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Author: Adrian Reed

Adrian Reed is a true advocate of the analysis profession. In his day job, he acts as Principal Consultant and Director at Blackmetric Business Solutions where he provides business analysis consultancy and training solutions to a range of clients in varying industries. He is a Past President of the UK chapter of the IIBA® and he speaks internationally on topics relating to business analysis and business change. Adrian wrote the 2016 book ‘Be a Great Problem Solver… Now’ and the 2018 book ‘Business Analyst’ You can read Adrian’s blog at http://www.adrianreed.co.uk and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/UKAdrianReed
BATimes_July17_2024

Contribution as a Form of Professional Development

As practitioners of change, we are probably all acutely aware that we need to continually develop. There is always more to learn, and there are countless ways of learning it. The fact that you are reading this article now, on a business analysis website, shows that you are interested in your professional development—and kudos to you for doing so! After all, it is those that develop and keep up to date that will thrive in an increasingly competitive environment.

 

However, professional development is often seen as a consumption-based activity. Ask a typical BA what development activities they have undertaken recently, and they’ll likely respond by telling you about articles they’ve read, training they’ve been on, webinars they’ve watched and so forth. All of these are fantastic ways of hearing different perspectives, and it is great that there are so many cost-effective (and free) options out there.

 

From Consumption to Competence (Through Practice)

Yet consumption alone rarely enhances a skill. I could ‘consume’ (read) a book about how to fly a passenger jet, yet you probably wouldn’t trust me to fly one if that’s the only experience I had. In fact, even if I’d been on a one-day course and we’d done some group-work simulating flying, you’d probably argue that isn’t enough. And of course you’d be right, pilots (presumably) need lots of time in the simulator, and hours flying generally, before they are qualified to fly a commercial airliner.

 

Although you or I are unlikely to be racing to the cockpit of an Airbus A380 any time soon, it’s likely that we will need to learn new skills, techniques and concepts. The broader point here is that just reading about them, or watching a YouTube video about them isn’t enough. Actually using them is crucial. This is where the ‘rubber meets the road’, where even more learning happens, as the technique or concept is put into practice within a particular context. It’s often the case that some adaptations are necessary—a technique that works just fine in the classroom may need some finessing to work in the real world. And that’s just fine, deliberate and selective adaptations to the nuances of the world are precisely what we should do as analysts.

 

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From Competence to Contribution

It’s often been said that if you want to really test your knowledge of something, try and explain it to others. There is a strong element of truth in this, as anyone who has ever created a presentation or training course will tell you! Putting together an article or presentation tends to highlight any gaps in thinking, and it’s an opportunity for reflection.

This is where contribution to the BA community can become part of a deliberate professional development strategy. Perhaps there’s a technique that you’ve mastered: that would be a fantastic topic for a ‘skills exchange’ session with your colleagues. Perhaps that would involve a short presentation and a Q&A. Your colleagues would learn about the technique, within the context of your organization and by creating the presentation (and responding to the Q&A) you’d likely learn more too.  A real win/win.

It’s possible to go even further. While we may be members of a Community of Practice within our organizations, we could also consider ourselves to be members of a global Community of Practice of interested BAs. You and I are connected via this article and this website. Others are connected through social media networks such as LinkedIn.

 

This provides us with the opportunity to write, blog, create videos and share experiences with people outside of our organizations too. Of course, it’s crucial not to share anything confidential or commercially sensitive, but sharing ‘how to write a user story really well’ or ‘how I used use cases to clarify complex requirements’ is unlikely to be controversial! It also has the advantage that it helps us all to connect with other interested BAs around the world. Hitting the ‘publish’ button can be scary, but the act of creating something is hugely worthwhile, and others will benefit from it.

Incidentally, if you’re reading this thinking “I’m too inexperienced to write or create anything” or “I don’t have anything worth writing about”, in my experience you are probably doing yourself a disservice. BAs tend to be somewhat modest, and everyone has an interesting professional story to tell!

 

Take a Blended Approach

Community contribution can be part of a blended professional development plan. Alongside consumption and practice, it can be a great way of reflecting, while also sharing experiences and building BA networks.  The nature of the blend will vary depending on practitioner, but considering the options is key.

And if you do decide to create and share something, be sure to connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know about it!

BATimes_July04_2024

Beware Indecision Inertia: The Importance Of The “Do Nothing” Option

Organizational change can be hard. People get into routines, and convincing people to adapt the way that they work can be difficult. This is a seemingly human trait: think about how hard it can be to adapt when an icon or menu option moves in a new version of Windows. We have probably all taken a while to adapt to things like this, occasionally wishing that we could reinstate the older version of the software that we are so used to. If even a simple change like this can cause initial confusion and frustration, no wonder a larger change such as an office move or process change can be challenging.

When a potential change is being discussed, there are usually supporters and detractors. It’s important to understand the different perspectives, and work together to understand the best way forward. Yet beneath the overt support and reluctance, there are other subtler things to look out for too.  One is indecision inertia.

 

What is indecision inertia?

Although you might never have heard the term ‘indecision inertia’, you’ve almost certainly experienced it. Imagine a stakeholder needing to make a key decision, which is pivotal to a particular project progressing. It is a key dependency, and it is going to block progress if the decision is not made. They very reasonably ask for some data or a report in order to make the decision.

It takes some time to assimilate the information provided, but when it is played back to them (with a recommendation) rather than making a decision, they ask for more information. Or they raise a set of new questions, and more investigation is required. On the one hand, this is useful as they are helping to mitigate risks. On the other hand, it sometimes feels like the ‘can is being kicked down the road’.

Put simply: Sometimes the perception is that the least risky thing to do is nothing. In order to build a case for doing something a stakeholder might feel there needs to be watertight evidence and data. Yet, in reality, ‘watertight’ data rarely (if ever) exists. Can you say for certain the benefits that a project will bring? Or how long it’ll take? Or how much it’ll cost? Sure, these things can be estimated, based on a set of assumptions, but any certainty that is provided is entirely illusionary.

 

Indecision inertia occurs when the path of least resistance is doing nothing even though, when analyzed holistically, that might not be the most appropriate thing to do.

Incidentally, this pattern plays out in personal life too. People sometimes stay in jobs longer than they should (I know I did!) for fear of the ‘risk’ of applying elsewhere. People keep the same old car for too long, even when the maintenance is a nightmare, because it’s the car that they know and love…

 

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The Role Of Holistic Analysis

This is an area where business analysis is crucial.  In many cases ‘doing nothing’ isn’t a cost-free, or risk-free option. Imagine an organization running an older, legacy, packaged IT system that is going into extended support. Soon it’ll be out of support entirely. It’s been extended and customized over the years, and the development team affectionately define it as a ‘bag of spanners’. It works, it’s reasonably reliable (at the moment), and the prospect of spending money to replace it is a hard decision to make.

Yet doing nothing will lead to increasing maintenance costs, risks that it’ll become unmaintainable, and when support eventually expires there won’t be security patches and updates which leads to an even more worrying risk. Just like a beloved old car that is kept too long and breaks down at the worst of all times leaving its passengers stranded, this beloved old IT system might implode, get hacked, or develop other issues at the worst time. And if it’s a core system, every minute it is down is probably costing significant sums…

 

This is a hypothetical example, but it shows the importance of understanding that doing nothing is an option, and it has costs, benefits and risks associated with it. This is important as it is a way of reframing the decision.  Often a decision is seen as:

  1. Stay as we are (which is safe, and nobody gets sacked for doing nothing)
  2. Do something risky / costly (and put the sponsor’s neck on the line if it goes wrong)

 

Whereas, the real decision is often

  1. Stay as we are, and things will get progressively worse, riskier and more costly (and action will need to be taken at sometime)
  2. Do something, understanding the risks and costs (but do so at a time of our choosing, rather than when some major risk event forces us to)

This is simplified, but it illustrates the point.

 

Conclusion

In summary, change is hard, and decision-making is hard. As analysts, we can help decision-makers to make informed decisions. Analyzing and presenting the ‘do nothing’ option can be part of this.

BATimes_Jun12_2024

Beyond Jargon: Bridging the Gap Between Precision and Clarity

A while back, I was taking a flight from London City airport. It’s an airport I don’t fly from very often, and I was looking for a place to fill my water bottle. Unlike other airports, I couldn’t find a water fountain anywhere. The airport staff all seemed busy, so I did what any good BA would do, I took to Twitter (or is it X?) to ask the airport social media team where I could get some water.

I got a reply really quickly, with the social media team letting me know that I could get water from any food concession in the airport. So, I went to one of the food shops to grab some sandwiches and got them to refill my bottle at the same time. Problem solved.

However, another Twitter user pointed out at the time that it’s a little odd they used the term food concession and not food shops or food stalls.  I mean, what even is a concession? A little bit of digging uncovers this definition:

 

“A retail concession is a dedicated space within a single-brand store that is used by a non-related but complementary brand. Retail concessions are essentially shops within a shop…“ (Quote from Unibox site)

So here, the airport is technically correct. The food shops are technically concessions, they are ‘shops within a shop’, or in this case ‘shops within an airport’ (let’s face it, airports feel like one big shop these days!).

But who, outside retail, regularly uses the term ‘concession’? And in the context of my query, does it really matter that it’s technically a ‘concession’ and not a ‘shop’?

 

A Balance of Precision and Understandability

As it happens, I did understand what was meant, so this wasn’t an issue. But I wonder if a tourist who has a basic grasp of English would understand (this was an airport after all). It strikes me that with communication there’s a balance of precision and understandability.

Some terms will communicate things very precisely, but only to those who are within a domain. My career started in insurance: words like “cover”, “peril”, “loss’, “policyholder”, “insurable interest” have very specific meanings. Those things are important within the insurance company… but outside most people just want to “insure their car” or “protect their house”.  Of course, for all sorts of legal and regulatory reasons, there needs to be precise and formal T&Cs and policy wordings. But the way that the organization communicates needs to be in a way that’s understandable.

 

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Does Your Internal Lingo Accidentally ‘Trickle’ To The Outside?

This is an area where BAs can help. Often, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) will be defining the text that needs to appear on websites, letters, emails and so forth. SMEs are usually fantastic stakeholders with so much knowledge. They are great to have on board!

Yet, the challenge of having so much knowledge is they might forget what it’s like not to know so much. An SME who has worked in insurance for 30 years might not easily remember what it’s like to buy your first insurance policy. Yet, it’s likely that the solutions we define (and the communications that go out) will need to be understandable to someone completely new to insurance too.

Highlighting where internal lingo has inadvertently trickled to the outside world can be useful. Asking questions like “would an average customer understand this phrase?” or “what about someone who has never bought our products before, would they know what this means?” can help. Having a set of personas can be even more helpful.

 

Prototype, Test and Learn

Another stage that is often missed when defining and designing websites, emails, letters and other forms of interactions with customers is to take the time to test and learn. Showing a customer a rough prototype with the wording and seeing how they react would be a great way of getting an early steer. Prototyping a letter that is going to be sent to 150,000 subscribers and getting input from 100 might help uncover misunderstandings or ambiguities. This might save thousands of confused calls to the call center, and thousands of quizzical emails.

In summary, communication is always a balance of precision and understandability. Knowing the audience, testing and learning helps avoid miscommunication and misunderstanding. BAs are well-placed to foster these types of activities.

BATimes_Jun1_2024

How to Prevent Project Burnout Before It Strikes

I suspect many people reading this work on projects pretty continuously. It’s normal to jump from one project straight to the next, often without much time for reflection and decompression. In fact, you might be balancing multiple smaller projects at the same time. That’s a hard gig: typically each project has its own set of deadlines, and Project A’s sponsor doesn’t care that Project B has suddenly put extra demands on your time…

 

In situations like this, it’s easy to get into the vicious cycle of working longer and longer hours. Sometimes, for a very short and defined period of time, this might be OK. But when it becomes the norm, it can become unhealthy. When weekends become the ‘mop up’ time for all the emails you couldn’t clear during the week, and Monday is filled with a sense of dread, something is probably wrong. If you’re there at the moment, I feel for you. I’ve been there. I suspect we’ve all been there.

In this blog, I wanted to share some tips that can help avoid situations like this. Of course, we are all individuals and we all have different working patterns, so what works for me might not work for you. Certainly, you’ll want to adapt the tips below, but hopefully they’ll provide you with a useful starting point:

 

  1. Say “No” Effectively

There is rarely a lack of work to be done, there is a lack of time and attention to do it effectively. Say “yes” to unrealistic deadlines and there’s a risk that everything will be rushed and everything will be late.

Yet saying “no” sounds career-limiting, doesn’t it? Who would dare say “no” to a senior leader? Perhaps it’s all about how the message is given.  For example:

 

  • Say “yes, and here’s the impact”: Imagine you’re stretched and another task comes in. A way of responding might be to say: “I can absolutely do that, by that date. However, this will impact tasks B and C. Are you happy for this new task to take priority?”.
  • Say “Thanks for thinking of me, let me introduce you to someone that can help”: It’s easy to inadvertently take on the work that others might be able to do more effectively. Perhaps someone is asking you to pick up a support issue on a project that launched months ago and is now in ‘Business as Usual’ (BAU). A response might be “Thanks, it’s always really interesting to hear how things are going on that system! I’m somewhat out of the loop with that now, as the support team took over. It’s really important that these issues are logged with them, so they can track trends. Shall I send you over a link to the defect logging form? If you don’t get any response, feel free to follow up with me and I’ll connect you with my contact there”.
  • Say “No, but here’s what I can do (and offer options)”: Imagine a completely unrealistic deadline has been given. Saying yes will save short term pain, but will cause long term issues when the deadline is missed. A better option may be to say “I can’t hit that deadline (for the following reasons), however here’s an estimate of what can be done. Alternatively, with additional resource we could achieve this…”
  • Finally, a flat out “no” is fine sometimes: Not everyone agrees with this, but in my view, particularly when something is optional, it’s fine to say a flat out no. “Would you like to help organize the summer BBQ?”.  “No thanks, I’ve got a lot on right now, so that’s not something I’m interested in”. Of course, this needs to be delivered with rapport, empathy and respect.

 

There are many other ways, and it’s important to be aware of context and culture. What works in one situation will not work in others.

 

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  1. Find Ways of Recharging (And Make Time For Them)

We all have things that replenish our energy. For me, it’s exercise (whether that’s walking or going to the gym), reading and other hobbies. It will be different for you. The irony is that when things get hectic, often these are the very things that we jettison.  Don’t! Build them into your routine and make them non-negotiable.

 

  1. Celebrate Successes

It’s so easy to jump from sprint to sprint, delivery to delivery without actually reflecting on what was achieved. Celebrating even small successes is worthwhile. This doesn’t have to be a major event, just a lunch with the team, or some other kind of social event can help mark the milestone.

 

  1. Watch for Warning Signs

Finally, it’s important that we all look out for warning signs—in ourselves and others. I remember friend and fellow BA Times author Christina Lovelock talking about ‘digital distress signals’. Is someone emailing at 6am and then again at 10pm? Might that be an indication that they are overwhelmed?  If the person has an unusual work pattern (perhaps working before the kids go to school, and catching up in the evening) it might be totally fine. But if this isn’t the case, they might be pulling 14 hour days, and that’s got to be impacting them.

 

We all feel and experience overwhelm differently, and a little bit of stress is not unusual. There’s even a theory that a little bit of stress is good for you. But continuous stress is an issue, and it’s worth watching out for.

Of course, this article has only scratched the surface of this topic, but I hope you’ve found the ideas thought-provoking. I’d love to hear how you avoid burnout on projects. Be sure to connect with me on LinkedIn and let’s keep the conversation going!

 

BATimes_May23_2024

Learning to Love Compliance

OK, I’m going to let you into a secret here. I genuinely like compliance projects. You know the ones, those projects that people think are really boring because they relate to a change in regulation or legislation? The ones that it’s really hard to get people excited about? The ones that few BAs volunteer for? Yep, those ones!

 

Framed differently, there’s often a real opportunity to shape and scope things in a way that isn’t always the case with other (seemingly more exciting) projects. These projects can be career-enhancing, provide more autonomy and really don’t have to be boring. Or, at the very least, they don’t have to be as boring as they first appear! Let me explain…

 

Pain Reliever or Vitamin

I remember reading somewhere that one question that some Silicon Valley venture capitalists will ask startups when they are pitching for funding is:

“Is your product a pain reliever or a vitamin?”

 

You might think it is better to be a vitamin. Yet, apparently, the answer that investors are looking for is ‘pain killer’. Sure, we might take vitamins some days, but it’s easy to forget. But if you’re in pain, you will soon remember to reach for the pain reliever. So, solving a pain point will likely get people to reach into their wallet.

Think about a change in regulation or legislation. Most people who are part of the core business know they need to comply, but if we’re brutally honest, they probably aren’t that interested. A change in (say) data protection legislation is just a distraction to them. They probably don’t care how it’s solved, as long as it doesn’t disrupt them too much, and as long as it doesn’t cost too much.  In fact, they might even be worried that the legal & compliance team are going to be ‘heavy handed’ and create all sorts of bureaucracy for them.

 

This is an area where BAs can act as a real pain reliever. By working with the relevant business areas and the legal and compliance team, by working with stakeholders to understand enough about the business operations, the solution landscape and the legislation or regulation we can co-create innovative solutions. We can find a balance that works for the different stakeholders, and rather than just achieving compliance, might actually improve things for them too. Imagine that, a compliance project actually leading to improvements!  It is totally possible.

Crucially, we take away a distraction for them. We get far more autonomy and leeway to shape things precisely because they just want the pain to go away.

 

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Understanding The Problem

One of the things I love about compliance problems is the fact that business people usually haven’t pre-determined a solution. Other projects often come with an assumed solution attached (e.g. “Oh, we’re going to implement XYZ system, so we need you to write a couple of user stories”, leading to us having to work backwards to understand the problem).  Usually the brief is really broad (e.g. “Comply with the new Data Protection Act).

This leaves the BA with a significant amount of autonomy and latitude. There will be many ways of solving that problem, and defining the problem space is usually really fun and makes a huge difference to the success. The biggest challenge is people will often think that the impact is small, when actually it is actually far wider ranging. It’s therefore necessary to bring stakeholders along on the journey.

Although every compliance project is different, I typically find starting by identifying and having an understanding of the legislation or regulation is key. Of course, the BA does not need to be a legal expert, but we need to know enough to ask sensible questions and challenge. In many jurisdictions, legislation is written in (fairly) plain language, and you can even start to imagine some of the business rules/impacts that might be implied by it as you read it.

 

However, an important next step is to work with the relevant business and compliance stakeholders to determine the company’s interpretation of the legislation or regulation.  Rarely are these things completely prescriptive. You’ll find words like “appropriate” and “from time to time” and other phrases that show the intent without prescribing solutions. Particularly with new regulations this can be tricky, as there’s no existing convention or regulator judgements to base things on. Ultimately this is often a balancing act, and an area where good facilitation is key.

Ultimately, all of this leads us to a position where we can judge the impact on existing processes, applications, data and more. This is where the requirements or stories get written, but they will trace neatly back to an interpretation of a piece of the legislation or regulation. In many ways scoping can be easier on regulatory projects… a requirement either maps to a piece of the regulation or it doesn’t! (OK, it’s never quite that binary, but it is close).

 

Fringe Benefits

There’s still the challenge of selling regulatory projects to stakeholders. If we can’t get them excited about them, then there’s a chance their attention will wane and they won’t give us the input we need.

This is where our pain reliever/vitamin analogy comes in useful again. In fact, a good compliance project can be both.  A (hypothetical) project to comply with new data protection legislation might ensure we avoid million dollar fines (pain killer) while also providing us the opportunity to cleanse our existing data, so reports are more accurate (pain killer) and we have more flexibility on how we capture future data (vitamin).  This is just an example, but I am sure you get the gist.

So, have I changed your view of compliance projects? Either way, connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know. I’d love to hear your views!