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The Power of Story in Business Analysis

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before – you’re on a project that was thrust on your stakeholder groups from high above.  They were insufficiently consulted during the problem definition phase, and they are now questioning everything during implementation. These stakeholders can’t get the project to be outright cancelled, but they can cause it to be ultimately unsuccessful if they don’t commit to putting their time and energy into ensuring that the solution being developed is appropriately used.

Sound familiar? Business Analysts can often be faced with reluctant or even hostile project participants. Sometimes this can be due to lack of sufficient involvement early on, other times it is because they do not see the value in your project. How can you work to overcome these powerful barriers and get your entire stakeholder group to work with the team to successfully implement change?

A few years ago I was working in the education space and faced this challenge. The government had decreed that a change was to occur and that all school boards within the jurisdiction needed to conform within a certain timeframe. As more boards became aware of the change and the impact it would have on their organizations, many naturally questioned why the change was needed. The project team needed an effective way to present the long term value of the change without boring people with facts or figures, or getting into long winded explanations. So we focused on the one common value driver that all the school boards had in common: the student.

We used a short two minute before-and-after video depicting a day in the life of a new student and how the change would positively impact their educational experience. Even seasoned educators had their heartstrings pulled seeing the video; they could immediately empathize with the student and recognize how the situation described was all too common in today’s world. We used this story to introduce nearly every presentation and dialogue we had with our stakeholders for several years, as it helped establish the reason for why the change was necessary and put everyone’s mindset into focusing on the common goal all stakeholders had – providing the best possible education to the student.

Stories can captivate an audience, give them the critical information they need to understand a complex problem in a concise package, and be used to get people with very different backgrounds and goals to relate to shared events and situations. Leveraging stories to engage readers is used in the educational setting to help students process new or challenging experiences. Danielle Lowe, an educator in the state of New York, has observed “story-telling is a timeless teaching tool. Expression through text offers readers of all ages the opportunity to find solutions through the characters and conflicts within a story, and thus within themselves.”

Business Analysts have several opportunities to leverage stories in their work:

  • Defining a business need: sometimes worthwhile projects are never started because the individual(s) who recognize the problem are not in a position to allocate resources to develop a business case. Many Business Analysts who are embedded in business units can uncover problems or opportunities that can have a massive impact on the organization. Stories can be a great way to convey the business need to potential executive sponsors and get them interested enough in the topic to have a business case commissioned.
  • Documenting/communicating requirements: as Scrum methodologists are well aware, sometimes requirements can be best described in the form of stories. These do not need to be long narratives, but rather simple, structured descriptions about what needs to be addressed and in some cases why. Stories can also be effective when you need to summarize detailed or complex requirements. When performing a current state analysis of an entire division, I analyzed over a hundred processes and documented hundreds of requirements. To communicate my findings, I used three simple stories to describe the main challenges the division faced in their daily operations. This gave me a starting point to show how these challenges could be addressed through changes in processes and supporting technologies.
  • Secure stakeholder buy-in: while this activity is not solely performed by Business Analysts (indeed, the responsibility for buy-in is usually assigned to the Project Manager or Change Management team), we often directly engage with the stakeholders that will ultimately make the solution being implemented successfully operate and realize its full potential. As a result we are the first to encounter signs of potential resistance, and can be put on the spot to justify why a project exists or receive criticism for how the project is going. BAs have an opportunity to put forward a succinct but effective description of why a project is valuable, and can use story to relay the message in a narrative that matters to the stakeholder at hand. This can be tailored by stakeholder, often by using problems that they are encountering in today’s world and describing how the project will address those issues. When working on an inventory management project, I used two examples of the biggest pain points the group was encountering to convince them that performing extra data entry up front was worth their time and effort.

You don’t need to have the skills to pen the next great novel to effectively use stories. Focus on the narratives that matter to your audience and think about what compels them to do a better job. For some groups or individuals, it’s the customer that drives their desire for doing good work. For others, it may be recognition or compensation. Like any good story, start off with a problem that needs to be solved and then have your hero (in this case, the proposed solution) save the day. Don’t over exaggerate what the solution can do for the sake of the story, or else you may lose credibility with your audience. Even if the story has a fictional character or problem situation, make sure the benefits the solution is shown to perform are something it can actually do.

Stories can be a powerful and effective tool at conveying information to audiences, and when done well can be used to give people with entrenched viewpoints a chance to look at another perspective without being bombarded with facts or differing opinions. Business Analysts can look to leverage stories to engage and expand the minds of stakeholders in working towards a common goal. 

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