Business Analysis

The Snowman Fallacy

Snowperson holding clapper board
Image Credit: © Steve Young — stock.adobe.com #58847555

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:

Is Feedback Really A “Gift”?

Image Credit: © Jérôme Rommé— stock.adobe.com #223862658

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:

Cartoon Villain Or Just Misunderstood? : Don’t Judge a Stakeholder By Their Actions Alone

Image Credit: © durantelallera — stock.adobe.com #301727597

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’

Project Outcome or Barnum Statement?

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….)

Image Credit: © croisy — stock.adobe.com #230407104

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:

Tactical Problem Solving: Brown Cow Revisited

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:

Perhaps We Should Welcome ‘Process Saboteurs’?

Burglar
Image Credit: © Denis_Kavyar — stock.adobe.com #231355635

As anyone who has implemented a business process will tell you, whenever humans are involved there will be variation.  It doesn’t matter how well-documented or well-drawn a process model is, people will put their own interpretation and their own ‘flair’ onto a process.  This can lead to a temptation to continue specifying the process in increasing levels of detail until almost every movement and every keystroke are documented.  It can lead to a temptation to rigidly enforce standardisation, to ensure that all processes are consistently followed irrespective of who is undertaking them. 

There might be specific contexts when this level of control is necessary, particularly in safety critical applications.  Yet in many others it is overkill, and this level of rigidity can act as handcuffs that constrain staff from actually meeting real customer needs.  However many personas we create, however much data we collect, we will never uncover every customer need.  There will be circumstances that we couldn’t have predicted, and this might involve us needing or wanting to service customer needs that we can’t easily predict in advance. These tricky situations might be ‘moments of truth’ from the customer’s perspective.

This is when our customer-facing colleagues are faced with a dilemma: should they do what the process (and by implication the organisation) is dictating that they should do? Or should they find an option that is more suitable for the context that they find themselves in.  Should they use their own judgement to balance the customer’s needs against those of the organisation?

The Obviousness Trap: Double Yellow Lines And The Danger Of Unrecognised Misunderstandings

Progressing change is an inherently human endeavour.  It doesn’t really matter how slick a change ‘process’ is, if people aren’t on-board with a common understanding of what needs to change then the initiative is unlikely to be as successful as it otherwise could have been. One challenge that we face when working with others is… 

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?

The “Solution” Is Simple, Isn’t It?

Organisational change is hard at the best of times, and one ‘warning sign’ I’ve learned to look out for is when people position a chosen ‘solution’ as logical, straightforward and somehow ‘easy’ to implement.  This is typified by the following statement:

 “But we’re just <<insert nature of change here>>, how hard can that be. It’s not rocket science is it?!”

These types of statements are often hard to rebut because they are built on logic, from the perspective of the person that expresses them.  However, they rarely embrace the complexity of the situation and environment that is being changed.  Let me explain, with a bit of a curve-ball example… the tricky issue of weight loss.

Ever Tried To Lose Weight?

One thing you probably don’t know about me (unless you’ve known me for a very long time), is I used to look quite different to the way I do now.  Going back a few decades, I was somewhat overweight.  If you saw a picture of me from back then you almost certainly wouldn’t recognise me.

The Tricky Question of “Purpose”

When creating or ‘improving’ some kind of product, business process or service, a question that will often crop up is that of purpose.  We might (quite logically) ask what the underlying purpose of the thing is, and we might even be tempted to define some kind of measures around what ‘success’ looks like.

As outlined in my previous article, what ‘success looks like’ is very likely to vary depending on who we ask.  It stands to reason that the perceived purpose (i.e. what ‘ought’ to be) is likely to vary too.  Ask ten people what an insurance company’s primary purpose ought to be and you’ll get ten different answers—probably all of which are valid.  (“Make money”, “protect policyholders”, “provide information so as to reduce risk” might be three possibilities).  If the insurance company is to be successful an ‘accommodation’ 1 between a range of possible and valid perspectives is likely to emerge.  Lurch too far to one extreme and the viability of the organisation comes into question.  The challenge is understanding which perspectives are key—which form environmental constraints (e.g. regulation) and which others lead to strategic choices (e.g. which markets or customer segments to focus on).

These types of considerations apply at a more granular level also.  Not only can we ask ‘what is the purpose of this company’ we can also ask ‘what is the purpose of this product/service/process’.  Almost certainly the same types of differences in perspective will occur.  Don’t believe me?  Ask three people what the underlying purpose of the “Issue parking ticket when someone has parked illegally” process is (i.e. why it is done).  You’ll likely get a range of opinions from “make money”, “increase safety” or “to ensure the rule of law is respected”.