press pause. There is often a perception that it will slow things down. Yet, if you are lost, you would probably look at a map. Does it slow you down? Well, perhaps—you stop, unroll the map, and work out your direction, then you accelerate away. The same is true in organisations—too many organisations are lost, spinning around, and are addicted to activity and the illusion of progress. They continue digging through the mud, and revel in stats that show how much mud has been dug.   Confusing activity with achievement is a dangerous doom-loop to engage in, it is very easy to compound the problem and get more lost.


Part of this equation relates to organisational agility. Increasingly it is vital that organisations are architected to allow experimentation and continuous learning.  Yet making space applies at a macro as well as micro level. It applies to the big discussions (“What business are we in, who are our customers?”), as well as the micro decisions (“Are we sure this group of features will actually enable our customers to realise value? How will we test this?”).


As BAs we are trusted advisors, and we have a professional duty to work with our stakeholders to make space and keep things on track. We need to call out the mud-digging.


What are your views on the topics in this post? Do you have any tips, perspectives or anything to add?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.   Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing! 

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About the author:

Adrian ReedAdrian 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.

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

  1. An excellent example of something that must affect most, if not all BAs at times. Having the capacity to engineer a pause, giving time for discussion and reflection, is a key technique; Although the ability to execute needs trust from the business.

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