I suspect many people reading this article will, at some time in their career, have had the challenge of explaining what business analysis is. We’ve all had that dreaded moment when we meet someone for the first time, explain we’re a Business Analyst, and we’re met with a blank stare (often with a slight look of confusion… ‘Business…what?’). I am sure that we have all developed our own elevator pitch to explain the value that good business analysis enables.
In the dim and distant past, it was common to hear people use the ‘bridging’ analogy of analysis. Perhaps you’ve heard (or even used this) yourself. There are many variations, but one that is commonly used is:
“Business analysis is the bridge between the business and IT”
Whilst this statement has its uses—it is certainly very succinct and conveys at least some of what good business analysis can achieve—in reality it describes only part of the BA role. And there is a danger that this analogy may be setting misconceptions.
The Trouble With The BA Bridge
To explore the trouble with the ‘bridging’ concept, let’s take an example outside of analysis. Imagine you saw an advertisement for a private doctor’s surgery. The advert has an authoritative looking doctor smiling, and a number to call to make appointments. Beneath the telephone number, there is a strapline:
Imagine the scene: You’re waiting at a coach-station, about to embark on a long (and expensive) trip. It’s 4am in the morning, it’s dark and raining so the visibility is poor—meaning you can’t read any of the timetables or travel information. You’re expecting a coach will arrive soon. And, after a short wait, it does.
However, the front of the coach has a route number but no destination name, so you aren’t sure whether the coach is heading in the right direction. You scan the coach station and see a variety of other people and members of staff mulling around. What would you do?
If you are like many people, I suspect you would ask a member of staff, a fellow passenger or the driver to confirm which destination this coach was headed towards. You might also ask for information about the route it is taking, the cost, and when it is due to arrive. Yet, whilst cost and time will be important to you – getting to the right destination is the key. A cheap, quick coach ride in the opposite direction will likely be a bad thing—you’d end up further from where you want to be!
Agreeing the destination is crucial
This focus on destination is important on business initiatives and projects too. When initiating a project or initiative, an organisation wants to get somewhere; there is a desired outcome that our stakeholders are seeking. Yet often, when time is short (as is so often the case), there is a temptation to skip over (or race through) discussions which refine the outcome. Indeed, as BAs and change practitioners we may find our stakeholders press for estimates, requirements and solutions first.
Yet a trap awaits organisations and teams that do not spend time concisely and precisely agreeing the outcomes that they are seeking. So often there can be tacit agreement on project outcomes—on the surface it appears that everyone agrees. Yet, when we get into the detail of the project we discover very different perspectives on what should be delivered. This difference may have bubbled beneath the surface for weeks or months, and by this point may be costly to resolve. If it had been resolved up front it would have saved time and effort.
Take this theoretical example. Imagine two senior stakeholders on a project in an insurance company:
I am certain that many people reading this will have come across the traditional Eisenhower matrix. This useful prioritisation tool helps us assess tasks, activities or even projects based on their relative importance and urgency. One version of the diagram is shown below:
If there is one quadrant on this matrix that we are all familiar with, it is the “important and urgent” quadrant. I suspect many of us spend our working lives in this quadrant, working judiciously to hit the relevant project deadline, and doing everything that we can to progress the most important and urgent projects. There are probably some very long days, late nights and an element of pressure when working in this quadrant; everything is time critical. And this often results in a lot of pressure, and it may sometimes feel like we are fire-fighting.
Yet, the reality is that when a task, project or problem, is both important and urgent, often the options available for undertaking/solving it are limited. We may well find that we are placing metaphorical sticking plasters over large, systemic issues—we never seem to have time to “do the thing right”. In an extreme case, it may feel like we are blundering from crisis to crisis; as soon as one fire is damped down we move straight on to the next. But we never actually find out the root cause—we never find the person with the matches who is starting the fires!
I have never been particularly interested in cars. I have always taken the view that I want a car that just works with minimum fuss. I’ve never been interested in how it works; and although I have some theoretical knowledge of the workings of an engine, I certainly wouldn’t know enough to tune or maintain my car – and for that reason I take it to a local garage to get it serviced, and I try to get any potential problems fixed as soon as I can.
The dilemma, for people like me (who know nothing about cars) is decidingwhich mechanic to take the car to. A quick Google search of local garages in my city finds seemingly hundreds of garages—and all of them appearing very similar. With very little knowledge of how the car works, how can I be sure they won’t try to charge me for unnecessary work? How can I be sure that they will do the work safely? Perhaps you’ve faced the same dilemma.
Tractor-feed paper and attention to detail
As it happens, I’ve been going to the same mechanic’s garage for years now. They’ve always been able to help me out, always quote me for any work in advance and always keep their promises.
I recently collected my car from the garage, and something that the mechanic did really grabbed my attention. He printed the sales invoice out on an old dot-matrix printer (using multi-part stationery). But before handing the paperwork over to me, he tore off the perforated edges of the paper so it is neat. He then stapled it together, attaching the receipt and added a leaflet with some useful information and the garage’s opening hours. Once everything was assembled he put it in a folder and handed the paperwork over to me in a nicely presented bundle.
This attention to detail—on something so seemingly ‘unimportant’ as the invoice—is an almost invisible but potentially important part of the overall customer experience. Printed documentation clearly isn’t the core service that the garage offers, but it adds re-assurance. You can imagine a customer thinking:
“If they pay that much attention to the presentation of the paperwork, they must be really thorough when they work on an engine!”.
Of course, attention to detail on paperwork is actually no indication of mechanical thoroughness at all, but it may be perceived as a proxy measure—and customer’s perceptions matter. A lot. Particularly when there are tens of competitors within a 1 mile radius.
Organisations often fall down on these ‘little’ details. Imagine having a great meal in a restaurant, only to find the bill is wrong and then it takes them 20 minutes to correct it. You’d feel let down; the smallest of errors has ruined a whole experience.
Each year, the BA Conference Europe connects together hundreds of BAs from around the world. It has grown year-on-year, and this year will be held in September, in London. The conference is a great place to share knowledge, exchange ideas and meet other BAs. I really enjoy attending the conference, and it has formed a very useful forum for the BA profession in Europe and beyond.
I recently took part in the ‘Mastering Business Analysis’ podcast series, and I am pleased to say the recording is now available to download. Click here to visit site & podcast The Podcast episode is entitled “Strategy and its Role in Business Analysis”. In the Podcast, we discuss topics including: Why understanding organizational strategy is critical…
A common question that gets asked at BA events and forums is “How do I become a business analyst”. Often people wanting to enter the profession feel that they are stuck in a chicken-and-egg scenario: They want to get their ‘first’ BA role—but all the job adverts they can find ask for 3 (or 5 or 10) years of experience. It can be a frustrating dilemma—without experience, it’s difficult to get a role—and without a role it is difficult to get experience! In this article, we’ll explore seven tips for breaking this cycle.
1. Becoming vs discovering – maximise your current experience
A fundamental point to start on is that, when it comes to business analysis, one thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to be employed as a ‘business analyst’ to do business analysis. There are many people in organisations that undertake a sub-set of the business analysis role who have very different job titles. This leads to an interesting pattern—rather than consciously setting out to become business analysts, some people discover they are already undertaking business analysis!
This is an important subtlety. Often, those seeking a BA role for the first time actually have more BA experience than they are giving themselves credit for. Take the following examples:
I recently met with a good friend for a coffee and catch-up. We were discussing all sorts of business analysis related topics, and our conversation quickly moved on to projects, careers and jobs. As we started to discuss jobs and careers, I sensed unease in my friend’s voice. This was unusual—he is the kind of guy who is normally really up-beat. I asked what was wrong. He took a long sip on his coffee and his forehead contracted into a temporary frown. He took a deep breath:
“Adrian, I’m really not happy in my current job. I’ve made some suggestions on how they could run projects better, but management see this as ‘rocking the boat’. I’ve been sidelined. They’ve put me on a dull, boring, pointless project, which will deliver a pointless outcome. It’s a train-wreck. I am so bored. I think they’re hoping I’ll leave.”
This came as a complete shock to me. My friend is one of the most innovative and positive BAs I know. He’s the type of person that you can imagine fitting in just about anywhere, with the ability to quickly build rapport with stakeholders and really start delivering effective change. Clearly moving someone to the right place for the right reasons can benefit the individual and the company—but in this case it seemed to be a pure case of sidelining.
Why would anyone sideline him?
If you have worked for large corporate organisations for long enough, you’ll probably know someone who has been sidelined in this way. Someone who has been seen as too ‘radical’ for the status-quo—they raise positive ideas which could make a significant difference but challenge the tunnel-vision of established middle-managers. Rather than reward them, the organisation responds by moving them to another role, another team so they are less inconvenient. They never seem to fit, so they are moved around and around — after a while they get moved to a remote outpost somewhere, in the hope they will give up, keep quiet or leave. Maybe it has even happened to you.
This is an example of what I call getting quasi-sacked – or “quacked”
Why people get ‘quacked’: The good, the bad and the ugly
I’m very pleased to say that my recent presentation at the Building Business Capability Conference entitled Strategy: The Crucial Enabler was recorded. You can view the presentation below, complete with slides and audio — in total it’s around 55 minutes long. Here is a brief description of the session: The words “strategy” and “strategic” are frequently…
A few weeks ago, on a cold Tuesday morning, I made my way reluctantly out of the office and towards my dentist’s surgery. I reluctantly walked up to the dentist’s door, subconsciously slowing down my steps as I approached – my fear was trying to force me to delay entering the building! I have a great dentist—she is patient and friendly—but nevertheless, I would be lying if I said I was looking forward to visiting. Particularly as this was the second of three planned appointments to have dreaded root canal therapy. It was my first ever root canal, and I had heard many horror stories from friends and family. As much as my dentist had told me it would be fine, the fear still set in.
Within 20 minutes I was settled in and lying in the dentist’s chair. She had put me at ease and was going about her work. As it turned out, my fear was unfounded, I felt no pain whatsoever. Discomfort, yes—but nothing like I had feared. She was giving me regular updates about what she was doing, and how the procedure was going. I was actually feeling quite relaxed. At several points she took X-rays to see how the procedure was progressing.
As time progressed, it turned out that the procedure was more complex than she had expected, and she was struggling to fill to the very end of one of the affected roots. She had taken a couple of X-rays but was concerned that she couldn’t verify whether the filling reached the end. After looking quizzically at the X-ray on her screen, she turned to me and said:
“Adrian, I know I’ve taken a few X-rays already—I need to see from a different angle—is it OK if I take another X-ray? This will, of course, expose you to another small dose of radiation.”
I paused—I know nothing about the cumulative effect of X-ray radiation. I have no idea how many are safe—in fact I wasn’t even sure how many had been taken previously. I felt unsure how to respond—and a little confused. My gut feeling was that there was little risk, so I composed myself and replied (as best I could, given my mouth was full of wadding):
“I’m happy to go with whatever would be your professional recommendation.”
She nodded, took the X-ray. I am pleased to say that she completed the treatment successfully.
On the way back to the office, this situation was buzzing around my head. It struck me that the dentist had asked me to make a crucial decision, but hadn’t given me a specific recommendation or a context in which to make my decision. In a dentist’s chair this is completely understandable as ‘the heat was’ on and she needed an immediate decision in seconds—and in no way do I want to criticise my dentist. Yet, in business, we work with our stakeholders and clients to make high stakes decisions all the time. Are we giving our stakeholders all the information they need? Are we packaging the information up to a digestible format, and providing an actionable recommendation?