Wednesday, 13 January 2021 12:03

Unconscious Bias: Leap-Frogging to Greater Business Analysis

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Is there a hidden pitfall in your business analysis efforts?

Could unconscious bias be reducing your effectiveness as a business analyst?  Consider a meeting when someone from a different cultural background is quiet throughout the meeting.  We can easily favor more talkative participants and overlook the individual’s contributions in the process.

Unconscious bias, also referred to as hidden or implicit bias, is an unconscious preference for, or against, a person or group. This bias differs from explicit bias which is an obvious or blatant prejudice held at a conscious level. Unconscious bias comes in many flavors and may be based on a person’s background, physical attributes or even a person’s name.

Biases are a biological survival mechanism that drives our patterns of thinking. The ability to categorize people quickly and automatically is a built-in survival mechanism that helped early humans to distinguish friend or foe.  In our modern world, these biases may lead to detrimental behaviors such as prejudice or injustice. In fact, biases thought to be extinguished remain as "mental residue" in most of us. Studies show people can be consciously committed to an ideal and deliberately work to behave without prejudice but still possess unconscious biases which may lead to stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.

Unconscious bias, if not addressed, may lead to unintended consequences for individuals, teams, and the strategic mission of the organization.  If an interview panel demonstrates gender bias for males in leadership roles, it is possible the most qualified individual will be denied the career opportunity.  A lack of team productivity can result when a manager selects an inexperienced project manager simply because both individuals attended or graduated from the same university.  If the marketing organization misses a segment of the population in their strategies, the market share for a new product or service can be lost to competitors or impact the strategic organizational mission to reach all populations.  We must continuously strive to guard against biases that lead to inequities.

Despite these risks, biases may serve a purpose.  Some biases are formulated from myriad sets of experiences that allow us to understand a situation in ways that foster diversity of thought and contribute to the effectiveness of the team.

Why are we calling unconscious bias a hidden pitfall when applied to the practice of business analysis? Business Analysis is the practice of eliciting information from diverse stakeholders to get the best set of business needs, requirements, decisions, and outcomes. Unconscious bias can prevent a business analyst from achieving this goal.

The Business Analysis Book of Knowledge (BABOK) Version 3 states the following as important underlying competencies for professionals involved in the discipline of business analysis:

  • Behavioral Characteristics of Ethics, Personal Accountability, Trustworthiness & Adaptability
  • Communication Skills
  • Interaction Skills


These underlying competencies enable a Business Analyst to effectively relate, cooperate and communicate with different kinds of stakeholders, including executives, sponsors, colleagues, team members, developers, vendors, learning and development professionals, end users, customers, and Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).  A Business Analyst possessing these underlying competencies is uniquely positioned to address unconscious bias, and ultimately improve the team’s ability to get the best set of business needs, requirements, decisions, and outcomes.

Successful Business Analysts demonstrate Communication Skills through listening and diplomacy.    Consider this example when a female colleague presents a probable solution to the company’s desire to expand in another international market.  She is ignored by the meeting facilitator.  Within minutes, another male colleague presents the same version of his solution.  The facilitator quickly acknowledges and praises the male colleague’s proposed solution.  After a quick observation, the Business Analyst tactfully interjects, acknowledges the original idea from the female, and the additional information from the male colleague. In this instance, the Business Analyst demonstrates Behavioral Characteristics of adaptability and trustworthiness through diplomatic skills that address the unconscious bias.

When exercising Interaction Skills, the Business Analyst can establish trustworthy connections that allow an understanding of the stakeholder’s goals, feelings, likes, dislikes, fears, and uncover unconscious biases that exist and can impair effectiveness. During a stakeholder interview, a key stakeholder makes a derogatory comment regarding a colleague’s upcoming cultural celebration.  The Business Analyst does not immediately respond to the comment but makes a deliberate decision to pair the two in an upcoming roleplay in which the key stakeholder interviews the colleague regarding customer perceptions of their product.         

In addition to demonstrating the above-mentioned competencies, the Business Analyst has a collection of techniques to minimize and overcome the hidden pitfalls of unconscious bias. Here are a few ideas:

  • Brainstorming- During requirements elicitation, use techniques such as brainstorming, surveys, and role plays that allow everyone the chance to contribute their ideas and opinions in a non-threatening environment.
  • Collaborative Games – Explore the use of fun-filled collaborative games to welcome and celebrate all contributions and opinions. Help facilitate an environment that maintains authenticity and a non-defensive posture. When biases that impede productivity surface, exercise courage, and use collaborative skills to move from conflict to collaboration.
  • Focus Groups – Intentionally pursue diversity when creating focus groups of pre-qualified participants. Create an environment of inclusion where the team gets to know each other and all things that make them who they are. As a business analyst, perform self-reflection to ensure you are bringing curiosity, empathy, and openness during requirements sessions.
  • Stakeholder Analysis - When performing the Stakeholder Analysis, use this activity as an opportunity to educate yourself on stakeholders’ experiences. Leverage the Stakeholder Analysis to identify 1-2 attributes for each team member that demonstrates uniqueness. Consider a team exercise of Who Am I? This educates the team and allows individuals to share an important aspect of their identities as we appreciate the beauty in our diversity.

Combating the hidden pitfalls of unconscious bias will require relentless and on-going efforts over time.  As we seek to expose personal or team biases, Business Analysts can become change agents for environments where employees feel valued, and innovation flourishes and thereby leads to increased profitability and productivity for the corporation. 


(2015) Underlying Competencies In A Guide to the Business Analysis Book of Knowledge (Version 3.0 pp 188-210). Toronto, Ontario. Canada.

Kathleen O'Brien & Cassandra Jackson

Kathy is an Associate Director of Business and Technical Analysis at Merck & Co., Inc. in West Point, PA.  Kathy has over 18 years of experience in information technology, with 13 years of concentration in business analysis in industries such as defense, financial, power, and pharmaceutical.  In her current role, she leads requirements development and management efforts for various key initiatives in the Global Human Health IT organization, which supports sales and marketing functions.  She is also an earnest contributor to various business analyst communities at Merck, including the Analysis Skills Center, which is a Center of Excellence for business analysis standards and best practices.  Kathy is an active member of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the IIBA and is currently serving on the board as the chapter secretary.

Cassandra is a Lead Business Analyst at Pfizer Incorporated. Cassandra has worked for more than twenty years as a business analyst supporting Fortune 100 pharmaceutical and technology companies. She combines her passion for analysis and collaboration to identify digital solutions to address business outcomes for a range of stakeholders. As some of her proudest accomplishments, she led requirements development and management efforts in support of Pfizer’s Expanded Access global implementation in a number of countries and participated in one of the first de-centralized clinical trials conducted by Pfizer. She enjoys coaching others in the discipline of business analysis throughout the organizations she has worked.

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