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Business Analyst Says: Let’s Pretend We’re Secret Agents

“Please don’t call me by my real name, it destroys the reality I’m trying to create.”

–Wallace Ritchie, “The Man Who Knew Too Little”

Back in 2009, I presented at an education conference that had as its theme “CIA — The Not Secret1So Secret Service.” All presenters were to incorporate a spy story or approach within their presentations to support the theme. My topic — an introduction to business process mapping — was by request so I welcomed a little extra inspiration to heighten my own interest.

While most people went the route of James Bond or Jason Bourne or the like, I was drawn to a favorite, little-known 1997 movie “The Man Who Knew Too Little.” In this movie, the lead character, Wallace Ritchie (played by Bill Murray), flies to England to spend his birthday with his brother James. James, however, has a business engagement is not too keen to have his brother involved with it. Instead, he signs Wallace up to participate in the “Theatre of Life,” a role-playing exercise that promises to treat the participant as a character in a crime drama.

Things go off the rails early when Wallace answers a phone call intended for a hit man, and he is mistaken for a real spy. Wallace becomes tangled up in a plot to kill Russian and British dignitaries on the eve of the signing of an important peace agreement between the nations. For Wallace it’s all an elaborate act; to the men who want a second World Cold War, Wallace is public enemy number one.

While I found the film entertaining, I also found it informative in respect to how I conceive of my business analyst dealings. I often feel like a secret agent when embarking on a new project or rather a new stage within the “Theatre of Life.” Walking onto a new stage means coming into contact with a new configuration of players, some of whom have been patrons of that particular theatre for many, many, many years. It means entering an evolving story, one that has characters entering and exiting stage left and right, up, down and center. It is our challenge as business analysts to infiltrate this story, flush out the secrets and motivations of the characters, survey the stage for dangers and allies, and ultimately fulfill our mission.

In a nutshell, we are secret agents.

Literature and cinema have schooled us well that all secret agents are governed by two sets of rules of engagement: those laid out by the boss and those learned on the job. I recently re-watched this movie and found myself yet again inspired by its entertaining and informative applications to my business analyst career. So I decided to start sketching out some of the various rules of engagement I have learned thus far on my secret agent missions. Presented here is a sampling of these rules, as identified in collaboration with this particular movie.

Play the role that fits the situation

There is no law that a business analyst must play the same role in every situation. Thank goodness! One key characteristic that separates good business analysts from great ones is the ability to assess a situation and take on the role required. You are always ‘you,’ but sometimes a little play-acting is necessary to get done what needs to get done.

Wallace: You’ve got a great accent, are you from here?

Wear the appropriate uniform

Pretty simple rule — match your attire to the role and to the situation. If you are working in an environment that is t-shirts and jeans, don’t show up in a suit and tie. And vice versa. You are revealing your status as a secret agent otherwise! Respect the situation and it will respect you.

Lori: Do you think I look silly in this outfit? I could take it off if you like.

Always carry the right tools

You need a solid set of tools for whenever you enter a new stage. Be selective with what you choose to put in your toolbox; you can always pick up other items along the way. I always have a white board pen, a little squeezeable toy and a rotation of three favorite necklaces. These items become my indispensible project assets. The pen lets me draw/write things down almost everywhere (all you need is a glass surface), the toy helps me alleviate frustration and the necklaces, well, just make me feel good.

Wallace: Conveniently found a mallet outside but I’m gonna swap it for this one, ok?

Never give up on you

Being a business analyst is hard, dirty, exhausting work. Don’t try to tell me anything different; I know of what I speak. Expect some bruises, some scarring on your missions. But don’t just give up when things get tough. Giving up on yourself is to allow external forces to become more powerful than your own will. Draw on your strengths even more readily to push through the negative, and remain confident that you can achieve success no matter the obstacles being faced.

Wallace: Hang on Bill, clench your buttocks.

Stand by your principles

Adapt to the situation but do not adopt it. Be authentic. Do what is right and not what you are told is right. Comprising your principles is akin to sacrificing your arm. You risk the quality level of your produced work and of not being seen as standing for anything.

Wallace: And I want a stairmaster, I want a juice master, I want a thigh master, and I want a butt master. And if you can’t give it to me, then I’m going back to Des Moines.

Don’t get boxed in

Believe it or not, you are paid to be creative, to think outside the box, to even blow up the box if need be! Being analytical does not mean following every prescribed rule or template out there. It means learning from these entities and assessing how best to apply them to the box so that you can do your absolute best. There may not be an ideal solution for any given situation; you need to be innovative and individualistic and creative enough to when/where/how to deploy your skills to the greatest effect.

Wallace: It’s for allergies — actually, it’s a powerful agent that sharpens my senses, yet deadens my emotions.

Know what works

Textbooks, training courses, templates, etc., are great starting points when embarking on a new mission, but that is all they are: starting points. Don’t be brainwashed into believing that there is a single right way of doing anything or that the same approach is applicable to every situation. Wrong! Learn the methodology and methods but always assess each unique situation to determine what will work and won’t work.

Wallace: They pay all your expenses, you’re licensed to kill, but there’s a downside. Torture.


Take the shot

You will encounter people who throw roadblocks your way occasionally; accept this. But if the roadblocks are not constructive or serve to satisfy individual agendas or hamper your work in any way, be direct as to the potential damage the blocks may be inflicting on the project. Be as polite as possible, but don’t be afraid to exercise some strategic confrontation in order to set up the tactical shots.

Wallace: Yo matey, you just stabbed me with your pen.

Question those in charge

In theory, a business analyst needs to question everyone and everything. What often happens though is that access to the higher end of reporting channels is blocked from your reach. Don’t accept this if you know or even suspect that the answers you seek are behind that block. You need to get at agendas and biases earlier rather than later. Continuously seek more answers for your questions rather than settle for the ones received.

Wallace: Time out. Uh, I hate to break out of character, but, you cannot shout into a person’s ear. It does damage. The spitting I don’t mind…

Team does so have an “I”

Yes, yes it does. Being on a team does not negate your individuality, nor does expressing your individuality within a team equate to being an egoist. You still need to look after you; it is just that now you need to figure out a way to translate that need constructively into the team narrative. You have uniqueness, a distinctiveness that should not be stripped or hidden away in the name of achieving a false ideal of what it means to be part of a “team.” It should be privileged, maybe even exploited a little.

Wallace: Well what about our story? Are we just a doomed couple, do we have to be Bonnie and Clyde? Can it be like The Getaway, couldn’t it be like that?

Have a signature drink

Or dessert. I much prefer the idea of a signature dessert.

Now your turn: what secret agent rules have you discovered through your missions?

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

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 paint if he is not transformed by his own painting? – Michel Foucault