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Confessions of a BA: Deleting my ‘CYA file’

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Back in the dim and distant past, I worked in a highly political organisation.  In reality I suspect anywhere there are humans there will be politics, but this organisation had such prolific politicking it was on another level.  With so much political posturing—particularly from middle-managers—I felt really exposed as a BA.   After all, as BAs we are usually facilitating change, and quite often the sort of change that will affect the ‘empires’ of those that are playing the political game.  I started to experience situations where certain stakeholders would have ‘momentary losses of memory’ — they would have agreed to something verbally the previous day, but then all of a sudden they couldn’t recall that conversation at all.   Curious.

I did what I suppose most of us would do: I went on the defensive.  I wanted to ensure that I was covered.  I went into full-on ‘auditable’ mode.  I followed up conversations and phone calls with long, tortuous e-mails.   I asked for verbal confirmation to be followed up in writing.  I even had an e-mail folder titled ‘CYA’ — for the colloquial metaphor of ‘covering your a**’.   I kept everything in the CYA file — responses, notes, acknowledgements.  If I couldn’t get written confirmation from someone, I’d write myself an e-mail with a summary of what is discussed, so it had a time stamp.

Over time, my CYA file grew and grew.  You’d be forgiven for thinking I was working on a project that was related to national security or one that was safety critical.  It wasn’t either of those things—it was important for the competitive advantage of the organisation, but nobody’s life was on the line.

This was a period where I was putting in some very long hours.  One evening, as the cleaners were making their way around the office, I found myself staring into my e-mail inbox, and noticing the bulging CYA folder.   In one of those moments of clarity that a tired, caffeine-driven brain sometimes inspires, I asked myself:

“Why am I doing this?  Why do I need to worry with all of this CYA stuff?”

I was working with an immediate team that I absolutely trusted.  My manager at the time was fantastic; in fact everyone in the BA team was supportive and understood the tricky stakeholder landscape that we were all traversing.

As I stared at my screen, I wondered:

“What if I spent my energy differently…?”

Building Trust Over CYA

There are of course times when keeping appropriate records are important, not least for traceability, and I’m certainly not arguing against that.  But in my case it had become excessive to the point of being largely useless.

If we are brutally honest, pulling out a record from a ‘CYA file’ is unlikely to actually have the effect that we expect.  Imagine the scene:

Stakeholder A:  “OK, so my view has always been that the widget should be blue”

BA: “I think you’ll find that on 2nd August at 14:08 you stated in an e-mail that widgets should only ever be green. This was subsequently discussed in a meeting on 3rd August where you decided they could be green or orange”

Stakeholder A: “What is this, a court case? And actually, isn’t it my department actually funding this project….?!”

We might be completely right in our statement that they’d stated that widgets should be green or orange.  Yet pulling out an old e-mail as ‘Exhibit A’ is unlikely to build our relationships with them.  And after all, things do change… and surely it’s better to ensure that we are delivering the ‘right’ thing?  And arguably, in ever-changing and adaptive environments, our time is better spent understanding the shifting sands to establish where change is likely as opposed to judiciously filing written statements in a CYA file.

I couldn’t remember a single time I’d ever actually used something from the file.  It just never felt right to do so.  If a situation occurred, the situation needed dealing with.  Games of “he said, she said” aren’t front of the organisation’s mind at that time.  My CYA file was basically just ‘waste’.

Building Rapport and Anticipating Needs

In my case, I decided to change tack and to re-focus my energy on better understanding the situation, the stakeholders and anticipate what their needs might be.  Of course, I was doing this already, but ‘freeing’ myself from the perceived bureaucracy of CYA record-keeping bought me more time.

I started to think of things differently.  When I had the intuition that something wasn’t right, and there was a reason to dis-trust the stakeholder, rather than getting everything in writing I spent more effort on the relationship.  I spent time understanding their perspective, their worldview.  It sounds so obvious in retrospect, doesn’t it?  Yet in the ‘heat of the battle’ (and at times it really did feel like a battle) it was completely counter-intuitive.

I took a deep breath and deleted (almost) all of my CYA files, keeping only those where there was a genuine project or audit need.  It was scary, but it felt like a weight had been lifted.

After all, who wants to work in an organisation where everything has to be archived in triplicate? Where folks don’t trust each other?  Where everything has to be followed up in an e-mail?  How slow would that make everything?

The Outcome

I would love to say that after I changed approach, everything was smooth sailing and ‘we all lived happily ever after’.  That wasn’t quite true, and there were many bumps along the road (buy me a beer sometime and I’ll tell you the full story).  But overall it was positive—I found myself using the phone a lot more (a habit I still have today), and consciously working with stakeholders to understand their perspectives.  I made mistakes along the way, and I learned…. and I am still learning.

I also picked up a useful test: Whenever I feel like creating extensive records, I ask myself “is this really necessary?” and “is there something deeper at play here?” and “am I dealing with this in the most effective way?”.  It’s been a useful sense-check, and one that has served me well!

What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!

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About the author:

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

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4 thoughts on “Confessions of a BA: Deleting my ‘CYA file’”

  1. Not worth working in an atmosphere like that, where too much energy is expended doing non value adding things like CYA files. It’s too common and often drives those that can to a more fulfilling and productive life as self employed. Which is a loss to the organisation but a gain the individual. My view is that much of very low productivity in UK companies is due to time wasting politics and bad management.

  2. As usual, an excellent post from Adrian. We can generalise to life in general, where it’s easy to keep a mental file of all the times we are the “aggrieved party.” Just not worth the mental wear and tear.

    1. Thanks Alex, I hadn’t thought about applying this concept wider–to the “baggage” that sometimes acculumates. But you are so right.

      Thanks for the comment, and glad you enjoyed the article 🙂

      Hope you’re keeping well. Speak soon.

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