A Fireside Chat: Martial Arts, Magic and Business Analysis

When people think of business analysis, they think of many things, but they probably don’t think of martial arts or magic.  In this article, Paula Bell and Adrian Reed talk about these seemingly curve-ball topics, and their relevance to business analysis.

When people think about business analysis, they probably don’t think about magic or martial arts.  Are there really similarities?

Paula: Believe it or not, martial arts and business analysis has many synergies. When I started studying, training and teaching martial arts years ago, I started to realise how I could leverage martial arts concepts in everything I do.  I started to think about the progression of belt levels and titles in martial arts and it became quite obvious to me.  Think about this for a moment.  When you start martial arts you first have to understand the foundation of what you are studying.  I personally study Okinawan, Japanese Martial Arts called Ryukyu Kempo Karate which is a martial arts form focused on self-protection, leveraging strikes, covers, and other techniques.  Before you could start learning those techniques you needed to have a strong foundation, which focuses on preparing your mind.  Once you have the right mental state then you can move on to learning techniques.  Demonstrating you understand those techniques through applying them to forms and sparring (the skills), and then finally you see the transformation (belt level progression and/or title). 

The same is true for business analysts (BAs).  As a BA, you first must understand your craft (the foundation), you must learn the different techniques that are critical for the craft.  You must demonstrate you understand how to apply those techniques (the skill), and then you will see not only BA skill set transformation, but you will also be integral in transforming the organisations by building powerful solutions that align with their strategic goals.  This way of thinking keeps me focused and on a journey of continuous learning to strengthen my craft.

Adrian: Magic seems completely unrelated to business analysis, doesn’t it?  A few years ago, I would have agreed with you–but a chance meeting with a magician changed my perspective, and there are actually more similarities than you might expect. I’m certainly no magician, but based on my limited understanding of magic, magicians are ultimately ‘playing’ with constraints. We all know magic isn’t really possible, and magic is about ‘bending’ a constraint in a way that the audience cares least about, to achieve an outcome that will ‘wow’ them.  A magician needs to know the constraints of the context they are working in that can’t be changed.  Close-up magic has different constraints to magic performed on a stage.  And if the audience can see from the sides of the stage then there are different constraints again.  It’s also important to understand the audience–I’m told that performing magic at a children’s’ party is very different to performing it on a stage!

So it’s about understanding the effect that the magician wants to achieve (e.g. “I want to make it look like I can make this item vanish”), the audience, the context and constraints that the trick will be performed in, and then designing, building and testing a trick that will meet those needs.

That sounds, at a high level, a lot like what we do in projects.  So this led me (out of pure curiosity) to ask how magicians handle some of these constraints and concepts, to see if there’s anything that I could learn.

Can you give us an example of an idea from magic and martial arts that we can take away as BAs?

Paula: There are so many, but the one golden nugget I would like to share with you is that it’s not just about knowing your craft, but the ability to APPLY your craft.  What I tend to see is that individuals know the concepts of business analysis, but have a challenge on how to apply those concepts to projects.  What makes business analysis interesting is it’s not black and white.  I have been doing business analysis work for over 20 years and I can tell you that I have not done two projects exactly the same.  You have to know how to take all of the information, and your experiences and apply them appropriately to fit the project.  If you think about martial arts, you train to protect yourself.  However, HOW you may protect yourself when the time comes will depend on your surroundings and situation.  You also don’t have a lot of time to make a decision as your life is at stake, so you have to think really fast.  There is no way you will use every technique you have learned in training, but you do need to determine which one to use quickly to save your life.  The same is true for business analysis.  If the project has a different environment (stakeholders, processes, external factors, etc.), you as the BA have to determine what is the best approach, and best techniques to use to successfully gather the requirements to solve the business problem.  So make sure you understand that not every project will be the same, and make sure you know how to apply the concepts (techniques) you have learned. 

Adrian: Well, where do I start :).  One thing that always sticks with me is a conversation I had with a magician who was frustrated about how some folks in the magic community focus on specific tools and methods.  He explained to me that if you’re a ‘professional’ magician, you just have to use Sharpie branded markers, and Bicycle branded playing cards.  However the irony is that new Bicycle branded playing cards are too perfect for some tricks (they have a high sheen so have to be ‘worked in’). 

Stepping back, the reality is that the audience won’t notice, they won’t care.  He described how sometimes he feels that there’s a loop of ‘magic for magicians’.  Fussing and focussing on things that just don’t matter.

Now, as a BA this hit home because I wondered whether we sometimes get caught up in analysis for analysts.  Ever zoomed in to 500% on Visio to get that line completely straight?  I know I have! Did it matter? Probably not.  I think we need to avoid getting so caught up in arguments over UML vs BPMN, or User Stories vs Use Cases that we lose sight of our actual stakeholders and the context that they operate in.  

What other similarities do you see?

Paula: In martial arts we live by the tenets.  The tenets are: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit.  I use these tenets every day.  These tenets keep me grounded in how I interact with my stakeholders. Let’s be honest, some days are better than others, and we are working with many different personalities.  Ensuring that I always remember to respect others and treat them how I want to be treated (courtesy), remaining honest and staying grounded in my beliefs (integrity), never giving up no matter how difficult the task (perseverance), controlling myself even when I sometimes want to speak my mind out of emotion (self control), and leading with no fear, that warrior spirit (indomitable spirit).  Though business analysis is technical, it is also very much interpersonal (even moreso).  Martial Arts has helped me to stayed balanced on both sides. 

Adrian: A phrase always sticks with me, that sadly I didn’t note down verbatim when I originally heard it. But it was something like:

“It’s not just the effect, what they see, it’s also what they experience during the trick, and the way that they feel when the trick is over.   The illusion, often that’s the easy part—the art is in the whole performance”

I think this is true in projects too.  We need to focus on outcomes. In our world as BAs techniques such as Critical Success Factors/Key Performance Indicators, the balanced scorecard, the 3Es and many more can help us articulate what success looks like.  It’s also about how people feel during the project itself.  We could perhaps rephrase this for projects:

“Projects are about more than the immediate change.
It’s also about the way we get there…and what is left after.”

This encourages us to think about different outcomes from different stakeholder perspectives (a ‘user’ might have a different perspective to an ‘owner’, and both sets of outcomes will need to be considered).  It also encourages us to think about how people experience projects.  It’s ironic in a way, we talk a lot about ‘Customer Experience’ and how customers experience processes.  Shouldn’t we also think about the experience that folks have on projects?

What is your biggest takeaway from martial arts or magic?

Paula: Wow, that’s a hard one.  Just one huh?  The biggest takeaway for me is that it all starts with “ME”.  It is up to me to make sure I’m providing the value needed for the organisation.  No matter how difficult the project may be, or how hard it may be to work with individual stakeholders, it all starts with me.  It’s my responsibility to continue learning and strengthening my craft, as well as, give back as much as possible to help others grow as well.  In martial arts you need others to help you strengthen your skill and that is no different in your professional and personal lives.

Adrian: Hmm, good question. For me, the biggest takeaway isn’t actually about magic, it’s about learning.  If there are parallels and takeaways for BAs from magic then what other communities can we learn from?  The boundaries of business analysis are only there because we created them.  I think it’s an exciting time for us to explore adjacent and intersecting disciplines, and rather than ask (for example) “Is this task BA or UX” to say “How could we combine tools and perspectives from UX and BA to achieve this?”.   UX is just one area, of course, there are many, many others.  I think it’s a fantastic time for us to collaborate and share with other communities.


Paula Bell is CEO CEO/Owner at Paula A Bell Consulting, LLC. Connect with Paula on LinkedIN
Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric. Connect with Adrian on LinkedIN

4 thoughts on “A Fireside Chat: Martial Arts, Magic and Business Analysis”

  1. Hi Adrian (and Paula), this won’t come as a surprise to you but I quite often look at Business Analysis like magic and martial arts…! I spoke at length on the martial arts aspect at the BA Conference last year as part of my ‘Middle Way’ presentation so I won’t go on at too much length on your blog about my stuff (very unseemly) but I will just echo Paula’s thoughts on tenets. I have developed my own BA Principles which were inspired by Miyamoto Musashi in his book ‘The Five Rings’. They are:
    Focus on the outcome
    Discard all attachments
    Leave everything in a better state than when you found it
    Leave everyone in a smarter state than when you found them
    As a minimum, make nothing worse
    Take nothing personally
    Do nothing useless
    Maintain a ‘beginner’s mind’
    As for the magic aspect of it? I have something which I call the ‘Wizard Moment’ which I ardently hope every BA gets to enjoy every so often…. It’s that moment when you have just done something in a meeting which you, as a BA, regard as bread and butter. Maybe you’ve drawn a rich picture that has lead to a breakthrough in the stakeholder’s perception, or even just asked a relatively simple question. However simple it was it causes the people in the room to look at you as if you’d just invented fire, or literally pulled a rabbit from out of a hat. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where the magic lives…!

    1. Thanks Dave, I have enjoyed seeing your “middle way” presentation, and I love the idea of a wizard moment too. That’s a great name for it! Hope you’re keeping well.

  2. Two of my favorites, chatting with each other. Having attended both of your presentations, I think you really were spot on with your answers and ideas. The bonus was 2 years ago when a fire alarm was added to the magic presentation, awesome.

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