That iconic theme music whistling out of the TV most Sundays in the 1990s is as familiar as the smell of a roast dinner.
The murder mysteries were a popular watch. The last episode of David Suchet’s Poirot in 2013 was viewed by over 5 million people in the UK. But, why was the Belgian Detective so captivating? Maybe as we watch the plot unfold we pit our “little grey cells” against his trying to deduce the murderer before he does! We don’t want to miss a moment just in case something innocuous turns out to be a big clue.
Surprisingly it's been 100 years since the first publication of the first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in October 1920.
Business analysis and solving murder mysteries
Business problems can be compared to murder mysteries. We Business Analysts often arrive at the scene of the crime (business problem) with very little background knowledge. We meet a variety of characters (stakeholders) from which we must gather clues (information and requirements). The information is often fragmented. It starts off unclear and is even contradictory. We have to devise our own method of analysis and the order of our investigation. By probing the situation and people connected to it we can understand the context and help the business to “solve” the problem.
Lessons from the Belgian Detective
A few Poirot quotes give us some fun insights:
Arriving at the truth
“Understand this, I mean to arrive at the truth. The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to seekers after it.” - The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Lesson: In order to provide solutions we must first understand the problem. We want to get to the core issue, and this can take some work. We may have to really dig into the problem statement, work with different stakeholder groups and frame the problem within the context of the business. There will be many different “world views” and it’s our job to piece them together.
Just as Hercule reminds himself of things he has seen at the scene of the crime, we must keep returning to the original issue as we work so we don’t lose focus.
Optimising our line of questioning
“I look first at my witness, I sum up his or her character, and I frame my questions accordingly.” - Murder on the Orient Express
Lesson: Often we get limited time with our stakeholders. By researching our subject first, gaining as much insight as we can before we meet, we can ask relevant questions. If we can get some understanding of the personality and ability of our stakeholders, it can be very useful. I use an estimate of Myers Briggs where I can and then look at motivating factors. Has the individual been involved in a project or engaged with a Business Analyst before? Have they contributed to change requirements in the past? They may be aware of our goals or they may not be. They may understand our need to uncover tacit knowledge and readily share or they may only answer concisely. When we know this, we can tailor our questions to the person.
Use your brain
“Hercule Poirot’s methods are his own. Order and method, and ‘the little grey cells’.” -The Mysterious Affair at Style
Lesson: Business Analysis isn’t about simply documenting requirements. For better or worse, we’ve got to use our brains. We’ve got to connect the clues. Some of us are better at storing knowledge in our heads and later referencing it than others. Whether we are or not, use rigour. When we document requirements in a catalogue and have a structured storage method for gathered information it allows us to cross-examine the material and return to the source if needed. Once you have one, analyse it. Look for issues and opportunities. Brainstorm possibilities. Research.
“Rest assured, I am the best!" - Five Little Pigs
Lesson: Stakeholders need to know that we will represent their needs correctly and fully. I’ve found the most effective way to do this is organically, by asking relevant and intelligent questions. It shows we’ve understood the situation. Give them time to explain and then play back the conversation clearly. If you’ve worked on a similar project or field before, share it. Be prepared, dependable, thorough, diligent... these all inspire confidence in our abilities.
“It is a profound belief of mine that if you can induce a person to talk to you for long enough, on any subject whatever! Sooner or later they will give themselves away.” - After the Funeral
Lesson: I have a shocking habit of jumping in too early. When I allow people to fully expand their point there are often useful titbits (clues, if you like) which more often than not have a bearing on the project outcomes, my understanding or how I tackle the analysis.
Double check, dig deeper
“Ah, but my dear sir, the why must never be obvious. That is the whole point.” - Five Little Pigs
Lesson: We often make assumptions or let other people’s assumption become our constraints inadvertently. By using techniques like 5-whys and root-cause analysis the problem we end up solving will be the real issue and not the perceived issue. This makes us better analysts.
Encourage full disclosure
“It is not the past that matters, but the future” - Death on the Nile
Lesson: Allow stakeholders to be open and honest. People are often embarrassed by the as-is procedures. I have seen the sense of relief wash over the faces of subject matter experts when I reassure them that no matter how “bad” their current way of working is, that’s ok. The world is held together by sellotape and spreadsheets. Administrators often think it’s just their company or just their team that have poor processes. Once they know it isn’t, they can relax and tell you the real truth.
There is, no doubt, plenty more we can learn from Christie's much-loved century-old character but for now, "mon amis", that is all.