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What does the Thomas Fire in California have to do with Business Analysis?

Being a bit of a BA nerd, I see connections to business analysis everywhere.

Life delivers endless examples, analogies and metaphors to give me new perspectives on the BA role.

As some of you know, I recently moved to southern California and the Thomas Fire has delivered my latest life/BA lessons.

Before it’s contained, the Thomas Fire is expected to become the largest fire in California’s modern history. It’s been a major disruption to the lives and livelihood of thousands of people. Though I live a few blocks outside the mandatory evacuation zone, and was in a voluntary evacuation zone for days. The power/internet/phone outages, ash and smoke made the area uninhabitable. So, I packed up a few things, including my little dog and drove north without knowing when I will be able to return.

The uncertainty and anxiety I’ve experienced in the last few weeks, have given me a new level of empathy for all people in the midst of disruption. While most work-related chaos, complexity and change does not have life-threatening consequences, I can’t help but see parallels between the fire and business analysis. It’s not my intention to minimize the fire’s devastation by making these connections.

Instead, it’s just a way for me to find a few lessons in the ashes.

Sharing Stories

One of the most interesting aspects of the fire is the media coverage. Even in our live-streaming world, I’ve noticed national news about the fire is at least 12 hours old before it hits the airwaves. With only seconds or minutes to share information about the fire, the stories provide a very narrow slice of the big picture and often focus on the most dramatic outliers. Many common stories do not make their way into the report and there are so many untold stories.

Our requirements work often shares the same characteristics! While requirements documents or status reports give overall status, they are often outdated by the time they are written and leave many stories untold.

As a BA, it’s our job to delight our users. We can’t do that without gathering and sharing a broad range of stories in a timely manner. We look at user and stakeholder needs and work to bring requirements and design ideas to the team. When a ripple effect of change moves through our organization, untold stories become costly in terms of rework after implementation. We can all think of a project that was on time and on budget, but resulted in unhappy users!


Impact Iceberg

Officials reporting the impact of the Thomas Fire share new numbers every day—the acre count, the structures destroyed, the number of evacuees, fire fighter counts, etc. The numbers are staggering, but they’re just the tip of the impact iceberg. The fire has disrupted so many lives in so many ways—schools are closed for weeks, businesses are closed for days during their key season, the streets are filled with ash, crops have been destroyed. It will take months, maybe years, to understand the direct and indirect impacts.

How do you manage the impact iceberg in your organization? How do you get below the surface? Great BAs connect with user groups to understand their confusion and frustration. They get curious and keep asking questions until they understand the full impact. If we accept and manage issues without getting below the surface, then we often fix the wrong problem, because we don’t understand the root cause.

Challenge yourself to improve your impact analysis and help the team and stakeholders better prepare for disruption and change.

Playing Defense

Fire fighters spend most of their time playing defense. They defend lives and property. They use techniques and procedures to contain the fire until the fuel runs out.
In our project work, we often get stuck in “fire-fighting” mode. Gaps in requirements force us to play defense when we are working on bug fixes and enhancement requests. When BAs shift their focus to offense, they generate better requirements that minimize rework and delight users. Modern, collaborative requirements techniques generate meaningful conversations that produce better solutions.

Organizations that are ready to compete and serve customers shift BAs from defense to offense.

A proactive BA approach, minimizes the impact of disruption. Take some time today to think about the impact of your project on the various user groups. I find this impact analysis is often a missing link in our requirements practices and I hope my personal story this week helps show how much this matters!

PS-I returned home last night, and my house is still standing, but my Christmas gifts will be late and probably a little smoky.