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Mystery Fiction – The Business Analyst as Detective

My husband and I belong to a mystery book club. Every month we read and discuss a book loosely categorized as mystery fiction. Recently one of the members asked whether the book we had just discussed was really a mystery. Good question, since each of us had different ideas of what distinguished a mystery from other forms of fiction. During the ensuing discussion I kept thinking about the similarities between mystery fiction and business analysis.

Mystery novels are concerned with crimes and their detection, which typically involves finding clues and recognizing which are important and which are not. At the crime scene there are a myriad of objects, some or none of which might help solve the mystery.

Effective business analysts are also concerned with detection-of a different sort. They need to detect the business need and related requirements. Like detectives sorting through objects at the scene of the crime, business analysts need to sort through information-lots and lots of information-in order to discover business needs. Like many of the great detectives, they need specific characteristics, qualities, and skills, such as:

  • Ability to solve problems creatively. We often tell ourselves to think outside the box. I don’t know about you, but when I try to force creativity, I usually get stuck. What helps me develop creative solutions is introspection and quiet time, giving my mind a rest and a chance to process and cull the information it’s taken in and eliminate the unimportant details. Fictional detectives rest their minds in different ways. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes plays the violin. Christie’s Jane Marple knits. Some, like Poe’s Auguste Dupin, need to sit and think. In Poe’s “Purloined Letter” the narrator states, “For one hour, at least, we [he and Dupin] had maintained a profound silence.”

After clearing the mind, a creative solution often appears. This is known as the Eureka effect, named after the ancient Greek Archimedes who is said to have solved a problem in a public bath. Also known as the “Aha moment” or “breakthrough thinking,” I call it the “bathroom cleaning syndrome” after a business analyst I knew solved a difficult problem while cleaning the toilet. Whatever we call it, inspiration often occurs when our minds stop concentrating on the problem at hand and we are free to put the pieces of information together in a meaningful way.

  • Using intuition while checking out the facts. In many detective novels, it’s the bumbling police inspector who makes assumptions, but our detective heroes go for the facts. P. D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh’s “reputation for never theorizing ahead of the facts is legendary, yet his success at solving complex cases in record time is astonishing.” [1] Dragnet’s famous Sergeant Joe Friday always asks for “just the facts, ma’am.”

Other detectives rely more on intuition, but understand that hunches need to be verified with facts. Jane Tennison, played by Helen Mirren, is the Detective Chief Inspector in Prime Suspect. [2] DCI Tennsion almost immediately knows who the prime suspect is, but the main narrative is constructed around verifying her initial hunch.

We BAs use our intuition all the time. We have hunches about why some solutions will work and why others will not. I believe it is essential to listen to our intuition, which is probably based on our experience about what has worked or not in the past. It’s this experience which helps us synthesize a lot of information quickly, even when the situation is entirely new. Although we should not ignore our hunches, we need to check them out. This verification is accomplished in lots of ways, using a variety of elicitation techniques. Depending on the problem or issue we’re trying to solve, we may need to observe, complete research, facilitate a meeting, or conduct an interview, for example. These are the same techniques used by our detectives to verify and discover information.

  • Focus. Good detectives and BAs are focused on the task at hand, which allows them to observe, listen to, and absorb a great amount of information. In mystery fiction Miss Marple is acutely aware of her surroundings, taking in lots of information through her senses, and processing it quickly. Her ability to gain trust is also helpful. She wanders through the crime scene almost unnoticed, as she observes and listens purposefully and intensely. Also a master at understanding non-verbal communications, she readily recognizes such emotions as fear, anger, and remorse.

Business analysts need to focus during elicitation activities. Many BAs complain of having to play multiple roles, which makes focus difficult. When we multi-task, we lose some of our concentration. It is harder for us to observe, listen, absorb, and read the non-verbal cues which are critical in our facilitator role. We might fail to ask important questions, and business analysis usually takes longer or is less effective.

  • Ability to thrive in ambiguous situations. We often hear about the need for BAs to tolerate ambiguity. I think that effective detectives and business analysts are those who not only tolerate, but actually thrive in ambiguous situations. Following a one-size-fits-all process would be boring and more importantly would not get the desired results. For detectives and BAs there is no one process to follow. Rarely is the “case” clear cut. Some organizations, though, believe that if we only had a requirements process, we’d be able to churn out effective business analysts. I wish it were that easy! Having processes is great but not sufficient. Some inexperienced BAs struggle with ambiguity. I believe that BAs who long for clear-cut situations will find business analysis too frustrating for a long-time career.

The ability to thrive in ambiguous situations also allows detectives and business analysts alike to create structure from chaos. We are often amazed when Miss Marple, who is tolerated but not taken seriously, that very Miss Marple who has sat, listened, and observed but said little, is able to put the puzzle pieces together. We are equally amazed when business analysts can synthesize all the information they’ve accumulated during elicitation activities, put it together in meaningful ways, and are able to create understanding and gain consensus. How, we wonder, can they be so effective at sorting through so much and making sense of it all? That’s the mystery, I guess.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

[1] Mystery! website,

[2] Granada Television and Mystery!


Elizabeth Larson

Elizabeth Larson, has been the CEO for Watermark Learning as well as a consultant and advisor for Educate 360. She has over 35 years of experience in project management and business analysis. Elizabeth has co-authored five books and chapters published in four additional books, as well as articles that appear regularly in BA Times and Project Times. Elizabeth was a lead author/expert reviewer on all editions of the BABOK® Guide, as well as the several of the PMI standards. Elizabeth enjoys traveling, hiking, reading, and spending time with her 6 grandsons and 1 granddaughter.