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How to Become a Hyper-Productive Business Analyst

BAtimes_March15_featureBeing a Business Analyst can often feel like being a rag-doll in the mouth of a large dog.  You often have a diverse group of stakeholders who all have different wants, availability, communication schedules, deadlines, priorities, documentation requirements and the like.  Meanwhile you are responsible for obtaining approved requirements from everyone in a seemingly unreasonable timeframe and can’t even get properly started because you keep getting called into meetings that have no bearing on your specific work.  Some days can feel like you’ve made little or no progress on any of your main deliverables, even if you’ve been ‘heads down’ all day.

Personal productivity is a critical factor that influences the overall performance of a Business Analyst.  Personal productivity is a concept that goes beyond the typical time management topics that concentrate more on the allocation and prioritization of activities.  To be productive, you need to maximize the results of your actions while minimizing the amount of effort that you need to spend in order to accomplish a task.  After all, most of us don’t want to work more in order to get more done; we need to learn how to get more done in less time.

Over the past few years I have experimented with various actions to determine what things I can do within the Business Analyst role which can help to improve my productivity.  Over this time period I have worked with several clients in a wide variety of projects, ranging from strategic enterprise analysis and needs assessments to scrum-driven software development.  Through my experimentation I have found several principles that have had a dramatic impact on how much I can get done in a given timeframe, regardless of the work environment or constraints. 

Clear Your RAM

As human beings we have a limited amount of short-term memory available to us.  We use this memory to keep track of things that we sub-consciously understand we don’t need to know forever; stuff like taking out the trash on garbage day or even the deadline for our requirements document.  The more information we internalize and try to keep ‘top of mind’, the more difficult it is for us to focus on accomplishing a task or processing new information.  As Business Analysts we are often constantly bombarded with new information and must perform many thought-intensive tasks, so if we’re trying to keep track of numerous mental markers we’re bound to be less productive than we could be.

Clearing your equivalent of Random Access Memory allows you to not have that nagging feeling in the back of your head that you need to get something else done or may be forgetting something important while you’re working on a task.  In order to get to this state of mind you need to develop a process that allows you to immediately document thoughts that could be stored in short term memory and thus interfere with accomplishing your current task.  This documentation should be done in a format that will allow you to trust that you will be able to retrieve the information at the appropriate time.  For some people a simple to-do list tucked in their pocket or smartphone may be sufficient.  For others a more sophisticated system like David Allen’s Getting Things Done ensures there is a place for everything and everything is in its place. 

Whatever you do and whatever tool you use, you must feel comfortable letting go of non-pertinent thoughts so you can ensure that your mind is able to focus on the task at hand.  Learning simple techniques can help you clear your mind once you’re comfortable with your chosen documentation system. Things like brief meditation can possibly be used to help you remove those lingering thoughts before you begin working on what you need to.

Eliminate Distractions

How many of you think that you are a great multi-tasker?  In the truest sense of the term (i.e. doing two or more things simultaneously) you are actually pretty horrible.  Research demonstrates that humans cannot do more than one thing simultaneously, and when it comes to rapid switching back and forth between multiple actions, most of us can only really handle two tasks even somewhat decently.  In the golden age of social networks, instant messaging, pop-up notifications and the like, we are ever more prone to face multiple stimuli concurrently, all of which serve to distract us from accomplishing the task that we set out to do.  I find that when I remove as many distractions as possible during thought-intensive activities, such as requirements analysis, I am 3-4 times more productive than if I allow myself to even have the slightest possibility of being distracted. 

Here are some things you can do to eliminate distractions in your day to day life:

  • Close your e-mail and as well as setting you the phones to go to voicemail and/or putting them (since we all seem to now have more than one) on silent. The lure of virtual contact with people by responding quickly to e-mails is one of the greatest time wasting activities we face today. If you need to focus on getting something done, this is the one thing you can do to dramatically improve your productivity. While you’re at it, close all non-essential tabs on your browser and minimize other windows. If you are in an ‘always available’ environment, put on appropriate auto-responder or voicemail messages to explain your absence.
  • Find a ‘right noise’ place for you to get work done. Some people are hyper-productive only when it’s completely quiet in their surroundings. Others enjoy the white noise of a bustling coffee shop or open office work setting. Figure out which type of environment you thrive in and go there when it is time to get serious work done.

Outsource Your Work

No, I’m not talking about hiring a Virtual Assistant or two and then heading to Antigua for a couple of weeks, but where appropriate it makes a lot of sense to have your stakeholders do things that as Business Analysts we are used to do on their  behalf.  In many circumstances this will save you (and ironically enough, them as well) loads of time and allow you to focus on your “value-add” to the process.

For instance, I used to believe that in order to gather high quality requirements myself or another BA would need to run a requirements session or perform other elicitation activities and then document the results.  This involved a lot of preparation and execution on my behalf and in many cases resulted in having to perform redundant activities across multiple stakeholders and subsequently collating and aggregating the findings. 

With one client I decided to see how much of the requirements elicitation process I could outsource to the SMEs themselves.  I held one meeting with multiple stakeholder groups to set the scope of the activity they need to perform, give them examples of what types of results I was looking for and described what would happen in future sessions.  I then let the participants work in groups or individually on their own time to develop their own requirements and then send them to me.  I only needed to follow up with one group to clarify on what they had written, the rest were in a very solid format that I could easily transpose into our knowledge repository.  All told I performed my elicitation activities in about 15-25% of the time it would have taken for me to normally get the same results.

I’ve done similar outsourcing with requirements prioritization, requirements management, requirements verification and validation, solution validation, and solution performance assessment. In each case I was able to shave off at least half of the time it would have taken for me to perform the activities on my own.

Leverage Asynchronous Activities

With many interactive activities I think most of us are used to working in a synchronous manner; we have something we need to get done that requires the involvement of someone else so we schedule a meeting to discuss the item or plan to work on the task together.  While there are many times that a synchronous forum is appropriate and the best method to accomplish something (for example, arriving at a decision or recommendation), there are many things that can be as effectively accomplished in an asynchronous manner that allow us to maximize our productivity by minimizing the amount of time we need to be involved in certain aspects of the task at hand.

For example, I have minimized the amount of structured walkthrough sessions that I perform with my clients by leveraging online collaboration tools such as wikis or multi-user office applications (e.g. Google Docs/Office Live) to allow individuals to provide feedback on requirements documents.  Rather than having 5-15 people in a meeting room at the same time and wasting the bulk of the collective mindshare in the room by going over items one at a time I have found that I get higher quality responses and more in-depth and thoughtful revisions by allowing people to work on their reviews on their own time.  The bonus is that the review process is usually shorter as well; I set a relatively short time limit on the review process which gives the reviewers a sense of urgency and priority to the activity, as opposed to spending the better part of a day trying to fit a review session into everyone’s schedule three weeks out from today. 

For simple tasks that require input I have also found that polls with a comments feature to be a great way to arrive at a majority decision or response quickly.  The key with these methods is to have buy-in from the stakeholders who will be responsible for doing things on their own time.  Otherwise such techniques enable the stakeholder to ignore their duties or claim they weren’t properly informed or involved.

Focus on High Value Options

This one probably seems self-evident, but as a Business Analyst you need to focus on doing things that provide the best value to your stakeholders at a given point in time.  Sometimes what is laid out in the project plan, while logical, may not give you enough time to focus on the things that really matter to deliver the results that are really crucial to the success of the project.  Doing those status reports may seem like a big deal but if you miss your due date on your requirements document then it may be that your efforts were a little misplaced.

In my experience Pareto’s Law applies to most Business Analyst activities; stakeholders receive 80% of the benefits of project activities from 20% of the project’s efforts.  As a result I am always thinking about which activities offer the most bang for the client’s buck and prioritize my actions accordingly.  After completing high-value activities I meet with the stakeholders to reassess the other activities and see if they’re still worth pursuing, or if new high value efforts have been identified.

To help with this constant assessment and select which activity to do when I use a backlog-like list of outcomes and actions that could be worked on.  This allows me to review my top priority items at a glance and pick the one that best fits the time slot I currently have to work on something. Since I can only work on one thing at a time I constantly juggle what is at or near the top to ensure that both long and short term goals are being properly addressed. 

If I notice that some to do’s are constantly low on the list but my stakeholders have expectations for those things to be done, I work with them to clarify the value of these activities and determine if there are ways to either automate or outsource their performance if they are indeed valuable.  Otherwise I suggest they are added to the ‘if there’s time’ pile of activities that are worked on only if all activities relating to direct value outputs are completed.

Finding Your Productivity Sweet Spot

Becoming hyper-productive is highly dependent on each person; what makes you able to efficiently complete things could be completely different than someone else in the exact same situation.  The key to improving your personal productivity is to track your performance of activities and quickly perform a self-assessment when you’re doing tasks.  This doesn’t have to be onerous or documentation-heavy; just keep track of your time on a task and your thoughts about how productive you felt on the activity.  Jot down some pertinent environmental factors (noise level, distractions, stakeholder engagement, etc.).  Then once a week take a look at the tasks you’ve performed and see what worked well and why.

Over time you can reap the benefits of increased productivity by examining how to reduce your effort on specific tasks and find ways to help you focus on doing one thing at a time. These efficiency gains should help you set greater goals for yourself and deliver greater value to your organization and stakeholders.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Jarett Hailes is President of Larimar Consulting Inc. and a Certified Business Analysis Professional.  He has worked with large and small organizations as a Business Analyst, Project Manager and Management Consultant, and is also a Scrum Certified Product Owner and ScrumMaster.