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The Business Analyst and the approach: A catalyst for change

My wife jokes with me that she still doesn’t understand what I do. Any time we meet someone new and they eventually ask me what I do for a living, she has to try not to giggle when I look at her.

Often the easiest explanation is to say where I work, or that I work in I.T. or that I do analysis stuff. Occasionally someone takes more of an interest and I found myself explaining more and eventually getting to what I think the core of what a business analyst is: being a catalyst for change.

It took me some years to get to that understanding. Moving into business analysis from more technical roles, it took me a while to move from having a more technical or systems-focused mindset around requirements specification and requirements management to focussing on the whole point of my job. While many employers do have a fairly clear idea of what a BA does or should do – and that is mostly centered on requirements – many employers also come to understand that the BA often comes fills a role that means a lot more than that. Thus the BA role has evolved.

The BA is placed in a role in a workplace in any variety of situations or problems. A broken process, an idea for a new project, a system integration, the test phase of a large vendor product implementation, and many more. It’s no surprise most BAs feel overwhelmed by the expectations that come with the role. The

IIBA’s BABOK is also a bit overwhelming. How can one person wear all those hats? Job descriptions from recruiters for BA roles can include head-spinning lists of selection criteria that stop just short of:

  • Faster than a speeding bullet
  • More powerful than a locomotive
  • Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound

Take a breath and relax. When you start in a role, most employers know you’ve been given a big task, and also that you’re not Superman (unless you are of course). They want you to get things to happen, to take responsibility for something others in the organization are not currently available or able to do, to be a catalyst for change.

An analyst can take a problem and break it down, work out an approach to solve it and plan the steps needed to realize the desired change. A business analyst can do this with the guidance of the BABOK. And really that is all the BABOK is – a guide. No BOK can cover the myriad situations and problems organizations face; their culture, attitudes, level of maturity, unique operating environments, or the ideal way to approach them. What the BABOK does is guide you to apply some structure to the way you work in your employer’s environment.

The most valuable step early on is to validate with your employer your approach to the problem you’ve been tasked with. Be prepared to revisit and tailor your approach as you learn more. There may already be accepted approaches or “ways we do things” in place in one way or another. Make sure you understand these and communicate any concerns or conflicts with your view of how to approach a task. If there is nothing in place, then you have a scary blank canvas to work with! Draw on your experience, your contacts, colleagues, the multitude of information out there to sketch out an approach. Be assured that the approach you develop is already bringing about change for your employer. It will help to develop early trust and confidence in the work you will deliver and set a transparent direction where there may have been no direction previously.


Don’t be disheartened if you find your approach travels a bumpy road – the BA is often the one sent along a bumpy road in the first place. Validate with your requirements stakeholders as you go, gather feedback about each task, technique, and deliverable in your approach.

  • Are stakeholders comfortable with the approach?
  • Is your approach starting to bring about positive or negative change?
  • Are there any ways the approach could be improved?

Catalyst: a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change. A person or thing that precipitates an event. Perhaps catalyst isn’t the right analogy. Your approach will almost certainly change as you receive stakeholder feedback, and change isn’t simply an event, it’s more enduring. The other part of the change equation is you, the BA.

One of the intimidating things about the BABOK is the underlying competencies section. Now we are talking about Superman. If I was to highlight any of these to focus on it would be interaction skills. Your ability to change; your attitude, your understanding, your approach is dependent on how well you interact with your stakeholders. Interaction skills are also the most critical skills in a successful business analysis approach, so let’s look at some of them.

Facilitation: You will struggle to apply many elicitation techniques without being able to facilitate stakeholders well. Facilitation is a skill that requires a lot of practice, and as it is challenging, you have to cut yourself some slack. Learn from your mistakes; the awkward moments in a workshop, the lack of preparation time, the misunderstanding of a stakeholder motivation. When you hone your facilitation, you will earn respect early in any workplace.

Leadership and Influencing: Your ability to lead and influence is key to enabling change, from seeking funding for a new project to improving stakeholder buy-in. Leadership mostly requires confidence, with a good dose of humility. Don’t take credit, instead encourage your colleagues with praise for their work and if you deserve it, they will credit you.

Teamwork: This is how most of us change and mature as professionals. It is through the thousands of interactions with our team members that we learn and develop ourselves. The humor, the conflict, the expert advice, the human mistakes; all of these and other experiences trigger little changes in ourselves.

In summary, a BA can be a boffin, an exceptional thinker and problem solver, passionate about correct technique and rigor in requirements management. However, if a BA isn’t transparent as well as pragmatic in the way their work is approached and adaptable to the needs of requirements stakeholders, they will struggle to effectively bring about change. Furthermore, the BA’s interaction skills will be critical to the change effort. Consider your interactions with others – how might they perceive you? How do you make them feel? Are you developing trust through your interactions? Are you using your sense of humor (and humility) and being human (not Superman)?

Up, up, and away!