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Lessons from the MultiVac: The Importance of Context in Business Analysis

It may surprise you to know that my first ever job was as an assistant groundsperson in an industrial estate. For those of you unfamiliar with what a ‘groundsperson’ does, it’s essentially a job that involves maintaining just about everything that is outside, including gardening, roads, and so much more. 

With such a varied role, there are a variety of tools. A spade is definitely not a shovel, a ‘hoe’ is probably not what you think it is. Oh, and be careful with bow saws (I still have a scar that reminds me of that).

A MultiVac: A large outdoor vacuum cleaner, industrial looking, with a broom laid on top.
A “MultiVac”

One of the particular tools I have a ‘fond memory’ of is a MultiVac.  If you’ve never had the ‘pleasure’ (and I use that term with a large dose of British irony) of using one of these devices, here’s a photo.  A MutiVac is essentially a large, outdoor vacuum cleaner, predominantly for clearing leaves and other stuff on roads.

It is a lot quicker than sweeping.  Or rather, it is a lot quicker than sweeping in some specific sets of circumstances. Outside of those circumstances, it is slower and less efficient.

The Right Tool For The Situation

Now, I’m sure MutiVac technology has come a long way since the early-90s when I used one. Back in those days it was definitely not advisable to use one in the rain, or when the road surface was wet. The issue was that the machine would clog up, and you’d be forever unblocking the darn thing and believe me this was not a pleasant task. If you really needed to clear a road in the rain, it might actually be quicker to use a stiff broom and a shovel. Although, frankly, the best thing to do was probably wait and do something else. (Incidentally, weeding flower beds is a great job in light rain. The moisture loosens the soil).

Uneven surfaces were also a no-go. Steps, and anything with too much of an incline would be far better cleared by hand.

Now of course, you (probably) don’t use a MultiVac at work. So why is this relevant?

There are, in my mind, at least two reasons, and they relate to how tools are used in different contexts.

There’s No “One-size” Fits All

Firstly, there is sometimes a temptation to take a tool (or method, or set of techniques) from one context, apply it in another and expect the same results and then be surprised when those results aren’t achieved. There might even be the temptation to ‘explain away’ problems when things don’t work out rather than accept that there might have been better approaches. In particularly toxic environments, the people might even be blamed: “oh, if only you were a bit more [insert buzzword here], then the tools would have worked”

Just because a MultiVac works well in a dry car park, doesn’t mean it’ll work well in the engine room of an aircraft carrier.  The same is true of most tools in business analysis too; just because project X or company A used a particular tool or technique and it worked well, doesn’t mean that will generalise beyond there. Don’t get me wrong, it might generalise, and it might work… but only if a practitioner puts thought into why the tool is selected, what it is used for and how it is used.  Intelligent application is crucial, rather than being blindly drawn into tool-by-default or technique-by-default.

Secondly, there can be reluctance to change tools or techniques even when things aren’t working out. If the roads suddenly flood, stop using the MutiVac!. If the MultiVac suddenly bursts into a ball of flames stop using it! In fact, stop sweeping leaves altogether, that probably isn’t the priority.

The same can be true with particular business analysis techniques, even more so when some kind of backlog or management software ‘tool’ has been configured to work in a particular way. “Oh, but we have to write [insert documentation style here] because [insert tool] is configured to use those.”  When the management tools constrain us, and force techniques to be used, then there are a pretty serious set of questions to be asked… Of course, software requirements management tools can be incredibly useful, when they are well-configured and appropriately flexible. When they constrain, rather than enable, there is a problem.

Don’t Be Drawn In

One of the wonderful things about business analysis is the variety of situations that we get to see as practitioners. The BA toolbox is wide, and intelligent application of those tools is crucial. Sometimes tools will be used experimentally, that’s completely fine. It’s completely fine to try, adapt and pivot.

And, the ‘dirty’ secret that we all have: sometimes it’s necessary to adapt a tool or technique. There, I said it! You don’t have to use things exactly as the textbooks suggest. Again, it is down to intelligent application: what matters is that things are done deliberately, consciously and conscientiously. Test, explore, adapt… that’s life surely?

In summary, it’s crucial that we don’t get drawn into tool-by-default or technique-by-default, even when particular methods might nudge us that way.

And if you take nothing else from this blog: Please, don’t use a MultiVac in the engine room of an aircraft carrier.


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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 www.blackmetric.com

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© Blackmetric Business Solutions, published exclusively on www.adrianreed.co.uk. May not be republished on any other site without permission.

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