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How Can BAs Be More Strategic in an Agile Environment?

As a business analyst working in the business area, I am finding myself more involved in the enterprise strategy arena and working across many projects. More and more, these projects follow an agile methodology. I’ve been traveling a bit lately and needed some reading material for my trip so I thought I’d revisit Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

The Art of War focuses on strategy and planning and in an agile environment, there is much insight and wisdom BAs can gain from this sixth century BC Chinese General. Here are just six of his ideas that I think most capture the essence of agile as a philosophy and the core business analysis competencies I have been using on my projects, to help me adapt to an agile framework.

1. Discipline and Control of the Game “…marshalling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, and the control of military expenditure”¹. When I am presenting on Agile, one of the criticism I get from the audience is that Agile lacks rigor and discipline and is a more laissez-faire approach. I suggest to them that even though Agile fosters innovation and creativity, the project’s success is not the result of luck or a fortuitous accident, but rather the result of consistent planning and effort. On my projects, everybody’s role is clear and each knows what we need to do to get to the next stage or complete the next stream of work. My BA approach on Agile projects is iterative, as a team we learn and adapt as we go, but that doesn’t mean there is absence of planning and coordination.

2. Be Flexible and Run with Opportunities “Avail yourself of any helpful circumstances over and beyond the ordinary rules. According as circumstances are favorable, one should modify one’s plans”¹. Sun Tzu was known as a master of controlling the game through leadership and discipline, but in this passage he is referring specifically to this need to remain flexible in changing conditions and be prepared to capitalize and follow up on an opportunity. This is the essence of Agile. When we commence projects, it is not possible to know all we can about the environment, the business and user needs. Requirements will change and evolve as we progress through the project and learn more about the situation and context. As a BA we must have a focus on continuous learnings and applying these learnings to the next stream or iteration is the key.

3. Act Fast to Avoid Fatigue Though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been associated with long delays”². Protracted campaigns can damage morale and resources and Master Sun suggests taking swift action to avoid the pitfall of expense and exhaustion. A number of years ago, I worked on a project that had already been going for two years when I joined. People were clearly tired and weary from the ‘battle” and project costs were blowing out. We regrouped and adopted an Agile approach. We had stand-up meetings every day within our team but we only engaged users when we had some progress in our work to show as these users and business groups were fatigued after two previous years of consultation with nothing to show for it. Within six months we had a working prototype from end to end, and a strong and committed BA and design team that rallied behind the Change Manager leading the project. It was important that we had “quick wins” early to keep the momentum towards our goals and manage the change process from “as is” to the “to be” state. Having a change manager to help facilitate and progress requirements through the various governance members was a big advantage.

4. Ensure Your Goals and Objectives are Realistic “…by commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey”². I think this really speaks to the heart of the user-centered design focus of many of my Agile BA projects. Master Sun warns that mistakes will be made if orders are issued from the safety of a far off court that doesn’t have experience of the combat situation. The business context and “big picture” strategy need to be mindful of the day-to-day operations. The people who are on the ground and know the capabilities of the current team and resources are the best source of knowledge for work shopping the business drivers, processes and gaps in order to uncover the business and user needs for your project. This is where BAs have a key strength and knowledge base. For example, once I have captured these needs, I always talk to the technical team to see if what the users want is realistic and possible (within out budget and capability). If there are sound limitations to what is possible, then I go back to the business and users and discuss alternate ways to achieve the same goal. Users then give me insight as to whether this alternate idea is practical. This iterative approach is critical to solving some of the more complex issues on the projects.

5. Employ the Right People for the Job … by employing the officers without discrimination, through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation of circumstances. This shakes the confidence of the soldiers”³. Finding the right people for the job is imperative. In Agile projects it is important to look at the essence of what the project is about and what problem it is aimed to solve and then decide what skills are needed and what patterns to apply. From this planning we then look at building the team. Of course you do not always have the luxury of being able to pick your team for projects, but if you set up an Agile team and draw from skilled resources across the organization, this is more likely to aid the success of your project. Reverse engineer the position; don’t just look at who you have and see if they will fit, find out what you need and then seek people with these skills and abilities. BAs bring many skills to the project and in Agile I have found that my skills of analysis are used beyond traditional requirements gathering. I have been involved in design, information architecture and business strategy workshops.

6. Adapt as Strategic Rigidity is DangerousWater shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe that he is facing”4. This emphasizes the need for fluidity and that to be successful, you must adapt. The business environment is dynamic and constantly changing and adaptation is key. As Charles Darwin stated “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”. As BAs in an Agile environment, you need to understand your user (primary, secondary and tertiary) and ensure that your processes and systems are developed with their needs in mind. When building user personas, start with a “skinny” view of this user and flesh it out as you find out more about their needs. Likewise, your business requirements will be “skinny” at the commencement of the project and will be elucidated more as the project progresses and each stream build upon the knowledge of what is working and what is not.

As an enterprise BA I am looking not just at my immediate project, but also how this work fits into the rest of the organization. Sun Tzu stresses the need to plan, find the right people, and give them resources and authority to execute those orders, choose a strategy and vary your tactics according to the situation. In looking at the essence of your projects, take the time to plan what you need in terms of skills, patterns to apply, things to do and things to produce and be flexible in your approach to adapt these to the project learnings as you progress, or the business needs or circumstances change.


SunTzu’s Art of War, A 52 Brilliant ideas interpretation by Karen McCredie, 2008

¹The Art of War, Sun Tzu. translated from the Chinese by Lionel Giles, MA (1910), Chapter 1 – Laying Plans

²The Art of War, Sun Tzu. translated from the Chinese by Lionel Giles, MA (1910), Chapter 2 -Waging War

³The Art of War, Sun Tzu. translated from the Chinese by Lionel Giles, MA (1910), Chapter 3 – Attack by Strategem

4 The Art of War, Sun Tzu. translated from the Chinese by Lionel Giles, MA (1910), Chapter 6 – Weak points and Strong

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Maria Horrigan is an experienced business manager, IT strategic planner and information and communications specialist. She has over 10 years senior management experience within the pharmaceutical industry, not-for-profit and Government. As a principal consultant, Maria is an experienced information architect, senior business analyst and IT strategic analyst and provides advice on developing system requirements with a focus on information architecture and user-centred design, to ensure appropriate IT systems are intuitive and usable. She is a senior practitioner and a well-known Australian speaker on communication, user-centred design, and business analysis. She has experience managing large federal government contracts and project management of large scale business system implementation, systems planning, and analysis and change management. She has a reputation for innovation, managing change, driving strategy implementation and successfully delivering programs. Maria is a Board member and Vice President of Women in Information and Communication (WIC).