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Contextual Awareness in Business Analysis: An Analogy

In the martial arts there is a concept called seeing without looking. May seem odd, but it makes sense when it is put into perspective.

At bottom, a Martial art is any of the various fighting skills, mainly of East Asian origin, such as kung fu (Pinyin gongfu), judo, karate, and kendō. Martial arts can be divided into the armed and unarmed arts. The former include archery, spearmanship, and swordsmanship; the latter, which originated in China, emphasize striking with the feet and hands or grappling.

Most Martial Arts involve a lifetime of dedication and training, and is as much about cultivating the person as the person’s adeptness in the Art form.

Back in the day, the Martial Arts weren’t a means of getting fit or winning medals: they were often a means of survival. With a weapons ban in the Ryukyu Islands in the 16th century, using your body as a weapon for defense became commonplace.

As practitioners’ progress, brute strength and mental fortitude aren’t enough to master the Art – it takes mental clarity and intuition.

Therefore, practitioners have to master the concept of seeing a whole picture without looking at any one piece of it. Masters of the arts often tell students to see as if your eyes are peering from behind you. Mastering this meant that an opponent’s movements are perceived before they actually begin. It begins with not focusing on one aspect of what is in front of you – you are perceiving the situation without mental noise, and without guessing what happens next. An open mind and full awareness allow the fighter to detect subtle changes in breathing, expression, posture, etc.: tell-tale signs of what happens next.

As a business analyst we hate to admit, or mumble under our breath, I didn’t see that coming, or I really missed that!

I came from a technical background and what I found happening with a new BA project was that I wanted to start answering the how of a solution as opposed to the what. I understood databases, cloud storage, web interfaces and such, and I’d immediately start to formulate in my mind a potential scenario that might suit the client’s needs: “So, it seems to me that you are looking for…”

Rabbit holes appeared as places where I thought the solution should go – I wasn’t taking the entire picture into perspective. I was looking at the bits and pieces of it that made sense to me – that stood out.


The purpose of a BA – as my team and I often hear from our learned manager – is to assist the client in understanding the what. What is the ask? What is the process that this solution will support?

This requires standing back and perceiving form 10, 000 feet, not magnified-glassing the storage, UX, outputs, or data travel bits of it.

True, the BA has to dig into the individual elements of a project to get to individual, granular requirements, but seeing it as a machine as opposed to individual cogs at first, assists in this.

A standing back, context-overview approach helps you identify those subtle bits and pieces that you eventually need to document, as well as potential rocks in the road.

To take the Karate analogy further, open eyes and an open mind allow you to catch that the opponent holds their breath before an attack, or shifts the toes of front foot slightly outward before moving; both of which you’d miss if you were expecting a front kick, or you are thinking about delivering one.

After all, what you miss is just as important as what you capitalize on.

A robust research solution to capture data on wildlife in the field isn’t of much use if portions of the field are without network connectivity.

Oftentimes the environment that the solution will exist in has significant impact on the usability and added value to the business, and we miss that if we’re focusing on the software or data flow while overlooking the context.

Perhaps it means initially looking at the night sky as opposed to a zoning in on Sagittarius.  The context offers insights into what pieces constitute the whole, and which need to be examined.

For example, understanding administrative and physical safeguards undertaken by a third-party vendor is important if your solution has a cloud component you’re utilizing – even if it is a small piece of the end product.

There’s nothing new here for a business analyst, but I do find myself having to remember to see from behind me once in a while during the scoping of a project, and during subsequent documentation, in order to keep things in perspective and not to miss the factors outside (but connected to) the solution.

Elements that drive a process aren’t always evident, and I find that revisiting the bigger picture, and asking questions about the frame, and not just the portrait, are helpful.

To wax philosophical for a moment, the old Martial Arts adage of perceiving things with a clear mind is also helpful in everyday life. Observing life around us without laying our preconceived notions on them, or labelling or judging them, brings new aspects of them to life. Stillness of mind is like a physical rest for a weary back: it is necessary because it is beneficial.

Getting lost in the weeds in business analysis affects schedules and costs. The solution, I believe, is to regularly re-examine the swamp.

Jeff Hutchings

Jeff Hutchings lives in Newfoundland, Canada, and currently works as a Senior Business Analyst. He is an avid outdoorsman with a particular passion for fishing the various species offered in Newfoundland’s bountiful rivers, lakes, and oceans.