Monday, 26 March 2007 09:24

Play Ball! Lessons in Teamwork for the Business Analyst

Written by Janette McGrath

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don't play together, the club won't be worth a dime.”  Babe Ruth

When I was ten, I played softball for a local community league with my friends and neighbours, and my dad coached. I loved it. I loved hanging out with my friends. I loved playing third base. And I loved the feel of finding the sweet spot on the bat and scoring a run.  Of all sports, the one that I identify with most as a team sport is baseball.  It is an internationally recognized and played sport, that annually attracts viewers by the millions.  The players are respected and admired by legions of fans – what a great role model for any occupation!  

A baseball player works collaboratively within a team to accomplish a common goal.  It is a team sport, and, usually, so is software development. Baseball Players are athletes. An athlete is someone who shows skill in a sport, trains, and competes as part of her career goal. As a business analyst, you too are an athlete – showing skills, training and sometimes competing (this job can be tough sometimes) in the sport of business analysis.  

As in baseball, where the individual batter or pitcher may be placed under specific scrutiny even though they are part of a larger team, the business analyst can sometimes experience that same focus or hot seat. It is the critical role on the team - and critics will surface – make no mistake. If you make an ‘error’ or ‘strike out’ in any phase of your project, the success of your team could be at risk, and your reputation too. 

So, not only is it important to develop and refine your individual analytical skills, but as you are usually working within the framework of a project team, that team environment must be dutifully considered and well understood to ensure your success in this role.

The BA must:  

o       Show Up For The Game,
o       Be Prepared to Play,
o       Apply Your Skills,
o       Be in Good Condition, and
o       Follow the Direction Given by Your Coach

Show Up for the Game

Understand the context and rules of your team project. What is the playing field? 

The most important activity a BA can do to set herself up for success at the beginning of a project assignment, is to go into it “eyes wide open” and prepared to “show up for the game”. Although this term is often used in a negative fashion, to describe someone who didn’t do much else BUT ‘show up for the game’, my use of this phrase is to stress the need for a BA to show up – to be present, to be aware, and to be thoughtful about the ‘game’ or project they are about to embark on. 

A professional baseball player knows the rules of their game from years of instruction, practice and experience. Like any sport, it has its own set of terms and a unique vocabulary. Know what a ‘balk’ is? How about when the pitcher makes a ‘save’? You might know the general meanings for these terms, but in the context of baseball they mean something altogether different and unique. The official rules of Major League Baseball are quite specific and detailed. They cover not only a long list of terms and definitions for their unique vocabulary, but also the preliminaries of the game – what happens before the game starts, how to start and end the game, how to put the ball into play, roles and responsibilities for the batter, the runner, the pitcher, the umpire and the ‘official scorer’.  

A business analyst learns the rules for their game – the “project”, and the rules for their team, via a Project Charter (a.k.a Project Definition, Scope document, Business Case, etc.)  and a Team Contract. These may be two separate documents or a single combined deliverable. Depending on the timing of your assignment to a project, the Project Charter document may already exist and come directly from your business Sponsor, your Project Manager or it may be that a BA is tasked with its creation.  The Team Contract is something you should create with your team, and I mean everyone – your sponsor, business contacts, IT cohorts - everyone. The more people that participate – the better buy-in you’ll have, and it’s a great team-building exercise to boot.   The Team Contract further outlines expectations from team members regarding roles, responsibilities, norms for group behaviour and anything else you decide to include as a team. 

It is so important for the business analyst to ensure that these deliverables exist as points of communication from the business to the development team, and to establish and document expectations within the team. If this is part of the process in your organization – great! If not, it may be because it’s never been discussed or presented as a tool for better communication. Or maybe it’s because you don’t follow a “standard” project or development methodology each time you work on a new project - or maybe everyone thinks it’s not a priority because it would take valuable time away from the business of ‘coding’.  In any case, you need one, so get one or make one!  

Be Prepared to Play

Identify your toolset. What equipment do you need to win in a team environment?

Once you know the rules of the game, you need to be prepared to play. A baseball player uses several “tools” to play the game: the baseball bat, the baseball itself, a glove, and a uniform. 

The Bat – Speak Softly and Carry a Large Stick

 A bat is a stick used to hit a baseball. What could be more basic? The player’s main goal as a batter is to hit the ball with skill and precision and ‘knock it out of the park’! The batter doesn’t want to miss the target or send it out of bounds causing a foul. The player bats according to a line-up with her team-mates and hopes to either score one run alone, or to driver her team-mates home too – and ultimately win the game with more runs than the other team.   

So what can the BA take away from this analogy? The bat is your skillset as a BA – you want to use your analysis skills to create a requirements document that nails the business problem.  To do this you need to accurately understand the business goal.  Doug Hadden, Vice President of Marketing at FreeBalance a public sector financial management solution provider, has over 20 years of experience working with BAs. His advice is  “Don’t leap to solutions before understanding the problem. It’s important to get the big picture first.” He also says, “Always ask "why?"  It's sometimes more important to know the business drivers than what the (development) team wants to execute.” 

On The Ball Business Requirements

A baseball is a precision-made object, uniformly manufactured to meet certain standards. It is hit by a bat, or thrown to different players to achieve different purposes. It is pitched, caught by a catcher or fielder, and thrown to make an ‘out’.  For the BA, the ball represents the documented business requirements.  Stephen Daleman, a Business Analyst with TD Canada Trust Technology Solutions, and over eight years experience in the role advises this:  “The formulation of the ‘big picture’ is in your hands; you’re the one that everyone (should) be looking at to connect the dots and to guide the definition of a solution.”  Keep in mind that, like any document the BA creates, it may be “in play” for only a few “pitches”, as it is revised, refined and adapted to accurately represent the business goals, so it’s important to keep it up to date. Stephen also advises “Read what you write; and then be prepared to rewrite it (again). System quality will be directly dependent on requirement quality.”  

Fits Like A Glove: Tests

A baseball player wears a baseball glove to catch the ball. Compared to games of yester-year, gloves are now so well manufactured, so fitted and flexible, that they allow the player to make a one-handed catch. The BA’s glove is her suite of tests – functional, usability, regression, etc. Each test plays an important role in confirming the validity and correctness of the business requirements.  The earlier you pull out your “glove” the more likely you are to catch the ball. And of course, automated testing products now allow the BA to do all this ‘one-handed’! 

The Uniform – BAs Unite

A uniform helps to identify the player, it imparts the team with a sense of pride, legitimizes the player’s role on a certain team, and gives the team a sense of camaraderie.  The BAs uniform is her job title – wear it proudly. Your role says everything about you – it is your identity (at work anyway!)  It is not only important to strive to work successfully with your project team, but you also need to work with the team of BAs in your organization, and to communicate with BAs outside or your organization – such as the hundreds of members of the International Institute of Business Analysis. Your team of BAs can provide great support and insight into the daily struggles of this demanding role.

Apply Your Skills:

The skills needed to be an MVP. How do you become a “5-tool player”?
Now that you are prepared to play the game, equipment in hand, you need to apply your skills. The ideal player in baseball is said to be a ‘five-tool player’. To be a true MVP, a player excels in five skills: hitting for power, hitting for average, running speed, fielding abilities, and arm strength.  

1.  Hitting for Power

 A player that can hit for power increases their team’s chance of scoring. The power hitter‘s responsibility is to not only hit homeruns, but also to drive in her teammates – bring them home to score too!  The successful power hitter creates a reputation for success through repeatedly showing their importance in the game.  So what does this mean for a business analyst emulating a baseball player? The BA must strive to increase the project’s chances for success through every stage of the ‘game’ of software development. Every deliverable or task that BA touches in each stage of the project and its chosen software development methodology is a moment or chance for BA is to help move that project forward.

2.  Hitting for Average

 A player with a great batting average, not only leads the team in hitting; she also works to extend the inning to increase the likelihood of scoring more runs and winning the game. More advice from Doug Hadden – he says the best thing about working with a BA is that they keep the technologists focused on the end result, and act as the voice of the end-user.  

3.  Running Speed

 The player with great running speed is counted on to make things happen - they steal a base or move quickly around the bases to score a run.   The BA makes things happen via constant and accurate communication to her development team. Peter Spitz, a Senior Software Developer with over 30 years experience, who works for Camilion Solutions Inc (a product development and policy administration systems solution provider for the insurance industry) says one of the best things about working with a BA is that you “get immediate feedback on your questions from somebody who knows the business end of the problem.” 

4.  Fielding Abilities

A player with great fielding abilities stops the other team’s potential runs – turns them into an ‘out’. With every ‘out’ the pitcher gains confidence and relief as his workload to singularly strike out a batter is lessened. Think of your project manager as your pitcher. The better job you do identifying and documenting requirements, liasing with the business, communicating with your customer and project team, the less work you create for her, and everybody wins!

5.  Arm Strength

 The player with superior arm strength will make seemingly impossible plays through their strength conditioning. As a BA, your conditioning comes from continuing education in not only your core competencies: requirements, object modelling, process modelling testing and the like, but also in the softer skills required when working in a team: collaboration, communication, negotiation, consensus-building, and facilitation, to name just a few.

Be in Good Condition

Your daily training program.  

Baseball players improve their performance by training and conditioning properly for their game. They perform drills to help them throw harder, increase their bat speed, and run faster. The exercises they practice are specific to their game.  As a business analyst you must also find drills and training specific to your game to help you on your team. Business analyst training is often focused on improving analysis skills in a formal training environment. While there is no doubt that this is very important, attention should also be given to how we can train to improve our role on our team, every day. Drills are used to break down key skills into manageable pieces that a player can work on. You may not realize it, but every day you practice ‘drills’ on your team, which contribute to your effectiveness as a team player.  Here are a few easy drills to help build team morale, and help you to be an “all-star” team player: 

Morning Warm-up

 Do you meet with colleagues for coffee in the morning? Go for lunch as a team? You may not realize it, but these simple informal activities can do wonders for the group dynamics on your team. Take the time to get to know your colleagues and use it as a means to discuss team status or issues in a relaxed environment. You’ll be glad you did. 

Around the Horn

 In baseball, the "horn" is the infield. In IT – your infield is your development team. You also need to check in with everyone on your team on a regular, more formal basis, to not only track the status of your project’s tasks, but to identify any issues that may be affecting individual or team performance, and to record them. An easy way to do this is either through informal meetings with your colleagues, or via more formalized project update meetings. An “issues’ log is a good tool to use to document anything on the project that needs to be resolved, be it project related or otherwise. It can then be used for ‘reflective practice’ on your next project to ensure those issues are either prevented or resolved in a successful manner. 

Scrimmage 

In baseball a scrimmage is an unofficial practice game. Setting up team-building workshops, on any scale, can be a great way to strengthen the working relationship between members of your team. I have done this in the past to great success, within my development team, across teams in the IT department for larger projects, and with cross-functional teams that also include line or business user representatives. There are a host of free teambuilding games available on the ’net – find one and make it a priority for your next team meeting. 

Follow the Direction Given by Your Coach:

How to work with a project leader, manager and/or business sponsor. Who’s in charge? 

In baseball, the field manager is responsible for team strategy and team leadership. He determines the line-up, decides who plays and when.  Each manager differs in the amount of control they take in player strategy.  A baseball player also takes direction from the first base coach, the third base coach, the pitching coach, the hitting coach, the bullpen coach, the catching instructor, and the bench coach. Phew! The business analyst may encounter a similar environment.  There may be a business sponsor, project manager, development team leader, and administrative manager all of whom have a say in the work required of the business analyst. With all of these people to consider in your project, Doug Hadden says, “Expect to be blind-sided at least once in any major project by a stakeholder who isn't pleased. Most stakeholders think that their views are paramount. The BA has to take everyone's input and make a value
judgement.” With so many stakeholders involved, it’s easy to see why communication is a key skill for a BA. Doug also recommends “Consistent communication - many executives and customers will not believe that anything is happening without communications.” 

So, Are you Minor League or Major League?  

Who knew a business analyst could learn so much about working with their development team from the role of a baseball player?  You’ve:

  • Shown up for the game, with a contract of the team’s rules;
  • Prepared for play, valuable equipment identified;
  • Practiced your five skills to make MVP;
  • Discovered new drills for teamwork success; and
  • Followed direction successfully from each of your coaches.

 Now, to make it to the ‘big leagues’, just remember the advice my dad always gave me in little league practice: “Keep your eye on the ball!”  


 Janette McGrath has spent over a decade in the Information Technology field, working in both an internal IT department with a major Canadian Insurance Company, and with several software-consulting firms. With roles in business analysis, project management and product development, she has worked on both the ‘business’ side as an Underwriter and Business Process Designer, and on the “technology” side as a Business Analyst, Project Leader and Product Manager. She holds an MBA from York University, specializing in M.I.S. and Marketing. She is currently developing a job guide for the IT Business Analyst. She can be reached at janettemcgrath@gmail.com

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