Tuesday, 06 September 2011 10:31

How To Squash The Template Zombie Problem

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Sept6FEATUREWestern culture worships the massacre of zombies by the dozen in movies, books, and music. Wherever we encounter zombies, whether it’s in the garden shed, the attic, the mall, or even the local if your name’s Shaun, we are taught to mow them down with whatever’s at hand.

We have only recently discovered that there are different types of zombies, and one type has invaded your office: the template zombie. There isn’t any need to panic but there’s cause for mild alarm and you should kill them. But in the nicest possible way, by feeding them sweeties.

Template zombies are BAs who just fill in the template blanks. When they’re asked to assist on a project, they immediately reach for the templates they’ve been given, fill in all the blanks and then send them on to the developers. And, let’s face it, that’s a lot of documentation to wade through and we all know developers bin the bulk of it, use a small section to write the programs and everyone’s happy. Or are they?

Companies with a poor requirements discovery competency take 39% longer and spend 49% more to deliver their projects. Nearly 80% of their projects are over budget and over time, and a whopping 50% are runaway projects. Runaway projects are those that go 180% over time, 160% over budget and deliver less than 70% of functionality.

You see, grabbing for templates and filling in blanks is akin to BAs reaching for a bag of liquorice allsorts. There’s no control over what’s in the bag, they simply get the whole package whether they like it or not.

In doing so, there’s little, if any, thought given to what the business is actually looking for. The Dryfus model (used in the IIBA Competency Model Version 3.0) for skills acquisition defines a novice as “someone who rigidly adheres to taught rules or plans and is unable to use discretionary judgement.” The template zombie has never been allowed to develop beyond being a novice, no matter how long they have been doing the job, and it’s no wonder their brain dies after a while. That’s a poor approach since the BA has a role to play in achieving a desired business outcome. If it’s properly done, the business gets a working process, be it manual or automated, but if it’s improperly executed the business gets a lame duck.

In fact, the duck can be so lame that the business has late projects, projects that cost significantly more than they were supposed to, and processes, automated or manual, that don’t meet the requirements. More specifically, developers end up with reams of documentation they don’t need that require effort and expense to create, and they ignore most of it. Poor business analysis also negatively impacts stakeholder input and user acceptance.

Bullet to the brain

So now you know how to spot the zombies: they’re the mindless template devotees. What you must now do is rob the zombies of their sustenance and turn them back into effective BAs. How? Steal their liquorice allsorts and give them pick ’n mix. Pick ’n mix allows people to choose precisely what they want; it’s the ultimate in sweet flexibility because you get a bag and then you browse the seemingly endless options, placing the type and number of confectionery delights in it that you want. It gives a much wider selection than liquorice allsorts because the latter’s a predetermined bag of goodies, while the former is an endless sea of choice that lets wave after wave of sweetie, lolly and candy choice wash over you. Again, it’s effective and that’s our watchword in taking down the zombie menace one toe-scraping carcass at a time.

Template zombies like the liquorice allsorts approach because they get the bag, eat the sweets, repeating ad infinitum. But you have to shake them up, make them think. Of course, in doing so, you need to remember that you’re dealing with zombies here and even the most docile template zombie can be dangerous. Don’t give them free rein with the pick ’n mix bag of sweeties or they’ll likely shuffle along the shelves grabbing all their favourite goodies and leaving everything else. You need to point them to the right shelves and only then release them.

Frame the zombie

While it may be ideal to leave BAs to decide what sweets they want from the entire sweet store, only the most senior BAs are capable of doing that within the greater business context, which is the task of what the Dryfus model defines as an expert. Template zombies aren’t the senior BAs. They’re the other BAs. What template zombies need is a framework to guide them through the process.

The business analysis framework must deliver value to the business, otherwise why are we doing the project? And it implies a problem scope. Not necessarily problem in the standard sense—think of it more in the mathematical sense as a problem for which there is a solution. Once we figure out what the solution is, we need to figure out how we are going to deliver it. Think of it as three layers of a pyramid: at the top we ask a) why are we doing this project, followed by b) what do we need to do, and finally c) how do we deliver the solution?

When we ask why we are investigating the business objectives or goals, when we ask what we are eliciting the business requirements, and when we ask how we’re looking into the functional and non-functional requirements. 

Another way of looking at it is when we ask why we are seeking the value of the project, when we ask what we are investigating the entities, processes and business rules, and when we ask how we are looking at the required solution functionality. The framework gives us a matrix of objectives on one axis, and tasks or techniques on another, all culminating in outcomes and deliverables. It’s that matrix that arms BAs to choose which techniques are best suited to their projects. All BAs are armed with a bag of sweeties they can dip into, containing practices and disciplines such as planning, business case, business requirements, functional requirements, non-functional requirements, transitional requirements, solution validation, elicitation, and requirements communication. Within each of those portions of the matrix are tools that BAs can use to help them achieve their goal and that’s their pick ’n mix. They’re given the matrix, the framework, but they get to choose within the framework because that’s where they’re the domain experts. For example, they may choose more common tools such as process analysis, ERD, use case and others. But there are several methods of analysis, such as PESTLE, heptalysis (which is not a gum disease), MOST, SWOT, CATWOE (which is not a sad cat), De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, Five Whys, MoSCoW, and others in their bag of sweets.

Powwow

But what are they looking for in selecting these techniques or sweeties? Some time ago I attended a presentation by Scott Ambler, who is an Agile guru. Often at a conference or industry powwow, there’s a pearl of wisdom that leaps out and sticks in your brain. For me it was, “We need repeatable results, not repeatable processes.” Pick the right tool for the job.

It requires some thought from BAs in the context of the business while considering the numerous techniques available before ensuring a suitable match. Handing BAs a bag of liquorice allsorts in which they’ll find a predetermined collection of techniques that they must follow because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” doesn’t cut it—that is just a repeatable process. You need to appropriately select the techniques that will most effectively deliver against the requirements in the context of the business objectives for repeatable results.

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Robin Grace is a Business Analyst Principal Consultant at IndigoCube.


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