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Getting Back To Basics

First Fundamental: Understanding Overall Business Goals

I have noticed themes emerge during each of the last few years, which I believe embodied overall trends during the year.  For 2008, I believe “getting back to basics” is a theme that deserves great attention and consideration.  With the tremendous growth in both the acknowledgment and the embrace of the profession of business analysis, it’s hard not to imagine BAs being simply overwhelmed by the vastness of information that exists. Returning to the foundational principles of business analysis will make the vastness more navigable.

In a Google search of business analysis, the results weighed in with an impressive 73,300,000 hits. With all that information out there, where does one begin trying to understand how he or she might be successful in practicing even reasonably good business analysis techniques?  Returning to the fundamentals will enable you to utilize a kind of Occam’s Razor, or law of economy, in your technique.  Occam’s Razor is a principle originated in medieval times, and still used today, which states that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.  In other words; the simpler the better. 

There are five key fundamentals that will enable you to wield your own Occam’s Razor and derive great requirements: 

  1. Understand the overall business goals and the desire to build a solution that meets them
  2. Create a common understanding of “vocabulary” to be shared by all
  3. Identify the sources from which you will extract your requirements
  4. Understand which elicitation technique is most appropriate, considering your resources
  5. Understand – with absolute clarity –  what modeling techniques are most appropriate, given the solution(s) to be designed

This article will focus on the first fundamental. Successive articles will expand on the remaining four areas that must be practiced time and again on any BA development and management opportunity.

Be Clear On The Vision

So very often I have had the opportunity to parachute into a project where the requirements development process is well underway or about to get underway. Sadly, in the majority of cases, when I ask team members what the overall vision is for what they are doing, they are unable to answer this fundamental question. Without a common understanding of your destination, how can you and the rest of your team members be clear or confident on what directions you are to take in identifying stakeholders and defining, developing and even managing the requirements process?  No matter how large, how small or how urgently the client “has to have this,” creating a vision statement provides a map, and the BA is the compass that guides the organization in following the map. 

It isn’t my recommendation to write a lengthy vision statement; quality rules, not quantity.  In order to accurately define a vision statement for the project that you are about to begin or are currently adrift in, a simple question may prove to be the guiding light: “Is what we are doing adding value to the organization in that it supports the organization’s overall business goals, values, vision or mission?”

If you or any of your team members cannot answer this question in a short and concise manner, your project is at risk.

Some basic steps can be taken to correct the navigation instrument that will guide you to your destination.  Simply stated, the vision answers the who, what, why, when, where and how of what you are about to embark upon.  Consider this: if you were to get in an elevator at the lobby level and the executive sponsor were with you, could you accurately describe to him or her in one minute or less what it is that you are working on?  That’s right-a vision statement is your “elevator” speech, but from a business point of view.

There is no question that this will often evolve into a project charter or form the basis from which you will continue to refine your business case.  This is the starting point and will continue to provide input into other areas of your project, so above all, be clear on what you will include in your vision statement.  Here are some guidelines that I recommend:

  1. Clearly articulate the reason(s) that stakeholders are seeking to develop a solution
  2. Identify who the consumers of this solution will be
  3. Determine if the solution supports the overall business goals and objectives

Facilitating Consensus Among Stakeholders

If you are clear about the above process, then a facilitated session with key stakeholders and the executive sponsor with the intent of verifying these guiding statements should prove to be a relatively easy task.  Have the group identify the following:

  1. Why is there a need for a particular project?  Are we solving a problem?  Taking advantage of an opportunity?
  2. Who are the consumers of the end result (external customers, internal users, etc.)?
  3. What benefits will the organization realize and the consumer of the solution realize? Can we quantify those benefits?
  4. What is the nature of the solution?  Is it an improvement to an existing system or process? Are we in the hunt for a new product or service? Are we taking on the implementation of a complex system?
  5. If it is a service we are going to offer, will it be competitive or allow our organization to remain competitive in the marketplace?  Will it be a unique offering or service that consumers will actually want or use?

All of these questions can be answered using a variety of facilitation techniques, including

  • Brainstorming, or the nominal group technique
  • Requirements identification
  • Requirements prioritization
  • Consensus building
  • Workshops
  • Gap analysis

Prioritize the results if necessary but, above everything else, be certain that all the stakeholders come to a consensus on the vision statement and that it aligns with the overall business objectives and goals.  Using the steps outlined, one should be able to derive a vision statement. The following example is a vision statement for the development of a travel and expense management solution:

Any individual or business unit  that incurs expenses will immediately realize that automating such things as credit card downloads, approval chains, assigning GL codes, and converting foreign currencies will improve the speed and efficiency with which reports can be written and approved. Unlike the conventional and cumbersome means of filling in a spreadsheet, a Web-based product will not only provide the convenience of accessibility, but will also prove to be a great tool for auditing and evaluating types of expenses incurred, and negotiating travel expenditures with respective vendors.

The Three Ls of Business Analysis

I’m sure you’ve heard the three Ls of real estate:  location, location, location.  It’s the overriding, fundamental principal that every realtor knows.  For BAs, the word (and function) “quantify” is our equivalent mantra.  Here’s the best part about quantifying your findings: it’s empowering. 

Too often BAs abdicate their true role and become order takers.  Quantifying your findings will restore your true role as an objective advisor.  It takes the burden from you of being the bearer of bad news, since the numbers-the expected ROI or Internal Rate of Return (IRR), the amount and value of resources required, the deliverables-speak for themselves.  Quantifying the potential outcome will make the case for either assuredly moving forward or knowing that a project or program is not feasible. 

Take, for example, a retailer whose mission is to be number one in sales in their market.  Does it mean they are going to source the merchandise they sell or manufacture their own as well?  The BA’s role is to provide quantification to demonstrate outcomes for both sourcing and manufacturing options. Eliciting proper requirements is critical at this stage to determine, among other needs, what the target market should be, who the customers are, who is responsible for implementation and product development in its entirety.  

The Fundamental Edge

In a favorite quote of mine by John F. Kennedy, he said, “There are risks and costs to a program of action. But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.”  Heady stuff, but it certainly applies when the success or failure of a business or organization is at stake. 

Time and time again I have witnessed client/customer pressures to produce quality services, and the effects that these pressures have had on a project team and BAs due to “cutting corners” in order to meet these demands.  Failure to get back to basics will result in increased risk, decreased quality and budgets that amount to, or exceed, the number of hits that Google produces when you perform a search for business analysis!

These are just a few of the risks BAs face as they perform their jobs.  However, deploying the fundamentals will ensure that you provide your best counsel for the organization’s success.

This is the first in a five part series of articles by Glenn Brûlé.

Glenn R. Brûlé has more than 18 years experience in many facets of business, including project management, business analysis, software design and facilitation. At ESI (, he is responsible for supporting a global team of business consultants working with Fortune 1000 organizations. As the Director at Large for the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA), Brûlé’s primary responsibility is to form local chapters of the IIBA around the world by working with volunteers from organizations across various industries, including financial services, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, insurance and automotive, as well as government agencies.