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Business Analyst Says: Do Something Worth Remembering

All I did was create some pretty-looking clouds. You would have thought I invented clouds.

 “Do something worth remembering.” So said Elvis Presley, who did many things worth remembering, like his infamous pelvis shake and those peanut butter-banana-bacon sandwiches. But how often do we take the time to recognize whether we have done something worth remembering in our careers?

As practicing business analysts we do ‘things’ every day. The requirements are gathered. The stakeholders are identified. The documents are written. The hands are held. This is all expected work, rote work if you will, of a business analyst. And certainly we love what we do, routine or not; we remember all of it. But is any of what we do in the daily grind worth remembering once the project is over, once the deliverable is delivered, once the milestone is achieved?

I go with “No.” Many a project has crossed my desk over the years, and mostly they stand out now as comprising lines on my CV. I don’t want to give the impression that I move on and forget everything that came before. I do remember all the projects I’ve worked on and often refer to past work as part of a future project. However, it is on the rare occasion that I can narrow in on some accomplishment or action which bookmarks a project as being unique and worth remembering beyond the advantages of a new career experience. We should strive to do something worth remembering, not just something that can be remembered, to give those experiences a little extra ‘oomph’.

I’m talking about the things that become humorous anecdotes relayed to friends over drinks or creative examples provided to a potential employer in an interview. These may be big ticket things but often these are the little things that get overlooked in the daily grin, that get lost in the purgatory heat of getting the job done and getting it done well.

One such bookmark for me centers on the aforementioned pretty-looking clouds. They started as a quick means to an end and wound up being something worthy of remembering not only for me but more importantly for my client.

It all started innocently enough.

I participated in a large-scale corporate website renewal project last year. By the time I was assigned to the project, the organizational unit owning it had already solicited two external reports on what needed to be addressed with the renewal, completed an RFP, and hired a consulting firm to complete the design by the time I arrived. This all sounded great until I started reviewing the consultant reports and the RFP. It became clear almost instantly that the scope and requirements for the project were ill-defined. Not only was the cart put before the horse, but the horse was completely absent from the landscape.

Never one to back away from a challenge, I furrowed my brow to figure out how to quickly elicit the missing business requirements to fill in the blanks. What I knew from the RFP and the project sponsors was that the organization needed a new website and that it was going to happen. Not a whole lot of insight there. I also knew from these two sources that I couldn’t re-interview or meet with the stakeholders regarding the requirements; these individuals had already been through two rounds of interviews with the consultants and had participated in multiple in-house discussions before my arrival. They were agitated by the lack of project progress, and it was strongly advanced that if I went the interview/discussion route again the project could collapse.

I heeded the advice wisely and devised a tactical plan of attack. After all, one reason I was brought into the project was to diffuse this agitation not exacerbate it. Luck was on my side when one of the project sponsors casually mentioned that the consultants had provided the interview transcripts along with their final deliverables. I combed through this source material and determined that the business requirements could be synthesized into five major themes. With this step complete, I took those themes and broke them down into accompanying requirement groups or business functions that would prioritize the functional and content requirements work later on.

While this achievement was thrilling for me, I knew no standard template or approach was going to work in the presentation of this information. I needed a hook, something creative that would grab the attention of these disgruntled stakeholders and keep it long enough to peek my head through opened door and win their preliminary support for further requirements work.

In a late-night rush, I decided to (a) present a picture of the themes (themes were limited to titles of three words each), (b) present one quotation culled from the interview transcripts for each theme, and (c) present the picture as a cluster of clouds to represent my own brainstorming activities on the project. There were three reasons informing my decision:

  • It was a website project so the stakeholders were open to a ‘non-traditional’ approach.
  • A picture would represent to the stakeholders an investment of my time and effort in understanding the project.
  • The text quotations would demonstrate to the stakeholders my investment in listening to what they had to say.

Portraying the latter reason was critical – I needed to present their words back not only to demonstrate my investment but to also attune them to understand that they were invested in the project too. For as disgruntled and unhappy as they were by that point, they needed to be reminded of their initial investment and enthusiasm for the project. This meant finding the right quotations; I couldn’t just pick any collection of words that fit the theme. They had to resonant as much as the visual, if not more.

I’m now irrevocably associated with “the clouds”.

Well, to say that the clouds were a success would be a serious understatement. I created the one-page picture and sent it to the project sponsors first. Unabashed glee may not be the best description of their reaction but it is darn close. Excitement for the project ratcheted up immediately within the project team and I was off and running. I presented it to the stakeholders next and the response was just as positive. I had hit the nail on the head.

The effort spent on the quotations paid off too, as people embraced the exactitude and simplicity of the words I presented back to them. They started trying to figure out who said what, sometimes even mildly arguing over credit. Through a single afternoon discussion we all arrived at the project muster point I desired: it didn’t matter who owned the quote, what mattered was the depth of commonality across the entire stakeholder group in understanding what the project needed to achieve. It didn’t matter that Person A said the words; it mattered more that Person B through Z also agreed with the words.

With the commonality recognized and accepted, great things started to happen. Those stakeholders that were still in the project, but were ready to bolt, started voicing their frustrations constructively and engaging with the project in a more active and optimistic fashion. In fact, the one stakeholder I was told would never get on board became one of the project’s biggest supporters. As well, those that were still engaged but with low enthusiasm started increasing their engagement as well and translating their increasing enthusiasm into actionable tasks and positive commentary.

That one-page document with the pretty-looking clouds became the lynchpin for the project. Whenever the project appeared to stall or lose some momentum, out came the clouds. Whenever an external party questioned the work and scope of the project, out came the clouds. Out came the clouds everywhere. It became a punch line of sorts; “remember the clouds!” was a familiar refrain throughout the early weeks. One of the project sponsors even talked about having a t-shirt made with the clouds that she could wear to executive meetings and presentations!

With these pretty-looking clouds, I did something worth remembering without any expectation of doing so. A creative, tactical gamble paid off more than I anticipated. For me, the clouds got the job done; for my clients, the clouds got the job done well. I won’t be remembered for the deliverables or the content audit or the many other routine tasks I completed to successfully implement this project. I may not even be remembered at all in five years’ time. But those pretty-looking clouds will be, and it is satisfying to know I played a central role in their creation and longevity.

So, do something worth remembering. And not just for your clients or for a promotion or some reward, but do it for you. Go outside the boundaries for the standard rules of engagement. Take risks if the circumstances warrant it. Make it a habit to reflect on your work beyond what you needed to accomplish and take stock of the worth of your contributions. Such reflection will make you a stronger business analyst and reveal opportunities you may not have conceived of as being possible.

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Teri A McIntyre, MA, CBAP, is a principal at Charann Consulting, providing business analysis and project management services to public and private industry. She is a Libra/Tiger, which scares and pleases her and her clients simultaneously. She adores analytical work and getting in front of the clients but rebels against putting a pre-conceived box around how such activities should be completed.  Personal philosophy: Why should a painter work if he is not transformed by his own painting? – Michel Foucault