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10 Powerful Business Analyst Lessons from Life of Pi

FEATURE April9thIf you’ve read the novel Life of Pi, you probably know it is one of those novels that’s bizarre, yet fantastical, filled with events that are accidental, yet have a grander plan, and comical, while poised.

I am sure you would have gleaned many useful lessons and inspirations from the movie (or book) while being awestruck by the cinematic grandeur of its special effects. Some of the lessons that I present here maybe pure common sense, but take on a different color when you view them through the lens of the movie.

1. Adversity Will Make You a Better BA – But Why Wait? 

Pi’s life was less than ordinary, with ordeals throughout his life. He kept surviving despite the odds. Like Pi, we are all much more capable, but unaware of our true potential until adversity strikes us, or our project. We see the real strength of Pi when he is thrown into the sea by the forces of nature.

Time and time again, I have seen BAs try to evade a potential threat (lay-off, no promotion or career growth) by becoming active with their network, joining IIBA, and investigating the possibility of getting certified. It is human to react to a threat, however, why should we wait until it is presented to us? 

We really don’t have to wait for an adverse project or organization situation to maximize our strengths and capabilities. 

So, don’t wait until you get laid-off to take the next big step in your career. 

2. Keep Moving

Remember in the story when Pi reaches the glorious and wonderful island during his tribulation in the ocean? He felt like he had found heaven. It was an Oasis of life with food, fresh water, and shelter. However, as night approached, he quickly realized that the island was a dangerous abode for him (no spoilers here – if you’ve watched the movie, you know the exact reason).

We often become part of such an organization or project in real life. Things seem wonderful and everything looks perfect. However, if we don’t pause, take the time to “step outside of the cubicle” and holistically look into ourselves or where the project is headed, we may end up sinking into a deeper quagmire. 

So, next time it’s all rosy and cozy, step back and evaluate if the situation or project is really “safe”.

3. Let Go! 

Pi had an extraordinary ability to cope with loss and focus on surviving whatever came next! Letting go can be painful, especially if it is something that is dear to you. 

As BAs, when a situation demands so, we should let go of: 

  • The way we have done things in the past. 
  • The templates that we hold dearly (stop being template zombies!) 
  • The organization culture and standards that don’t make sense. 

So, take a closer look at what you are holding onto like a vice grip and see the benefits of letting go when possible.  

4. If Methodology is Religion – Be a Good Disciple

During his younger days, Pi experiments with different religions. He navigates through and appreciates Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. He finds peace, tranquility, and meaning in each of these religions by questioning and understanding the basic tenets. Although quite different, he acknowledged that each religion contained valuable philosophies and practices – elements to help him survive the sea, and the tiger.

In the context of being a BA, a methodology is like a religion. There is innate value in every methodology. While it is good to believe and follow a certain methodology to help us through the good and bad times, it is more important to have universal good practices to hold onto. These practices will serve as anchors during adverse project scenarios and situations. 

5. Get a Grip on Reality Sooner

When Pi was catapulted out of the sinking ship into the wild ocean, he cried like there was no tomorrow. However, he quickly recovered and did not allow his grief to overcome him. He was able to understand the context of the problem and planned the next steps that kept him alive. 

With the pace of change and volatile stakeholders needs, it is easy to lose sight of reality in projects. As business analysts, we should always be on the lookout for expressions and cues that reflect this. Rather than whining and crying, it is better to grasp a sense of the reality and the ability to respond in a positive manner sooner.

6. Resilience, Adaptability and Co-Existence

From his school days in Pondicherry, Pi, demonstrated qualities of springing back to normalcy. He was mocked and teased, tormented and traumatized, but he never gave up and always had a way around it. 

The very nature of our work exposes us to a wide range of personalities and archetypes. We need to learn to understand them in order to be able to work with them. This is also one of the key elements of the “Adaptive Social Skills” pillar in my first book – “The Five Pillars of a Great BA”. It also applies quite well to this example. Sometimes, we have to overcome adversities with people as well as processes (read organizational process assets), even if it means gritting our teeth and bearing it. 

While keeping his distance from the tiger, Pi comes really close to living with the beast by marking territories and setting some rules (remember how he does it in the movie?). He also starts to develop a bond with Mr. Parker (the tiger). 

As business analysts, we deal with project stakeholders and interact with them for workshops or other analysis work. It is always useful to establish this interaction by setting some ground rules and defining the various roles and responsibilities. 

Tough projects don’t last – Tough BAs do! 

7. The Resourceful Toolkit 

Pi invented many ways to take care of himself and the beautiful Bengal tiger Mr. Parker. For example, he created a mini raft to keep a safe distance from Mr. Parker in the main boat, and innovative ways to fish for them both. He also created a mini rainwater harvesting system to collect drinking water. 

On the flip side, his entire survival toolkit was tested when all of his innovative tools vanished due to a massive whale doing a backflip in the water. 

As business analysts, we are faced with dire project scenarios and needs. We need to learn to be innovative by coming up with ways to elicit, analyze, document, and communicate the requirements and overall vision of the project. In this increasingly unpredictable project world, it is to our advantage to develop alternative ways to keep the project afloat, like Pi and the boat. 

On the flip side, putting all of our eggs in one “tool or technique” basket is not a good idea. The tools or techniques that we currently use could be overthrown at anytime. You must continually expand the tools and techniques you know. 

8. The Reciprocating Stakeholders 

Mr. Parker and Pi, at some point in the movie, develop a somewhat uneasy relationship. We see quite a dramatic turnaround in their relationship – from almost killing Pi to becoming dependent on him. This however, happened slowly and with reason. There were reciprocating moments that lead to this, like when Mr. Parker defeats the hyena and Pi feeds him the fish so that the tiger will not starve. 

This principle of reciprocity can be applied to our project scenarios as well. When we help our stakeholders understand the upcoming change and honor everyone’s best interest, we get rewarded by their support. In every negotiation that involves stakeholders, we should always consider how a change could benefit them without belittling ourselves. In doing this, you will build good karma with them and they will help you when the need arises.

9. Reflection and Learning 

You may think that being in the middle of the ocean with a wild animal is not the best place to learn and reflect. Pi, had a different viewpoint. One of the ways in which Pi remained sane was by keeping a journal to keep track of time and his ideas. He read books and had a “continuing education plan”, even though his life may have ended before getting that next CDU.

Business analysts sometimes have wonderful excuses to not invest in learning. We often cite the “crazy-busy-project” examples to avoid learning, absorbing industry standards (like BABOK), becoming certified, or even engaging in passive learning activities like listening to audio podcasts.  

So, I hope you think of Pi when you create an excuse to not learn.

And now, the last and the most important lesson: 

10. A Twist in the Tale – There is Always the Other Side to a Story 

If you’ve read the book or watched the movie, you know what this is about. I won’t give many details here as it may lead to some spoilers.

Business analysts should understand that there is always the other side to our viewpoint – always another side to any story. It is your job as a BA to determine the side that is not obvious and be aware of it. We should be cognizant of and keep an alert nose up in the air for:

  • Eliciting any hidden information (“Elicit” after all means drawing forth something that is latent or hidden).
  • Organizational politics that may be hindering or inhibiting our work.
  • Hidden agendas of a stakeholder or stakeholder group.

I hope you found this post useful and as enjoyable as I did writing it.

Which of the 10 lessons above is your favorite(s)? Is there anything else that you would like to add? 

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.