Thursday, 19 April 2018 10:55

Top 3 Activities for a Business Analyst in a Discovery Phase

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In at the deep end

So, you’ve just heard you’re going to be the Business Analyst on an Agile team that’s going in to a Discovery and it’s your first one.
For my first Discovery, it was daunting let me tell you. I already knew quite a few tools and techniques a BA should use during the lifecycle of a project, but what ones do I use that are particular to a Discovery phase?
For this blog, I interviewed other Business Analysts, Scrum Masters, Product Owners and Developers to get their view on what the role of the BA is in Discovery and I will use their opinions (along with mine) to provide what I think are the top 3 tasks a BA should carry out.

Time is of the essence

You may be thinking, ‘surely you just apply the right tool or technique for the situation?’ Good question and I would say this is true. However. Unlike a traditional project where the BA would investigate, analyse and document literally everything, in Agile, Discovery phases are given quite a short amount of time before moving to Alpha and this is where as a BA (along with the rest of the team), you need to use your time wisely as you just won’t have the time to do all those ‘traditional’ BA activities.

Now, there is a process to follow in that you can’t start to create a backlog until you know what the user and business needs are, and you can’t find out those needs until you identify your users and stakeholders. So, this is where we’ll start.

Stakeholders: Don’t just identify, analyse

The top activity the other roles identified as a key role of the BA was to understand and define the problem. However, before we get to that stage, we need to identify our stakeholders and users. And perhaps more importantly, understand the stakeholder’s interest and their influence in your project.

For me, this is a critical exercise that I don’t feel is given the importance it should at the start of a project. They either get done and are left static throughout the project or not done at all.

While the BA might lead on this activity, it’s most definitely an exercise the whole team need to be part of. My tip here is to put a stakeholder interest/influence matrix on the team wall (hopefully you have one, if not, get some whiteboards!) and give yourself and the team a couple of hours for the session. There are plenty of templates online you can use or if not, just draw it on some flipchart. Give the team around 10-15 minutes to identify who they think are stakeholders and begin to plot them on the matrix.

There may be some conflict where these people sit on the matrix but as long as you agree on who are the highly influential or clearly fit in to a category, the borderline ones you can leave for now.

In terms of analysis and potential time constraints you have, don’t go in to any particular detail and spend time creating stakeholder wheels or stakeholder management plans, the interest/influence grid is sufficient. In addition, use the matrix to create your communication strategy to define what methods you will use to show progress of the Discovery to stakeholders and how often you will communicate with them.

For identifying users, this will be something the User Researcher will lead on as they will be interviewing them but you as the BA should be involved in those sessions. After all, if you are going to be writing the user stories based on their needs, you need to get this first hand. You will also pick up good interview techniques from the UR.

Framing the problem to define scope

Ok, so we now have a list of stakeholders and users and it’s time to start engaging them. Before you start looking at things like defining ‘as is’ processes, pain points and setting up interviews with stakeholders to get this information, you need to have an understanding of what the actual problem is the team has been put together to fix.

You may have been given a mandate as to what the issues are but until you engage the people ‘at the coal face’, they are just perceived issues. The quickest way to get to the root causes is to get those key stakeholders in a workshop and identify the following:

• Why are we doing this work?
• Who are our users, clients and stakeholders?
• What outcomes might users get from this?
• What outcomes might the organisation get from this?
• What are our key metrics?

Now, a lot of information will come out of this session and I see the key role of the BA is to deconstruct all these thoughts and views and turn it into something meaningful……like a problem and a product vision statement.

These statements are short and provide an overview of the vision, problems and methods the team will use to address them. It should be no more than a few sentences which is a difficult task and one I suggest should be collaborated and created with the rest of the team.

Once you are all happy with it, you need to share it with the stakeholders. Not to get agreement or for endless reviews, but to ensure everyone is on board with what the team are trying to achieve.

As some (maybe most) stakeholders may not be aware what a problem and vision statement is, you may have to spend some time explaining its purpose to them. Point out it’s not a personal view, but a collective interpretation of perceived issues that need addressing.

The backlog

As with defining scope, starting a backlog of user stories is not solely the responsibility of the Business Analyst but is something the team are responsible for and should contribute to. That said, the BA does play a critical role in the creation of a backlog. And that is to ensure that what goes in to it is of an acceptable standard. After all, rubbish in, rubbish out right?

I’ve seen this so many times whether it be on a new product or one that has progressed in to Alpha and Beta where the backlog has become a bit of a dumping ground for every idea, whim or ‘wouldn’t it be good if’ thought.

For a start, everything in the backlog should either be related to a user need or part of the product roadmap. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there. If someone does have an idea worth further exploration, put it on the user research/UX hypothesis board so they can establish whether there is an actual need for it.

Before you start creating a backlog, get the team together to agree ground rules. I suggest you hold a user story writing workshop with the team where you can begin outlining the backlog. This ensures the team are involved from the start and you can agree principles with them to stay clear of the ‘bloated backlog’.





Who might I be working with in a Discovery team?

Discovery teams can be made up of several roles, most commonly; a Product Owner, User Researcher, Business Analyst(s), Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and a Scrum Master/Delivery Manager

I’ve worked on Discoveries where a Scrum Master/Delivery Manager wasn’t part of the initial team and I found the focus and cohesion of the team became lost at times due to a lack of discipline in setting and achieving targets (i.e. sprint planning). When time is the key factor, the team needs to stay focused on its goals which I think the Scrum Master brings.

You’ll start to get the impression now that the Business Analyst is not really ‘solely’ responsible for the outputs of a Discovery but is involved in all of them. One of the people I interviewed for this blog explained his view of the role of the BA in a great way. He said they are ‘decoders’. By this he meant they translate all the information gathered (and there will be a lot of it) in to outputs that not only the team understand, but any stakeholders.

I believe this is the primary role of the BA however in an Agile Discovery, you should be able to evaluate what you are doing is of value and that you’re not just ‘going through the motions’ because of pre-defined duties of the Business Analyst.

I hope this has been helpful and that if you are asked to join a Discovery team, you are equipped to get engaged in those top key deliverables to make the Discovery a success.
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Nick Stowers

As a Business Analyst for nearly 5 years now, I've come to realise the role of the BA is still misunderstood in business and I want to provide other Business Analysts with insights how the BA brings value to organisations that are using an Agile framework to deliver their products and services.

I want to inspire current and future Business Analysts that they are the cornerstone of project teams to deliver products and services that are focused on the user and bring creativity, innovation and value to people. 

I truly believe a good Business Analyst is the difference between a high-performing Agile team and one that isn't. I speak from experience with several Agile teams using different variations of project delivery (even hybrids of frameworks) and I will share the trials and tribulations as a BA working in these teams and also the joy experienced when you as the BA join all the dots together to deliver products that are creative, innovative and of value to the end user.

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