Business Analysis

Swan-Feeding and Organisational Status Junkies

Around thirty swans swimming in a pond. It is a sunny day, there are trees in the background. There is a concrete edge to the pond, it is clearly constructed (rather than being a natural lake). In the distance there is grass. The sky is blue.

At a park near where I live there’s a large pond which is inhabited by many swans.  The swan population varies depending on the time of year, but at the moment there’s somewhere between 40-80 there, including some juvenile (grey) swans.  If you’ve never sat and watched a community of swans, I’d highly recommend taking some time to do it.

One thing that I find particularly interesting is when somebody comes to feed the swans.  Generally, the swans will be unevenly distributed across the pond, and some will be on the land.  There’s plenty of weed in the pond for them to eat, and on the land there’s plenty of grass.  So each swan has to make a decision: go for the easy food, or not.

I’ve no idea the extent to which swans actually have decision making abilities (I’d suspect they have very little in the way of logical cognition) but it’s noticeable that those that are in easy swimming distance will float up to the person with the food, others won’t.  

Watching the feeding frenzy is fascinating.  The swans crowd in, and each swan (presumably) wants as much food as possible.  Observe this for long enough, and in my experience you’ll see that different swans appear to act differently:

  • Early opportunists: Some swans act quickly and try to get as close to the food, attract the attention of the person feeding them (a gentle peck on the leg has even been known).
  • Collaborators: You sometimes see a fluffed up ‘alpha’ swan patrol the perimeter, chasing others away other birds (presumably ensuring that its juvenile swans/cygnets get sufficient food). 
  • Status junkies:  Bizarrely, some tussle to the front and pick fights and peck the necks of others, chasing them far away in the process.  In doing so, they miss out on the opportunity of food altogether as by the time they get back they are at the back of the tussle. It’s literally lose/lose:  I can only assume that they get some kind of ‘swan status’ from doing this.  

Organisational Swan-Feeding: Get Beyond The Squabbling

Communication Isn’t Free: The Burden Has Shifted

One of the first jobs I had was at a small insurance brokerage firm.  As archaic as it sounds, back in those days, memos were physically printed and sent between offices in the mail (in fact, there may have even been the occasional handwritten memo sent). We didn’t have email, so if something was urgent, the only real options were to pick up the phone or send a fax. Every day, the post arrived in a big batch, and at the end of the day outgoing correspondence was collated and sent out in a big batch.  If you wanted to keep a copy of something that you’d received you had to, well, make a copy of it and decide where and how to file it. 

Communication: A drawing with people standing together talking. There are icons flowing between them (lightbulb, question mark,  magnifying glass etc) symbolising communication
Image credit: © melita — stock.adobe.com #300197089

In that type of environment the cost of communication was very transparent. Every single inter-office memo sent increased the company’s postage cost, required additional paper etc. If you were replying to a memo sent to multiple recipients, you’d think long and hard about who needed to receive the reply.  Absolutely nobody wants to spend any longer at the photocopier than they need to (and let’s face it, photocopying anything back then was potluck, with seemingly a one in ten chance the machine would jam or destroy your carefully printed original document in the sheet feeder). Because there was an inherent cost (and inconvenience) in communicating between offices, this type of communication tended to be considered, concise and some might say overly formal.

Fast forward to today and the economics of communication have changed drastically. I can send messages to friends all over the world by WhatsApp instantly at no additional cost beyond my usual internet connection fee. It’s possible to hit ‘reply’ to an email, and it’s no more expensive to send a reply to one or one hundred people (both are free).  The frequency and velocity of communication has increased.  We’re all dealing with more and more correspondence every day.  There’s email, Slack, Teams, WhatsApp, SMS, Telegram, Facebook, Twitter and the hundred other ‘apps’ that have probably launched in the time it took me to write this blog… And this is a positive thing, it breaks down boundaries and enables people to easily collaborate.  Nobody would want to go back to the inefficiencies of relying on post and fax.

However free messaging isn’t really free—done badly, it shifts the cost from the sender to the recipient.  Let me explain what I mean…

Reply All: The Bane Of The Corporate World

Legislative Agility, E-Scooters and Organisational Change

In recent years, it seems that many organisations have become blindsided into maximising the speed of technological change.  Being able to get technological innovations to the consumer quickly is of crucial importance, but in some cases it appears that technology is moving much faster than the rest of the organisation.  Put differently, whereas once technology was seen as ‘the bottleneck’, this really doesn’t have to be the case today, and other parts of the wider organisational architecture and business context appear to be the things that are slower to adapt.

Close up of young man ready to discover the urban city at sunset with electric scooter or e-scooter
Image Credit: © InsideCreativeHouse — stock.adobe.com #334265158

One illustration of this phenomenon is the electric scooter.  Where I live, in Portsmouth (on the south coast of the UK), these things are ubiquitous.  You can’t walk more than a few hundred metres down a sidewalk without one whizzing past you.  The technology is very well-established now,  however the legislation, regulation and (arguably) enforcement are lagging behind.  You see, technically speaking, it is illegal to use privately owned electric scooters in public spaces.  Or, it is probably illegal, unless they fulfil the requirements of a motor vehicle (car/motorbike), have the necessary lights and mandatory safety equipment and are insured and the relevant vehicle excise duty (‘road tax’) has been paid.

This creates a bizarre situation where it is legal to sell an electric scooter, it just isn’t legal to use one, unless you are using it on private land.  To confuse things further, certain local councils (municipalities) have created bylaws allowing e-scooter rental schemes to be deemed legal.  Meaning you can ride a rental scooter on the road (but not the sidewalk), but you can’t ride a privately owned scooter on the road or the sidewalk.  Confused? I’m not surprised!

Why Don’t We Talk About ‘Legislative Agility’?

This illustrates a situation where the pace of change of the technology (the e-scooter), the processes to sell them and appetite for people to use them has far outpaced the speed of:

Disco Lights, Hybrid Facilitation & Early BA Engagement

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In college, I bought a set of disco lights.  They were fairly basic by today’s standards, essentially consisting of a box with four coloured bulbs that would respond to the beat, flashing in a fixed pattern.  However, they helped to create a real party atmosphere. There’s something about colourful flashing lights that just invites people to dance.  Throw in cheap beer and Britpop and you’ve got a classic 1990s house party.

Although I bought the lights to use at my own house parties, I found that owning them had an unexpected (but positive) side effect.  It meant that I got invited to more parties too.  We could perhaps question the motivation of those inviting me (did they really value my presence, or was it just that they wanted to borrow the disco lights?), but back in those days I didn’t really care: a party was a party, and once you were in the door you could meet people, dance and have fun.  And generally when people realised the lights were yours, you’d get invited to another party….

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I’d stumbled upon a really important lesson: Some things are seen as highly desirable, but expensive to obtain and are only used occasionally.  It makes no sense for everyone to invest in them, but those that do will be in constant demand from a string of different people.  In this example it was disco lights—at the time they seemed hugely expensive (I had to save up for them), were fairly scarce (there were only a few shops you could buy them from) and it just wouldn’t make sense for everyone to have their own set. 

Zooming out, we could say that this pattern holds true of many other things too, including skills and competencies.  Properly mastering a skill takes time, and nobody can be a master of everything. Skills that are essential or highly desirable can sometimes be a way of getting a ‘foot in the door’ with stakeholders that might not otherwise engage.  This becomes interesting for those of us that practice business analysis.  I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where stakeholders have involved us too late.  Perhaps having our own (metaphorical) ‘disco lights’ is the way to gain earlier engagement.  But what would those ‘disco lights’ be?

Sharpening Up Hybrid Facilitation

Facilitation is a core skill for business analysis.  It is hard to imagine how any BA could function without conducting different types of facilitation amongst a community of often conflicting stakeholders.  Facilitating in a virtual and hybrid environment is nothing new, I suspect many people reading this will have worked in dispersed teams for years, but the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 have changed the expectation of what ‘work’ will look like.

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?