Tuesday, 16 June 2009 00:00

Bad-Ass BA Lessons. Part 1.

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Co-authored by Rebecca Burgess

Ten Steps to Becoming a Bad-Ass Business Analyst

Do you want to take your professional capabilities to the next level? Do you want to add more than just techniques to your tool kit? Wanna become a Bad-Ass Business Analyst? Here are ten opportunities to apply "intelligent disobedience" and judicious audacity to your environment to earn those bad ass stripes.

The term intelligent disobedience comes from guide dog training. Blind people who live in cities listen for the auditory cues from a traffic light turning green to tell them it is safe to step off the curb into an intersection and walk across the road. Their guide dog is trained to watch for cars that aren't showing signs of stopping. When the dog sees danger to their human, the dog is intelligently disobedient, and stays in a "sit" position, letting the human know that they shouldn't step into the path of danger.

Judicious audacity is the intelligent application of aggressive boldness; that is, taking control of the situation in a fearless fashion because it is the effective and efficient thing to do.

Caveat emptor: there is a significant amount of risk inherent in many of these actions, though the payoff is high. Buckle up tight, fellow BAs, here we go.

Step 1. Exploit the Hidden Power in "Menial" Tasks
Step 2. Delegate!
Step 3. Compose in Real Time
Step 4. Define Gonzo Success Criteria
Step 5. Ask the Crazy-as-a-Fox Stupid Questions
Step 6. Get Their Attention
Step 7. Schmooze those Stakeholders
Step 8. Rat Out those Underachievers
Step 9. Speak Truth to Power
Step 10. Put on Your "Facilitator Flak Jacket"

We'll cover the first four steps in this article. The remaining steps will be revealed in subsequent articles.

Step 1. Exploit the Hidden Power in "Menial" Tasks

We think that as we advance in our role, we shouldn't have to do menial work. Tasks like taking notes or writing the first draft of a document or process may feel like they should be beneath us. Wrong perspective! Menial tasks aren't always low brain power tasks; below are two examples of hidden power for the BA who can leave their ego at the door.

#1: Note taking and the power behind it

When you are the person recording the meeting minutes, you are in control of the official record of the decisions, action items, and open issues. Is the speaker making pronouncements in sentence fragments? You can stop the meeting and request that the speaker give you a statement that can be recorded. Does it appear that a decision has been made but you aren't sure exactly what was decided? You can stop the meeting and request that someone give you a summary so that you can record it properly. Has an action item been agreed to? You have the power to suggest who should own that action item and what the due date should be. Is note taking a menial task? Hardly. You're actually running the meeting and finalizing the decision making.

And, of course you are taking these notes directly in electronic form. Pen and paper is a luxury reserved for CEOs and poets; the rest of us have to be more efficient.

Before sending out the meeting notes, you should summarize the key points and decisions. Was there some fuzziness around a particular topic? Clarify it based on your business understanding or by contacting the Subject Matter Expert (SME). This is like stealth direction setting. And think of the visibility you have when you send around the meeting notes for comments and correction. Just be sure to have "recorded by <your name>" in the meeting notes.

#2: Seize the moment: Draft the initial process/doc yourself

Do you ever get impatient with the lack of progress, or the inability of some people to get past a blank template? Start the document yourself and send it out to the team as a "suggestion". The trick is to influence the process by presenting your ideas to kick-start everyone else's thinking. Your natural BA instinct will be to try to get everything right before you show the document to anyone. In this case, though, you don't need to get everything right because you are influencing, as opposed to analyzing; you're pointing people in the general direction that you think is best, and encouraging them to build on top of your suggestions.

Step 2. Delegate!

Delegate? How am I supposed to delegate? I'm a single contributor, I can't delegate; I get tasks delegated to me!

True. We BAs are single contributors, we don't have the authority to delegate, but we have earned the right to suggest that a particular person or group should perform a task. In Step 1, above, there are two methods of "stealth delegation":

You can delegate by recommending a person to own an action item from a meeting. If a person has special knowledge or interest in a particular area, it is appropriate to suggest they bring their expertise to bear on a task in that area. Minimally, you could ask them to draft a few slides or a couple of paragraphs outlining their ideas or concerns, which you can incorporate in the deliverable. They are likely to come up with some points you wouldn't have thought of as well as being more invested in the success of the effort.

Delegate by putting a comment in a draft implicitly assigning a section by asking a question of a specific stakeholder, e.g., "Stakeholder A, do you have anything to add here?" Then follow up with that stakeholder both privately and publicly.

There's also delegating by trading tasks - what can you do for the individual that you want to do something for you? This sort of "horse-trading" is a great way to leverage your own skills to obtain something you need, but can't accomplish on your own.

In all these cases, be very clear about what you need from the person and when you need it. Follow up with them approximately half way through the time you have allowed for the deliverable to make sure it's still on their radar. Be sure to emphasize that their special knowledge and input is vital to the success of the project and thank them for taking the time to contribute.

Step 3. Compose in Real Time

Whether you are doing a structured walkthrough of your BRD, or real time process development, when you have a live audience for work that is happening in real time under your fingertips, the pressure is on. This is one of the stages on which you earn your Bad-Ass BA performance award, if you are truly a master of your craft.

Let's say you are using one of the many application sharing tools that allow people to see what is on your computer screen, no matter where in the world they are physically located and that you are revising the phrasing of a requirement that is giving people heartburn. Three people are talking at once. While you retype the offending requirement before everyone's eyes, you get to say,

"Folks, let's agree on who is the actor, here. Do we agree on that it's the system? Good. Now, what was the exception condition that someone identified? Wait, what has to happen to trigger this requirement to come into play. One at a time folks! One at a time! Any conditions? No? Okay. Let me read this out loud to see if makes sense.... I think we want a different word, here, how about "configuration"? Any disagreement? Good. Now give me a moment to tune up the action ... okay, please read this to yourselves. (count from one to five silently) Does anyone feel this does not express what we are trying to capture? Great. What's the next one we need to work on?"

You own the stage, you clearly own the material, you are in the driver's seat and you are getting the job done. Furthermore, you are putting pressure on the people who disagree to get their issues out in the open and resolve them by asking if anyone disagrees and explicitly making silence equal consent. The key is to determine when you've captured the meat of the idea and not let people wordsmith themselves to death.

How did you develop this skill? You've been taking notes in meetings (see Step 1, Point #1, regarding CEOs and poets) for years and doing the same thing; now you're just doing it before everyone's eyes and making it look easy.

Step 4. Define Gonzo Success Criteria

Slang: "gonzo" means conspicuously or grossly unconventional or unusual

As an exceptional BA, you should already have gotten all your project team members and stakeholders to focus on the success criteria for the project and the on-going process. Now take a dramatic step and get them to focus on the end customers' success criteria for the on-going process. When you start doing this, the team members and stakeholders are likely to tell you that you are crazy and what you're suggesting is impossible to do/measure/implement. Don't worry, that's a natural reaction to out-of-the-box thinking, and you are way out of the box.

The point of focusing on the customers' success criteria is that we usually measure what is important to us, and what we feel is reasonable to measure. Too often, what we think is important is not what the customers consider important. Here are two examples to illustrate different aspects of this.

Scenario 1.

Airlines have determined that customers' satisfaction is impacted by how long it takes to check in for a flight, so it makes sense to have a requirement that the flight check-in process be as efficient as possible, and to measure the time it takes to check in. It would be sensible and relatively easy to measure the time it takes for the counter personnel to key in the customer's information and provide the customer with a boarding pass. If you are the customer, however, when do you start measuring the time to check in? Probably when you get in line at the counter.

So if there's a 20 minute wait in line because the airline hasn't staffed the counter properly, it may not matter to you that the time it takes the counter personnel to key in your information has been cut from 10 minutes to five minutes. Nor would you be impressed if they were able to cut it further to two minutes - you are still irritated by the long wait in line. The gonzo success criterion comes from looking at something that the airline doesn't nominally control and may find difficult to measure: the amount of time spent waiting in line. Once you change your point of view to the customer's, however, further improvement in the pieces of the process that you control may be wasted investment, compared to extending your control to other, more difficult to manage and measure portions of the process.

Scenario 2.

Software companies don't want to give away support for their products so they generally require customer companies to pay for a maintenance license. When someone from the customer company calls in for support, the first thing the software company does is determine if that contact and company is entitled to support by checking that company's "entitlement data". It makes sense to the software company to make it as easy as possible for the customer companies to keep their entitlement data up to date, so the software company could have developed success criteria about how much time it takes the customer to update entitlement data. From the customer company's point of view, however, there may be no reason to value entitlement data; the customer company just wants support, now. The customer's success criterion is for the software company to "automagically" know that they are calling about a legal copy of the software for which maintenance has been paid.

Manual maintenance of entitlement data is just one possible way to meet that need. If the software company came up with another solution that led to the software itself automatically maintaining the entitlement data when it is deployed or updated, the customer would probably be delighted. But as long as the success criteria assumes that entitlement data must be maintained manually, the customers' real needs are being overlooked. In this case, the gonzo success criteria requires ignoring the solution already in place and getting back to the customers' underlying need.

As a business analyst, you are used to putting yourself in other people's shoes to figure out what they want. Use that skill to add the end customer point of view to your requirements and metrics and you will increase your value enormously.

This is the first installment in a three-part series. The next installment will cover

Steps 5 to 8.

Installment 1

Business Analyst Times June 16/09

Step 1. Exploit the Hidden Power in "Menial" Tasks

Step 2. Delegate!

Step 3. Compose in Real Time

Step 4. Define gonzo success criteria

Installment 2

Business Analyst

Times July 14/09

Step 5. Ask the crazy-as-a-fox stupid questions

Step 6. Get their attention

Step 7. Schmooze those stakeholders

Step 8. Rat out those underachievers

Installment 3

Business Analyst

Times Aug 11/09

Step 9. Speak truth to power

Step 10. Put on Your "Facilitator Flak Jacket


Cecilie Hoffman is a Senior Principal IT Business Analyst in the Business Analysis Center of Excellence, Symantec Services Group, Symantec Corporation. Cecilie's professional passion is to educate technical and business teams about the role of the business analyst, and to empower the business analysts themselves with tools, methods, strategies and confidence. Cecilie is a founding member of the Silicon Valley chapter of the IIBA. She writes a blog on her personal passion motorcycle riding at balsamfir.com. She can be reached at Cecilie_Hoffman@Symantec.com.

Rebecca Burgess is the Business Process Methodology Analyst in the Commerce Lifecycle Transformation Office at Symantec and a Certified Six Sigma Black Belt. After many years of uncovering problems and determining root causes, she is now applying her BA skills to strategic process design and improvement. She can be reached at Rebecca_Burgess@symantec.com.

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