Avoid “One Size Fits All” Analysis
A commonly used business analysis get-out-clause is the all-encompassing phrase “it depends…”.
Although using this phrase might be seen as an attempt to evade certainty, the reality is often that the world is more complex than people like to admit, and in some contexts there really isn’t one single ‘right’ answer. What is considered ‘right’ will depend very much on who you ask and how the question is framed. This can lead to situations where an approach is followed with absolute conviction and certainty… only to lead to a completely unexpected outcome. Something that seemed so ‘right’ and ‘proven’ wasn’t so ‘right’ after all…
The business analysis toolkit is broad, and we benefit from having access to a whole range of bodies of knowledge where skilled practitioners have captured years of knowledge and experience. With so many different tools, techniques and approaches it’s possible to get into ‘analysis paralysis’—it’s difficult to know which tool or technique to use in a particular situation. This can lead to an understandable desire to search for industry standards and best practices. Perhaps a set of templates are developed, or a particular software tool is used to track user stories because that’s what everyone uses these days.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with springboarding and learning from the experiences of others. The very fact that we have bodies of knowledge in the first place allows us to do this. However it can be dangerous when one set of practices is copied, without sufficient consideration, from one context to another. It’s even more dangerous when this becomes a mandated standard that nobody is allowed to deviate from.
A Plumber and an Electrician
This point can be illuminated by taking it outside of business analysis. Let’s imagine that a plumber is using a pipe wrench. The wrench is really effective at certain tasks, and somebody notices that it’s an integral part of ‘unblocking pipes’. This fact might be true in a particular context, but switch the environment and it’s a completely inappropriate tool. I’m not sure a wrench alone would be much use unblocking a main city sewer (although I’m fortunate in that I’ve never had to try that). Additionally, a wrench has many other uses that (in this case) haven’t yet been observed or documented: from opening stubborn lids through to dislodging dropped items behind a bookcase. Not only this, there are many other types of wrench that have specific purposes (this site lists 40 types!). Plus a wrench is really only useful if it’s in the hands of someone who actually knows how to use it… and who knows how to find the root causes of the problems they are attempting to resolve.
A similar pattern exists in business analysis and business change more generally. It can be tempting to look at companies that are successfully delivering change and notice they are using particular approaches to business analysis or are utilizing particular techniques. Undoubtedly these approaches contribute towards the success however simply ‘copying’ or ‘transplanting’ approaches from one context and culture to another doesn’t mean that the performance will follow. They have likely refined their approaches over years, piecing together different practices and building on experience. Hitting the ‘copy and paste’ button is like giving a wrench to an electrician and saying “hey, the plumber over there had great success with this, so surely you can make use of it? We reckon it should cut the time it takes you to do each job by at least 50%”. Equally, it can be easy to overlook (or even dissuade or disapprove) of practitioners who are successfully using techniques in ways that aren’t considered ‘standard’ or ‘usual’. So what if somebody is using use cases rather than the ‘expected’ technique? If it is working, if people understand them, and if it is having the desired effect, surely that’s what matters.
In fact, some organizations go further and mandate certain approaches or create rigid templates. Templates absolutely have their place—they can help avoid the need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ on every engagement—but they need to be extensible and customizable. If they are mandatory, situations occur when sections are filled in simply because the sections exist. This is like giving a wrench to an electrician and saying “Oh, and by the way, this is the new company standard…. So you absolutely must use the wrench on every job”. Which, let’s face it, sounds crazy.
Business analysis is a profession that relies on our ability to analyze things, including the approaches that are relevant. There are a whole set of approaches, patterns, tools and techniques, so rarely will we have to start from a completely blank sheet. Yet as practitioners it is our job to choose the right tools for the context. It’s important that we have an understanding of a wide range of tools, and that we know where to go to find information about others (it’s virtually impossible to be an expert on all of them). There’s no ‘one-sized-fits-all’ approach to business analysis, and one of the skills that we bring to the party is the ability to advise and help choose. I believe this is one of the most interesting parts of the role!