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Solid Foundations

We all have moments when we realise how we can improve our business analysis effectiveness and we wish that we had thought of it earlier. Here’s a selection of Aha! moments that have occurred over the course of a business analyst career and will hopefully resonate with you.

Analytical Skills

For starters, as business analysts we need to have good analytical and problem solving skills. This is one of the foundations upon which our success is built. People with these skills tend to be attracted to business analysis but there are always new things to learn. Stay open to improving these skills throughout your career.

What Problem?

It is important to understand the problem completely before moving into solution mode. We all like to come up with a neat solution but unless we get to the bottom of the problem we may solve a problem that doesn’t exist or provide a partial solution. Resist the temptation to formulate solutions too early. This sounds simple but is a recurring trap.

Ask Lots of Questions

There can be a tendency for business analysts to expect that they have to be the expert and know all the answers. Unless you are also the subject matter expert, one of the keys to business analysis is asking lots of questions. Questions are a key to success because a) problems in the work place are often ambiguous and ill-defined b) people may not provide the relevant information unless prompted by questions and c) compromises between conflicting requirements may need to be negotiated.

To make it easier for stakeholders we need to carefully formulate questions based on the limited information that we have been given. Gather questions into subject areas and cover a lot of ground in one session to provide focus and maximise time efficiency for time-poor stakeholders. Ask follow-up questions to ensure that the subject is crystal clear. There is always room for asking basic questions. If something is not clear to you then it is probably not clear to others so seek clarification.

These basic questions may seem trivial but they are valuable for revealing hidden assumptions that can cause problems later.

Tackle the issues

Part of the role of the business analyst is to identify and resolve content issues. Content issues are related to requirement definition and solution feasibility and are different to project management issues which deal with time, cost and resources.

Issues that we know about are good. It is the issues that we don’t know about yet that are bad! Keep a watchful lookout for content issues. When people hesitate or give vague answers to questions it is an indication that there are underlying issues that need to be surfaced.

Most issues can be resolved fairly quickly once you find the person with the right information but then there are some issues that refuse to go away. These are the tough ones that are most likely to cause problems and rework later. Pursue issue resolution relentlessly but professionally. It is easy to get so involved in analysing requirements, formulating solutions and meeting deadlines that issues end up in the too-hard basket. However we cannot afford to let issues go. Find out who might have the answers and explain the issue. Give people a target date for resolution. Issues can be managed by entering them into a contents issue log, sharing it with all stakeholders and reviewing progress regularly.

Consult widely

Talk things over thoroughly and actively seek advice before taking action. Talk requirements and solutions over with all the stakeholders and team members to get everyone on the same page and avoid unwanted surprises. By seeking many viewpoints, especially from the stakeholders that differ from the majority, we ensure that our solutions are robust and meet all the agreed requirements.

Choose the communication medium that suits each stakeholder to increase participation. Don’t assume that everyone learns the same way. For example, diagrams mean very little to some people and do not increase their understanding. In this case it may be necessary to talk through the content and prepare a written description.

Balance Detail with the Big Picture

To produce a complete and robust solution to a business problem the detail needs to be understood. Those of us who have had to revise solutions late in a project know that “the devil is in the detail”. However if we start with details we will be overwhelmed so the first priority is to form a big picture overview. The trick is to move from the big picture to the detail at the right time and to the right degree. If it’s done too soon we may lose sight of important parts of the problem. If it’s done too late then we risk unwanted surprises during implementation. How do we manage the transition from big picture to detail? Move into the detail first on the areas that are ranked highest by the business. Come back up periodically to check that the broader landscape hasn’t changed. Alternate between the big picture and the detail to keep a balance and get maximum benefit from your efforts.

If you are one of those people who tend to get absorbed in the detail then there are a couple of ways to keep perspective. Firstly, keep a to-do list and prioritise the items. This avoids losing sight of other things that need to be done. It makes solving problems more enjoyable because it removes the feeling that there’s something else more important that you should be doing. There is also a great sense of satisfaction when an item can be ticked off the list. Secondly, find time during the work day to have a break. This gives an opportunity for other priorities to come to mind. It may even generate good ideas for solving something – all without apparently trying.

Value your contribution

Be ready to speak about the contribution you are making. Write down your main achievements each month. Don’t wait until the yearly performance review to try and remember the highlights of what has been achieved. Recording achievements during the year facilitates preparation for performance reviews and helps to make a good case.

Seek Simplicity

Look for neat simple solutions that are fit for purpose. The complexity should be in the problem, not the solution. If you can see a simple solution then back your judgement and work hard to explain it to others.

Work closely with your Project Manager

The support of a good project manager is vital to your success. It is an important prerequisite for enabling us to do what we do best – analysing problems and designing solutions.

Look for a project manager who is on the side of the team and protects the team from external pressures. This will be someone who provides the necessary resources to the team and appreciates the team’s efforts. Avoid project managers who commit to targets without consulting the team and then put pressure on the team when unrealistic targets are not met.

Unless you are politically savvy, let the project manager deal with the politics as much as possible. However this doesn’t mean you can ignore the politics. Be aware of the politics so that you know when to comment and when to keep silent. This way you don’t burn any bridges – you may need that person’s co-operation in the future.

Clients usually have unrealistic expectations of what can be done and tend to underestimate the complexity of what we do. Project managers can assist us to push back on these unrealistic expectations. Refer questions from stakeholders that deal with project management matters. For example, I was once pressured by a senior client to give an estimate of delivery date and cost for some deliverables when the project manager was not present. After a brief comment about past bad experiences I said “Once bitten, twice shy” and referred them to the project manager.

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