Creating a Sense of Urgency: Be Open About Consequences
Whatever context you happen to work in, one common feature of business analysis work seems to be that there is never quite enough time.
Perhaps this is a good thing, in that it keeps us sharp and encourages us to innovate, although of course the flip-side is that we need to carefully balance our time and resources to make sure we don’t work too long or burn out. One relevant facet of business analysis work is that we collaborate closely with a range of stakeholders. As is the nature of human beings, each stakeholder will have a slightly different perspective and may even have a personal set of goals or motives that they are pursuing. Some stakeholders might be spreading their time between a whole range of change initiatives, and getting access to them at all can be challenging. If we’re not careful we can find ourselves in a perfect storm: We can’t proceed as the stakeholders don’t have availability to collaborate with us, yet to those up the food-chain the delay is seen as a business analysis related delay. Not a good place to be!
Urgency and Busyness
If we zoom out from this situation, then we might argue that the real problem is that the stakeholders are overloaded with work, and that there’s a resourcing/management issue. This is likely to be the case, but when an initiative is ‘in-flight’ and the pressure is on, this will give us little comfort. There will certainly be larger lessons for the organization to learn, but the first priority is likely to be putting out the immediate fire. This leads us to the question: “How can we get the attention of a ‘busy’ person?”
A classic (and good) approach would be to find a way of showing them the benefits to them and their team of being part of the initiative/work that’s being undertaken, but that in itself is hard to do if it isn’t possible to get any time in their diary. A different angle is to ask the question “What does busy really mean?”. Does it really mean that the person is working on critical, non-deferrable and non-delegable tasks 100% of their time? Probably not. Let’s face it, most of us get distracted, spend hours every week processing e-mails that don’t really need to be looked at immediately, and find ourselves in occasional pointless meetings.
Imagine yourself when you were at your busiest, when you had no way of fitting in another meeting or responding to another e-mail. If somebody said to you “We need you to fill in this ten page form so we can update our internal HR systems”, you’d probably have scorned the form and put it to the back of the queue. If they’d added “…and since this affects the payroll, if you don’t fill it in by the end of the week your salary will be delayed” then you’d probably have found the time. This is a deliberately provocative example but it illustrates the point: If something is perceived as important enough, people will find a way of deferring or delegating other work to get the crucial task done.
Communication and Consequences
The consequences to us or a stakeholder are unlikely to be as severe as delaying a salary payment, however the general pattern of highlighting consequences is a useful one, and one that can be observed elsewhere too. If you’ve been to an airport, you’re probably familiar with the different levels of urgency they place amongst passengers. It seems that there’s an in-built tension between airport retailers, passengers and airlines. Passengers often want to shop/enjoy refreshments as long as possible, airlines want to get them to the gate on time. This is managed carefully: there is regular communication via screens and announcements, and a clear set of ‘stages’, each getting more urgent.
- Gate will be announced at 12:30 (“Relax! But keep an eye on the screen”)
- Go to gate (“Start thinking about moving…”)
- Boarding (“Stop shopping immediately and get here!”)
- Final Call (“You’re about to miss your flight”)
- Final Call + Paging passenger (“We’re about to unload your bags”)
- Gate Closed (“You’ve missed your flight”)
As BAs we can springboard from this airport example and take away the need to communicate and signpost the consequences of inaction. It’s also important that we don’t suddenly ‘dump’ a deadline on someone who isn’t expecting it. Business Analysis Planning & Monitoring is a core area in the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK®) guide for a reason, and it’s important that we do what we can to foresee and manage the demands on our busy stakeholders. We could even take inspiration from the airport statuses and build our own communication approach:
- Gate not yet announced: Hey! We need X, for a project which will be really beneficial to you and your team. Are you the right person? Can we call you when we need it?
- Go to Gate: Thanks for agreeing to do X, we’ll likely need it a by Y, can you commit to that?
- Boarding: Go to gate: The project is really picking up pace, just checking you’re still willing and able to provide it by the agreed date? Is there anything else you need from us?
- Final Call: Unfortunately, we’ve not received X, which is going to lead to XYZ consequences (a delay in delivery/cost overrun) — is there anything we can do to help you, or is there anyone else that can provide X? We’re keen to keep things moving!
- Final Call + Unloading Bags: A key workstream is now being delayed, which has led to a delay of Y so far and additional costs of Z, and we’re incurring increasing delays/costs every day.
- Gate Closed: We’ve had to escalate the issue.
Of course, these are all short and overly-simplistic examples and I wouldn’t suggest communicating so bluntly to stakeholders, but the pattern is a useful one. By getting early commitment, communicating consistently and highlighting consequences we help create the conditions where issues are spotted early. This, alongside regular BA planning & monitoring, will ensure that we can work well with our stakeholders and keep the collaborative dialogue going.