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Author: Bob Prentiss

Crucial Conversations: How to Effectively Discuss What Matters Most

“How would you feel if a house fell on your sister?”
Elphaba (WWOTW)

Let’s face it, there are just some conversations that you don’t want to have. There are some people you simply don’t want to talk to, but what happens when we don’t have these conversations? Everyone loses! It is perfectly natural for us to avoid difficult conversations. We fear rejection, retaliation, emotional outbreaks, the dismissal of our ideas, and of course those incredibly awkward moments where everyone around you stares at their feet thinking “God I am glad that’s not me.” However, these conversations need to be had and the Badass Business Analyst will have them. If we want healthy, productive teams and projects, crucial conversations must be had frequently. You can’t just keep ranting, raving, complaining and avoiding, you need to start having meaningful, persuasive conversations that make an impact. You need your ideas to be heard, and more importantly you need behaviors to change. Don’t you think its time you and I have a crucial conversation? Suddenly I feel like I have turned into my father. Sigh. For the record, all of his crucial conversations were always too late, which is maybe why I am so passionate about this particular chapter in my book (the longest chapter by far – okay, moving away from from therapy now).

At the time I am writing this book and this particular chapter, it is March of 2016 and we are embroiled in one of the ugliest Presidential campaigns I have ever seen. It is like the start of a joke that goes “A Democrat, a Socialist, and three Republicans walk into a bar…” I cannot think of five, more deserving individuals that need a crucial conversation, a spanking, and a very long time out in the corner. A massive amount of research has been done over the last 25 years on over 100,000 people and the results show that the most effective leaders are the ones that can skillfully address risky political and emotional issues. These are the people that know how to have crucial conversations with positive outcomes. However, true to form, these folks are operating off of the oldest approach to politics – the FUD principle; fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Fortunately, I know that the amazingly smart and talented readers of this book won’t cave in to FUD and are smart enough to know that they will learn how to have crucial conversations.

Defining Crucial Conversations

Let’s start with defining what a crucial conversation is. The dictionary says:

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There is of course the definition from the fantastic book “Crucial Conversations” that states:

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However, my take on it is a little different. Years of both failed and successful crucial conversations have led me to the following definition:

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At the end of the day, the point of having the conversation is to influence to a different result or a needed behavioral change and to do so means you must be strategic in your approach. It seems to me that the stakes are always high given our do-more-with-less culture, and when stress is high the opinions and emotions will always do what they do based on survival instinct. You need a strategy to deal with that.

Examples of Everyday Crucial Conversations

There are a lot of what I would call “obvious” crucial conversations that need to be had. Here a few:

Time to lose a roommate! The person who has bad hygiene
Recoup that “loan” that never gets repaid The person whose index finger has a home address of 1 North Nose Lane
Um… you cheated (at everything?) Telling the boss they are basically not a good boss
Your child who doesn’t get it and refuses to communicate with you Critiquing a colleague’s work – evaluating their requirements
Those “holidays” – because we have all had them The team member who does not follow through
The in-laws – because we all have them! The person that finds creative ways to demean you
Financial needs/burdens The coworker who crosses the line (and crosses it, and crosses it)
The chores conversation – when is that trash going to get taken out? The giving or receiving of the not so favorable performance review
The “time to grow up” talks: sex, college, career, marriage, death Coworkers having/doing sex, drugs, alcohol, porn in the workplace

Most people who see the issues happening do not effectively confront and resolve them, mostly for two reasons:

  1. If they avoid it, it will go away.
  2. They don’t know how.

I have been fortunate or unfortunate as the case may be, to have experienced all of the scenarios above either on the receiving or giving side. Don’t let your imagination run away with you, I was not the “one” doing some of those scarier ones. For those of you who know me you will quickly point out that I do not have kids. I do. A “child” for me happens to mean two, beautiful four-legged Shih-Tzu’s named Lady and Maggie. Remember my father’s conversations being too late? Yup – sex, college, career, marriage, death, all too late and mostly because he was hoping they would go away. Good thing I was an accelerated reader and watcher of my siblings making mistakes that I avoided duplicating!

The problem with communication is that you don’t know when people are going to break down or do something unexpected. Some of the scenarios above may never happen at all or several can happen all at once. What is inevitable though is that some of them will happen in a business scenario at some point and you need to be prepared for them. That means we have to be able to communicate effectively and well, we will chat more about that in due course.

Types of Crucial Conversations

There There are three types of crucial conversations that you need to consider:

A 1-time incident. It happened and was done. A repeated incident. You start to see patterns of emerging behavior. The patterns of behavior have become consistent and you start to question the intent of the actions.

These types of crucial conversations are the signs that something is not quite right. They are objective evidence that something is happening. So what is the real problem then? Is it that they do something we don’t like? No, the problem is that we don’t address the issues and we let bad behavior rule us. So we are the problem. Remember, not everyone is aware that they are displaying bad behavior. Keep in mind that crucial conversations will not solve all the worlds problems, nor will they reach everyone. Some conversations will simply never be had because people are not open to them or they don’t care.

Additionally, crucial conversations are NOT therapy. Sometimes through the process of trying to have a crucial conversation people will seek out that additional guidance they feel they need in life. However, if you go down the therapy route you will distort the purpose of the conversation and you will become the go to person for every crisis that will arise in the other person’s life. Are you ready for that kind of investment in the relationship?

Types of Crucial Conversation People

People often end up in three categories: Resistors, Neutrals and Engagers.

I don’t agree with you Let’s see what happens Yes!
What’s in it for me?
Just do the minimum What’s in it for me?
Probably a lot
Sounds bad to me I won’t take sides Let’s do this
Well that is stupid Maybe? I’m good going on great
Why? Outwit, outlast, outplay I can learn from this

You need to recognize the type of person you are dealing with to help devise your strategy for having the conversation. Take the type of person, the type of conversation, and the scenario you are in and you have some really good information that you can start developing a strategy for the conversation you want to have.

5 Critical Concepts for Your Crucial Conversations

1. Remove Your Roadblocks

There are the ‘obvious’ crucial conversations that people should have and the not-so-obvious ones. It is the latter that, if not identified will have long-term damaging effects on your work, your relationships and the work culture you live in. These are your roadblocks. Have you ever thought about the idea that these roadblocks – the very things that get in your way of getting the results you need; are actually the crucial conversations you need to have? Additionally, think about your stress levels. How much stress do you have in your life? Imagine a small, pink, super bouncy rubber ball is an example of what you typically expect for a manageable level of stress. Now let’s move up to a large, lime-green Pomelo (grapefruit), which represents a level of stress that you often feel might be too much but you find a way to survive it. Finally let’s imagine a large, ready-to-burst balloon, representing a tremendous amount of stress that could POP at any time. The more stress in your life means the more crucial conversations you need to have to reduce that stress. The balloon is the warning system of much needed crucial conversations. A Badass Business Analyst is keenly aware that when they are unable to move forward they need to have crucial conversation to remove roadblocks. Someone, somewhere does not understand the goals, objectives or vision of a product or project and nothing is moving forward. Stress levels are going up!

Have you ever tried to have a crucial conversation with your parents when you were young? How did it go? Probably about as well as mine did, which was not very well at all. Today perhaps, I am more keenly aware of roadblocks and stress levels because of my upbringing. When you grow up poor you feel like everything is a road block, that everything and everyone is against you. I remember several crucial conversations with my parents as a child. A strong desire to convey changes in their behavior (not mine) so that I could get what I wanted. Naturally, I was asking for things that they could not give. One will not bet getting a Stretch Armstrong for Christmas when the family needs to eat and pay the mortgage! Still, I really felt I was making a compelling case; the other kids had one, I was the social outcast just like Rudolph or Hermey (please tell me I do not have to explain that reference) and therefore, I needed a Stretch Armstrong to fit in. What I lacked was an understanding of what was really a roadblock in my life, what battles to pick and who I needed to talk to. I had not yet mastered the art of going to Mom instead of Dad or blaming the dog for eating my homework. What I needed was a fundamental understanding of influencing, negotiation, and critical thinking skills. So how did the crucial conversation with my mother go? Well, she turned the tables and had the crucial conversation with me about money and the importance of savings. After one crucial conversation at age 10, I became a janitor for the company where my mother was employed. Let the savings, learning of new skills, and work ethic lessons begin! Nothing like cleaning toilets and ashtrays at age 10 to build some strong work ethics. By the time I had enough money to buy Stretch Armstrong, I had completely forgotten about him.

Want to figure out what roadblocks are really in your way? Start by work backwards. Look at the results that you are not getting. As you trace the results backwards you will pinpoint missed opportunities for crucial conversations. Do a root cause analysis to help you learn how to read the signs that you did not see at the time. Still not seeing the roadblocks? Analyze what really causes you stress in your life. The results might be surprising indeed.

2. Conviction

Having the courage of conviction is not always an easy thing to embrace. You will have to find conviction if you are going to see a crucial conversation happen. Most people avoid crucial conversations. Can you blame them? People are very complicated, difficult, different, unpredictable, and scary. If we avoid them, everything will simply work out in the end, right? It is up to you to address it – no one else is likely to do so and everyone loses if you do not. Remember this is not a conversation to lay blame or say that everything is wrong. It is about something not working as needed. Notice I said “needed” and not expected?

Expected puts it in the blame category. “Needed” puts us in the category of “we are in this together and let’s work collaboratively to determine how we can all win”.

Before you lose sight of your end goals, remember that you need to ensure you focus on what is really needed; for you, for others, and for the relationship. Now that you are moving forward with the courage of your conviction, make sure you stay away from thought processes that offer conditions are your actions.

This is where you have a positive but only if it is attached to a negative. For example:

Yes But…
I will do “X” Now I don’t have to do “Y”
We will achieve “AA” Therefore we can avoid “BB”
Because I should not have to

These types of scenarios just introduce new roadblocks and will take you two steps backward. You need to be in the I WILL column without any additional conditions.

Also be aware that too much conviction can lead you to situational blindness. Situational blindness is where you get so fixated or assured of the situation you become unaware of changes in the situation. Ever play blind man’s bluff? I did as a child and I went for it with gusto. I also ran into a bike with that blindfold on and chipped a tooth in half. OUCH! Still hurts to this day. It is a great reminder for me to be strategic and balance my conviction with overzealous behavior. At the same time, I will follow my heart and intuition.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” 
Steve Jobs

3. Look Both Ways

You know how you were taught to look both ways before you crossed the street? Admittedly, looking both ways was not my strong suit as a child. When I was 6-years old I got my first bicycle. A brick-red, German-made contraption whose pedals would stick and required a tremendous amount of momentum to keep it going. Pretty sure the bike had been in an accident and my father got it for free. As luck would have it one day, I was riding my bike home and I needed to cross the street. I looked both ways – nothing in sight. I start across the road. My pedals immediately stick and I am now moving at the speed of a tar pit. Next thing I know, I was hit by a motorcycle, flew over 30 feet in the air from one corner of the block to the other, landed on my head, while the entire neighborhood watched including my parents. Not a good day. Now why a motorcycle is doing 60 MPH on a small neighborhood road in a tiny town and can’t see a fat child on a bright red bike I will never know. I was paralyzed for 30 hours without any certainty of a positive outcome but somehow I woke up, and walked out of the hospital the next day with a bad concussion. If both the motorcyclist and I had been better at looking both ways we would have saved everyone a tremendous amount of stress, headache, and memories. Yes, memories. This accident wiped out almost every memory I had prior to age seven so looking both ways really is a good lesson to embrace from this story! That and it explains so much about me, right?

There are two things you need to look for:

  1. Learn to look for the signs of when a conversation is about to turn crucial (think nuclear).
  2. Look for signs for when a conversation should not be pursued at that time.

Looking for signs a conversation is needed include: silence, avoiding of issues, withdrawing from the conversation, lack of participation, attacking behavior, control issues, physical distractions, and emotional outbursts. Of course there are many other signs but you need to pay attention to determine if, and when you will need to have a crucial conversation. These are all “triggers” for people that something is not right. You will want to head them off if you can.

You also need to look for signs that the crucial conversation should be delayed. Timing is everything. Not everyone is ready or going to agree to having a conversation right away. They include: hesitancy, depression, they say no, they say they are not ready, nervousness, jumpy, they are prone to violence, and emotional outbursts. Some of these things you can find out by asking them gently. Some of them will require you to do some sleuthing out through other channels (friends, colleagues etc.). What happens if you ignore these signs and you do pursue a crucial conversation?


Are all people comfortable with having a crucial conversation? Of course not. However, just because you think you are ready to pursue it does not mean the other person is ready to receive it. When there are signs that a crucial conversation is not welcome, or simply people do not feel safe to do so, all productivity crashes, engagement stops, and people shut down. People need to feel safe and unthreatened before a conversation like this can take place. They also need to be able to tell their side of the story without too much emotion. The worst thing you can do is push for your point of view or personal need when they are not ready. If you hear yourself saying “I need to know now” ask yourself “why?” because the pursuit of your happiness at their expense will likely damage the relationship to the point of no return. If you felt a tremor in the force of a roadblock before, you now have a roadblock the size of the Death Star!

Make sure you stay away from any words and phrases that start with “I”. About the only one that might be okay is “I’m sorry” and even then there are likely better ways of saying you are sorry. Find a mutual purpose and approach for the conversation. “We, we can, we are” are all good starts to better communication. You have to probe to see if people are ready for the conversation. Think of the following before you pursue the conversation:

Is it really the time to “pounce”?
Gently ask when a good time is?
Ask a mentor or coach about the situation. How do they perceive it?
You need to follow up – you can’t let it go so change the date.
How long is too long? When will you set the date?
Beware of Stockholm Syndrome. If you wait too long you might start believing their side of the story.

4. Get Your Stories Straight (Use Your Words Bob)

There are signs it is not working. People start with “Its not my fault” and “There is nothing I can do”. Somewhere along the way, something has been lost in translation. Did you lose your story? Did the facts get bloated? In order for a crucial conversation to work, your “story” has to be coherent with a beginning, middle and an end that is based in fact using solid communication skills. Lose the storyline and you lose the crucial conversation’s desired results. It also does not matter how good the story is if you cannot communicate it effectively. Try the following:

  • Understand what your role is in the story – are you a part of the problem? Offer up ways to help.
  • Stick to the facts. Understand what people see, hear, feel.
  • Tell the story in a way that keeps you from being emotional. Keep yourself grounded.
  • Ask for their viewpoint of the story. You have to get both sides.
  • Ask yourself what would a reasonable person do in the situation?
  • Don’t let either side play the victim card. Woe is me!
  • Don’t let either side play the villain card. You are the problem!

Using our words and stories is about how we communicate. It seems with increasing regularity that people cannot communicate at all. Do you ever wonder why we can’t communicate? Here are two examples (of which there are many to consider) why communication is complicated:

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Emojis and texting acronyms. Communication was hard enough to do before these little wonders came about. Why did we feel that going back to hieroglyphs was a good method of communicating? Yes, I get it, unicorns, rainbows, smiley faces and poo with eyes are cute but I just about lose it trying to decipher a string of emojis.

There is a reason I now own a texting dictionary of acronyms. I remember the first time I encountered YOLO. For some reason I could not decipher it so I looked it up in Urban Dictionary. Imagine my shock and surprise when I read the definition of “you obviously lack originality”. Whhaaaaaaa? My blood was BOILING! How dare they! I am a creative type through and through, the insult, the injury, the… oh get your head out Bob and look again. Of course as I kept reading, the next definition made total sense. “You only live once.” Which is why I say “use your words Bob”.

Who needs words right? Everyone will know exactly what I am saying if you read: “BOCTAAE, and many people DRCOWOTO, but I say GYHOOYA and GOTDPWYD. That is a CC that everyone should have. I mean, RUMCYMHMD. Not smart bruh. Seriously though, PNATTMBTC, he just wants you to TCOY. And next time PDS during your CC and remember, IYCSSNASDSAAA. Okay, well it was GSYJDWURMNKH.


Communication is difficult enough indeed without the added complication of translating emojis or acronyms. There are however, all sorts of good communication techniques that you will need to employ to have crucial conversations. Here are a few that you will need to use regularly:

 Priming  Probably the most important is priming. It is about educating them, prepping them, getting them ready. If you do not give them context for what is about to happen it will fail. The number one reason for all project and communication failure is lack of context. This can be done over time or all at once. It depends on your strategy for holding the conversation.
 Asking  Its just like interviewing. Don’t ask inflammatory questions. Ask for facts. Be respectful. 
 Paraphrasing  Make sure they know you are listening. Paraphrase what they said in different words and if they agree you are good to move forward.
 Mirroring  Mirroring 3 ways – like paraphrasing, we often use mirroring to let people know we are listening and we understand. Mirroring is a retelling of exactly what they said back to them. However, we can also mirror body language and emotions. It puts people at ease and shows you are relatable. Also, I use mirroring as a delay tactic. Example: They say “slip slime shore snarg sluff store shelf”. What was that? What do I do now? I don’t want the conversation to come to a halt so I mirror what they said as a delay tactic to allow me time to think of what to ask them. “So what you are saying is slip slime shore snarg sluff store shelf?”
 Listening  Listening at all cost – like you have never listened before. The slightest little detail missed can lead to conflict or lack of understanding.
 Silence  The power of silence – yes, just shut up. Let it sink in. Whether it is their point or yours sometimes silence really is golden.
 Empathy  You have to care. If you don’t, what is the point?
 Speaking Equally  No one is better than the other. This is difficult to do if the crucial conversation is about demeaning or condescending behavior. Keep going. You will model the behavior you want them to emulate. Remember, you have to make it a safe environment and speaking equally will help do that.

5. Actions and Accountability

Crucial conversations will mean absolutely nothing and have all been for naught without a call to action and accepting accountability. Who does what, when, and how it will happen, followed by a checkup on how this process is working are key to the success of the crucial conversation. Here are some tips to ensure that action is taken and accountability happens:

  • Understand the flow of accountability – who has to do what?
  • What is your call to action? There needs to be a call to action. Just do it! Buy now! What action do you want them to take? It really does have to be spelled out and not inferred.
  • You have to have a goal going into this – what are your goals and objectives? Do you know what success looks like and how it will be accomplished?
  • Who can help them be accountable? Check with colleagues, mentors and peers to determine who they listen and respond to when it comes to accountability.
  • Don’t assume they WILL follow through but assume they HAVE good intent – lots of things get in our way, stuff comes up, life happens. Assume that they will have good intent about following through but check up on them. If they do not, then they move into the “pattern” type of crucial conversation.
  • If it goes wrong think about what you did not do – it may indeed be something you did not do and not them. Walk through it and relive it to see what you can see.
  • Practice… Practice… Practice… – this is not someone you get good at overnight. It takes time to learn how to control our emotions, how to say non-inflammatory things, how to avoid blame-storming, stopping the blame-shaming and sticking to a fact-based approach.

One Last Thing

Remember that translation of texting acronyms? I wonder how many of you looked it up online first? Did you really think I would leave you hanging and promote bad communication?

It translates to: “But of course there are always exceptions, and many people don’t really care one way or the other, but I say get your head out of your ass and get off the damn phone while you’re driving. That is a crucial conversation that everyone should have. I mean, are you on medication ‘cause you must have missed a dose. Not smart brother. Seriously though, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, he just wants you to take care of yourself. And next time please don’t shout during your crucial conversation and remember, if you can’t say something nice about somebody don’t say anything at all! Okay, well it was good seeing you just don’t wear your monkey hat next time! Talk to you later.

So at the end of the day, the Badass Business Analyst knows that there is always room to be a better person. Try having a crucial conversation to prevent and change bad behaviors – and I truly believe you will be.

Are You a Design Illusionist?

As business analysts, we are often in the fray of designing.

Whether it’s a user interface, report or data fed from one system to another; business analysts create interfaces with human beings and systems. Our design choices impact users and other systems in a very real way. This power can go unnoticed even in our own minds.

Have business analysts become illusionists and pickpockets? Both these skill sets require some of the same sleights of hand. The illusionist uses the blind spots and limits of human vision to fool us. If you haven’t had an opportunity to watch the show called “Brain Games” – give it a whirl. It does an excellent job of explaining how an illusionist can fool our sight and point of view. For the pickpocket, it’s the distraction of a conversation, a tap, or a bump to set your mind off in the opposite direction of where you should be focusing while a sleight of hand takes your wallet.

Are we as business analysts playing a role of illusionist and pickpocket when designing our interfaces? Let’s look at interfaces (such as screens and reports) in a broader sense. An interface in my mind is the presentation or “stage” an illusionist would use.

We all believe we have choices and freedom. Everyone in the western world most firmly believes they have great freedom of choice in being able to do whatever is desirable, affordable and of course legal. You can go just anywhere and do just about anything. But when confronted with a system, website or application with a menu of choices, we fail to see how we are hijacked.

We rarely ask the questions:

  1. What is NOT in the interface? Or why are these my only choices?
  2. What is the purpose or goal of this interface? What is it used for?
  3. Why are these options higher or lower on the interface? More visible or less visible as other choices?
  4. Are these choice empowering me or just distracting me from doing what I need to accomplish?

If you have every used a search engine like Google or an application like Yelp, you get a sense choices are made for you and only certain things are being presented for your attention. I have been told the nearest restaurant or gas station is several miles away – all the while standing right in front of one! I usually chalk it up to “well they must not have gotten into the database yet” but now I’m leaning more to thinking I’m being fooled by the choices I’m presented.

Back in the ancient days at the dawn of computerized civilization – something like 40 years ago for you youngsters – computers were called mainframes. Mammoth monsters that would manage large amounts of data, electricity and generate a lot of heat. They required a forklift to move and had to be water cooled.

In those ancient days of computer myths and data Gods, there was but the humble green screen. To get to all the crap stored in that giant mainframe required you to issue the magic commands. By locating the secret words in the sacred text called “Command Line Reference,” you could instruct the mainframe beast to perform feats of great wonder. In other words, there was a giant three-ring binder with all these commands listed in alphabetical order that you were required to memorize and type correctly. The mainframe didn’t tolerate spelling mistakes, and there was no such thing as auto correct. No Google-like “Is this what you mean?” ever appeared on the screen. Even the help key which was supposed to provide assistance rarely did. This was the world of complete freedom from “the menu.” All the commands were in the book and available and granted they didn’t cover everything you wanted to do, but they did cover a lot of stuff you needed to perform. Yes, you had to memorize a boat load of command line syntax because the mysterious book appeared and disappeared as it desired, but you never felt limited rather you just felt a need to search for the right command.

Enter the age of the personal computer. For simplicity, the command line went away. The mouse was born. There was nothing more entertaining than watching grown men in a room holding the mouse with both hands tightly but gently trying desperately to get that arrow moving in the right direction on the screen. “This mouse thing will never catch on” they grumbled. Suddenly the command line was gone, and menus or buttons presented to us. These were your options. Your only available commands. It didn’t take long before I missed my giant 3-ring binder of commands that gave me all the power.

Over time we became to believe that only the commands we could see were the ones of importance. We would become less and less frustrated at not seeing the things we needed. We are restrained by choices of actions presented. Our perception came to be that if it wasn’t presented, it wasn’t available.

So let’s take this into the modern smartphone age. The other night friends and I were out at a restaurant having a great conversation. The restaurant was closing because it wasn’t that busy and the owner wanted to call it a night. We asked each other the question “let’s continue this conversation – where should we go?”. We all pulled out our smartphones pulling up Google, Yelp, and the other thousand apps on our smartphones looking for a place that was open late. This searching went on for 15-minutes or so. Now I can be a bit impatient with technology and frankly don’t always find it of much help in situations like these. I quit my search letting the others wade their way through the digital data flowing around with smartphones. Then I looked up.

A beautiful park lay right before our eyes across the street, and we didn’t even see it. We believed our only options to find some place were those our smartphones provided. Did those applications tell us about the park? Not one. How about that food truck with the fabulous desserts? Nope. Not a single one. Our illusion of having choices was broken. Sure we got a lot of options, but it was all about the pictures of the menu or comments from other people that distracted us from answering the exact question “Where should we go to keep talking?”. The menu or interface design didn’t answer our actual question at all. It created the illusion of choice by presenting a small subset of options. All said and done the park was bug-free which is a miracle in Minnesota some evenings. Dessert and conversation continued for hours in the street lamp lit park.

As business analysts or designers, it is easy just to limit user choices to a few as possible to send them down a well-defined and perfectly groomed path. But does that answer their question? How many times have you wanted to say “Siri – lead the way to a great evening with my friends!”. The response from Siri is, “I’m sorry I don’t’ understand what you are asking.”

There are a thousand paths to getting or achieving something. No matter how hard you try to make it simple, it just winds up being even more complicated. Or worse the real thing you need is hidden somewhere because someone felt it wasn’t’ important enough to warrant a button. Some of the best interfaces look very simple on the front end and have a rich set of commands just slightly inside of the interface. As a business analyst and designer, we need to give our users or community a rich experience with our application. Are we the illusionist – forcing users down only one path? Our accounting system has several ways in which to generate an invoice. From a customer contact screen, main menu, sidebar and I’m sure more options remain hidden in the accounting interface. As I watched the finance, customer service, and sales people utilize the user interface with the simple task of generating an invoice, I noticed something important.

Not everyone went about taking the same path.

Sales people always went to look at the customer inquiry screen first before generating an invoice. Individuals and their contact information were more important to them, and they would update it before moving on to creating an invoice. Customer service created invoices from the order screens as they were more focused on shipping products. Finance folks just clicked on the main menu option.

Know your users. They each have a story and a way of performing tasks that make sense to them. Think about their “persona” and what they need to accomplish. There is no single path to creating an invoice. Develop a list of capabilities and make sure they are not “hidden” from view. If it all doesn’t fit on a screen, find ways to expand the options for display when requested. Don’t fear including two buttons “Create Invoice” and “Add Invoice” which go to the same screen if it makes more sense to a broader audience of users. It is more about clarity for your users then consistency in terms.

What has a dinner in the park taught me? Smartphones are not as smart as we think they are. Everyone thinks they have choices, but don’t always see the most obvious choice because the choice is not presented in a way the user would understand. Question the choices presented and determine if they are the only choices.

Yes, I still miss my green screen terminal. CMD-1 key forever will mean “useless” help, and a blinking green bar on a black screen will always be a symbol of the endless possibilities to mistype ridiculously long string of text that doesn’t make sense to anyone. And that huge 3-ring binder filled with commands-a-plenty works damn good propping the door open.

9 Traits of an Incredibly Awesome Leader

There are hundreds of traits that make up a good manager, but here are the top 9 skills we recommend for a business analysis leader – or any leader in general.

1. See Design as a Differentiator

Anyone can design but not everyone designs well.  Who cares?  Frustrated users care.  Seeing design as important sets you apart from all other business analysts that don’t’ give it a second thought.  Build interfaces that are practical and good looking.  Don’t see design as something someone else does – it something you as a business analyst can do.

Related Article: 6 Things you can do Today to Prepare for Leadership Tomorrow

2. Build the Vision – Be Adaptable to the Approach

Build consensus and a strong vision for the outcome.  Share the vision of the outcome for the project far and wide to gain a common understanding within your organization on the vision.  Share frequently and share often.  Implementing the vision can take a thousand paths.  Be adaptable.  The way to realize your vision isn’t going to be on a clear cut path – there will be many forks in the road.  Understand that planning is important in elicitation of requirements and design, but it’s volatile and subject to frequent changes.  Create a planning approach the ensure your path forward is well understood, but balanced against overly complex and detailed planning.

3. Understand Your Customers & Users

At the heart of the vision lays the core user.  These are the users that interact with your applications, systems, and processes every day.  Without them everything just fades away or collapses.  Identify your core users then profile them to build meaningful interfaces and processes targeted directly at them.  Target your communications and marketing strategies for your vision and product to them very specifically.  Knowing how to turn the heads of your core users and get them to support your vision is critical to your success.  Once the core users are on board all the other types of users will fall into place.  Build a fan base.  Even an accounting application can have a fan base.  Fans support you and give you new ideas to build your vision.  Treat your fans well and they will support you through thick and thin.

4. Don’t Plan More Than 18 Months Out

Long term planning past 18 months is impossible.  Markets and organizations change too rapidly to have road maps or long term planning past 18 months.  The second you produce that 5-year plan it’s obsolete.  Keep fluid in your planning to reach your vision.  You may need to re-group or re-think your approach several times over.  It’s better to be aware that you need to change your approach and planning frequently than to forge ahead thinking it will be set in concrete. 

5. Plan, Perform, Evaluate, Adjust

We talked about planning above.  Here’s a cycle that works: 

  1. Plan It Out – choose your path to reach your vision.  Keep a Requirements Work Plan (RWP).  Build the consensus and understanding on the tasks you are performing for the project. 
  2. Perform the Plan – don’t let the RWP sit idle.  Work to carry out the tasks outlined and meet the dates you assigned yourself.  This builds trust.
  3. Evaluate continuously – be aware your best-laid task list could change in an instant.  Be aware of other activities or projects that are pulling you away from meeting your plan.  Check your progress against the plan and know when things are going off plan.
  4. Re-Plan Proactively – get yourself back on track and re-plan frequently.  Keep your team aware of the re-planning process and why re-planning was needed. Frequently re-planning is better than falling too far away from the plan and missing expected dates. There are no hard and fast dates no matter what the project manager tells you. 

6. Don’t Rely on One Method of Communication

Email is tried and true but not the only way to communicate out your status, projects success or potential changes to users.  Everyone is overloaded with email.  Find a new channel of communication to keep your project’s vision and potential organizational impacts visible.  Personal notes, open houses where anyone can swing by during a 2-hour period to ask questions, and even hallway meetings are a great way to communicate.

7. Focus on Opportunities – Destroy Problems

Only focusing on problems takes your eye away from opportunities that will bring better results.  Choose the bright side and be optimistic in your attitude.  New opportunities will present themselves. Be prepared to take advantage of them.  Find problems and get to the root cause – then destroy them.  Don’t focus on trimming a problem’s branches or cutting it down instead, kill at the roots.  Don’t let the problem linger around or give it the ability to grow back.

8. Carefully Build the Team – Build Strong Relationships

If you get the chance to choose team members, then choose carefully.  Listen to your gut feeling and don’t bring on board resources that you don’t or can’t trust – even if you can’t explain why.  It’s hard to put into words sometimes why you don’t trust.  Choosing the right members for the team will make or break the vision. Maintaining a team is equally important.  Spend time every week celebrating or gathering the team informally outside of the daily stand-ups or weekly status meetings.  Try to hold that meeting somewhere different and fun.  Even moving to a different conference room will oddly change the team’s perspective – especially if they are trapped in the same war room every day.  Always be grateful and reach out to say “Thank You”.    

Remember those different communication channels?  Don’t always email – try a hand written thank you card or just ask them out for a coffee to say thanks for their help.  Building the strong relationships get you through the tough times in a project. 

9. Know Your Strengths – Outsource Your Weaknesses

You are not everything to everyone.  Figure out your strengths and what you are good at.  Personality tests give you a hint but ask around.  Listen to what your colleagues, friends, and family believe your strengths are.  Play to your strengths – you’re strong at certain things for a reason.  Know your weaknesses – then outsource them or engage someone to help you overcome them.  Ask for help.  For extra credit build the project team knowing the strengths and weaknesses of everyone on the team to balance them out.

So here’s the truth.  As leaders and contributors in the Business Analysis field, these are the skills we need every day.

Pablo Picasso and Scope Visualization

Scope – the last frontier. We are on a mission where no business analyst has gone before. To explore strange new diagrams and to have the project scope clearly understood. Extra credit to those who remember which TV show that was from! Scope and context are the number one reasons business expectations about a project are not met and projects fail.

Let’s face the reality. Projects today are more complicated. In this integrated and connected world of systems, long gone are the days of the quick and easy change. Our organization’s architectural diagrams look like the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs. Symbols and shapes connected by lines that fill the wall of an entire room. Even trying to explain the diagram to someone can take days.

Related Article: Requirements in Context Pt 3: Scope = High-Level Requirements

Projects now require more involvement by more people. Our systems and processes are so complex and integrated it’s too difficult for one individual to understand them all fully. Stakeholders are flung across the globe speaking many different languages. Top it off with organization’s taking on hundreds of projects at the same time. Keeping track of each project’s scope and impacts to the organization are difficult to comprehend. It’s no wonder why understanding the context of a project’s scope is the number one reason why projects fail to deliver value. They simply lose sight of the project’s vision and goals in our complex systems and processes. Everyone is one a different page. We wind up spending a lot of time trying to get stakeholders, sponsors, and team members to have a clear understanding of scope.

So it’s no wonder that scope and context are the number one reasons projects fail. How can you get an entire project team moving in the right direction? Not understanding the scope and context of a project leads to all sorts of time being spent on just figuring out what we are trying to accomplish with a project.

So how do we get everyone on the same page? By that, I mean the same page in the same book!

It’s time to visualize scope. Scope places the boundaries around where the entire project team will work. Bust out that context diagram. Getting a common, clear understanding of scope and business expectations leads to better projects that deliver real value.

Is that user story a complete representation of the project boundaries or scope? Maybe not. The EPIC or a bunch of user stories combined together would be closer to the bulls-eye. A picture is worth a thousand words. Visualization of scope is worth its weight in platinum as it creates the vehicle to ensure a common understanding of the project scope.

Scope visualization isn’t just about a context diagram. That’s certainly a great tool and I blogged about it previously. Don’t get me wrong – I love my context diagrams. Pushing the envelope a bit, I have used infographics to display project scope in place of context diagrams. In a recent server upgrade project, I was updating the operating systems and consolidating over 1,300 servers. Sticking 1,300 servers on a diagram was an exercise in futility. There just isn’t a big enough piece of paper to display them all. So I pictured things at a higher level. I displayed each server farm as a farm – yup cows and red barn with farmer Joe. The size of the farm was based on the number of servers on that farm. Server farms were in specific locations, so this gave the project team a visual representation of which sites were going to be impacted more heavily. All of this was based on estimates from doing a high-level scan. Remember context is high level.

In each barn was an icon that represented a group of servers. There were 3 groups: leave it alone, upgrade it and consolidate, then retire it. I didn’t have exact numbers or server names at this point, but I knew the servers would be divided into those groups by talking with stakeholders. Servers were put into groups based on our best guess.

In the kickoff meeting, this was a great tool. Sponsor and stakeholders understood in the scope of the project. Yes, they wanted to know more. Everyone wants to know the details, but we were just starting out. Everyone walked out of the room with a pretty good understanding of the scope and estimated size. Many were surprised at the volume of servers in each farm. Overall the infographic did a good job of setting the stage for the project visually. All on one PowerPoint slide.

The idea of scope visualization is to present a single page to provide a high-level overview of the changes the project will make to systems, processes, and people. That’s no easy task. Taking the complex and making it simple is powerful. It creates a better common understanding of the project.

The business wanted a global CRM solution, but all they got were pigeons and index cards.

Context doesn’t just talk about scope – it also sets business expectations about the outcome of the project. It’s important to keep the communication channels open on what is happening with the scope and how the design is being implemented to meet the scope all throughout the project.

I take the concept of the context diagram a little farther than how most folks typically use a context diagram. You know me always pushing the envelope. Context diagrams usually explain the end state or the final outcome of the project. They show the scope of a project outcome.

Building on a good thing, I like to build a context diagram of the current environment at a high-level. Even at a high-level I’m often surprised at how differently stakeholders, sponsors, and team members view the current state. It’s a great tool to get everyone on the same page for the starting point. Having everyone on a different page for what we currently have will cause a few issues down the road in understanding the final destination. Knowing where you are starting from is a powerful thing when explaining where you want to end up in the future state.

Taking this concept even a bit further (and perhaps more uncomfortably) into the desired state. Not many projects really look at the desire of the stakeholders and sponsors. The desire is basically stated in the project request form or project charter. The sponsor and stakeholders put together a vision of the expected outcomes in these documents. A context diagram of the project charter or request which elaborates the vision is a powerful thing. It ensures what is being asked for is understood.

Don’t re-invent the wheel. Many times I take the current state diagram and just highlight the areas that are changing. Simply use color to highlight the add, modify or removes based on the context diagram for the current state. This visually explains where the changes are visualized to occur.

Now you may think I completely lost my mind at this point. Fear not, I’m taking a step even further. I take the context diagram that shows the desired state (based on the project charter or project request) and determine what is feasible. Everybody wants it all but the teleporter to zap you across the globe for break in Paris hasn’t been built yet. Reality always steps in and dictates what is feasible. Taking the context diagram, I highlight the areas that are NOT feasible. It’s a great way to level set the expectations of the sponsor, stakeholder, and project team members.

So when in the project lifecycle does all this context stuff happen? Ideally, it should happen before the project starts at a very high level. Wouldn’t it be great to start a project where everyone understood and was in complete agreement about the project outcome? You can bet it would save a lot of time running around trying to get everyone on the same page. Typically, the context is set at the start of the project.

As you move through the project, more and more understanding is acquired. Details need hammering out, and there is ALWAYS change to the project. Has anyone ever worked on a project with absolutely zero change? If you have, you are leading a very charmed existence. I’m jealous. Context diagrams can help evaluate how change would impact the project. So forget about laminating them and hanging them on the wall. They are living breathing documents that will change throughout the life cycle of the project.

The pitfall is that architects and others might expect diagrams that show the smallest of components. Don’t fall into that pit. Your job is to communicate the boundaries clearly but not make it so complicated a rock scientist from NASA can’t figure it out. Detail is important for design but scope context requires things to start at a very high level and be decomposed into more details. Context is simple with enough detail to make it clear.

Break out your inner Pablo Picasso and get creative. Find a way to display context or scope in a visually appealing manner. Color can help bring greater clarity. Highlight areas in different colors to bring focus to them. If a system is risky or greatly impacted by the project scope, highlighting is a technique to denote that risk. Black & White isn’t your friend. Studies have shown that color diagrams – even with a small amount of color – are more memorable.

Failing for Success

Failing never feels good because, well, it feels like failure. Nobody wants to fail. We are driven to be number 1, top dog and the big winner. Nobody has ever said, “Wow! That’s awesome! You failed!” The black and white checkered flag falls, and the winner is ordained. The fear of failure is so strong and painful that it’s amazing how far we will go to avoid it. Fleeing, running, hiding, or avoiding it all together.

We put ourselves into a make-believe world where no mistakes can be made, and we overwork ourselves to the point of exhaustion all in the name of ‘not failing.’ We keep ourselves deluded in the belief that failure isn’t an option, and we are at a loss on how to handle failure.

Being fearful of failure, we create elaborate plans to avoid it but it happens anyway. Systems, processes and people just don’t operate with 100% accuracy. If everything ran perfectly every time, we certainly wouldn’t need a helpdesk or second level support.

But failure isn’t as evil as we make it out to be. How did you learn to walk? You certainly just didn’t jump to your feet and start running a marathon. It took lots of trial and error to learn how to put one foot in front of the other to propel yourself forward. Even crawling took some trial and error! After we get on our feet, we forget that in order to get there, we fell, toppled, and wobbled our way to success. There wasn’t a surefire way to learn to walk. We had to fail in order to learn.

Related Article: Avoid These Phrases – Or Your Project Will Fail

Experimental learning has taught us that failure is the best way to learn. Remember back to the days you first started to learn something new like riding a bike. You didn’t do it perfectly the first time and probably fell a few times. Someone was there to pick you up off the ground and put you back on the bike. You learned by failure – that leaning too far one way or another will cause you to fall off the bike.

The last thing I learned was my home thermostat. It connects to the internet and allows me to control the temperature and fan from anywhere. After successfully setting up the thermostat, I started to play around with it. I failed multiple times trying to figure out some of the features. At one point I simply wiped it clean and started over. In learning how to fix the things, I also figured out some cool new ways I could save energy and use it better. I experimented, failed, and learned.

An interesting experiment was performed by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz a few years ago for the book “Fail Fast, Fail Often”. This experiment was simple. A group of students was divided into 2 groups. The first group was told, “You have 90 days to create was many clay pots as you can.” This first group or “Volume Group” was told to focus on volume and forget about quality. The other group was told, “You need to make one perfect clay pot.” The second group was the “Quality Group” and was focused entirely on quality and avoided any kind of volume. Both teams were told they were in a contest to see who could make the best looking and functional clay pot.

You would expect that the group focused entirely on the quality of clay pot would have the most well-designed pot because they were entirely focused on the design. Since the volume group was focused so heavily on just making pot after pot, odds are none of their pots would be that well designed.

At the end of the 90 days, both teams put all their pots out for judgment by a panel of clay pot artists and experts. I’m don’t know who these people are, but I will say they have one incredible niche job for judging just clay pottery. Can you even make money at that?

The surprising result was that the volume team that just made as many clay pots as they could won the competition. How is that even possible? Why did volume win out over quality?

The quality team has so focused on quality and creating the perfect design that they didn’t take any time to experiment or play with the clay. The volume team, on the other hand, interacted with the clay constantly. The first few clay pots produced by the volume team were damn ugly, but they continued to play and experiment. The volume team while trying to achieve a greater volume of clay pots actually learned more about creating clay pots and were more comfortable with the clay. So even though the volume team had a lot of failures, they succeeded and won.

Failure can make you stronger and more agile if you choose to learn from it. “That didn’t work – let’s try something different” attitude. This is the whole concept around failing fast. The faster you fail, the more you learn from that failure. Don’t fail just once, fail multiple times.

Failing safe is about creating an environment where experimentation and learning do not cause injury to yourself or your organization. Like in the experiment, an environment needs to be created in which experimentation can occur with wild abandon safely. No one was harmed in the making of clay pottery.

In the technology world, we use the term “prototyping”. Many prototyping situations in technology are severely limited. The environment is too confined or restrained for experimentation, and often very few failures occur to learn from. A better safe environment in on that this not restricted and open for experimentation.

Playing and changing everything in a production environment where your customer experiences your experiments has a tendency to make your customers unhappy. Build an environment where you can play without consequence. You may have to start over from scratch and rebuild the environment after a wild night of experimentation. Plan on creating a way to rebuild your safe environment quickly so that experimentation isn’t slowed down.

Create other safe and soft landing environments where you can bounce your ideas of others. Maybe your environment isn’t about a physical space or system but a room filled with flip charts and whiteboards.

Pulling together a group of colleagues to idea share, collaborate and innovate creates a safe environment as long as ground rules and expectations are set ahead of time. Set the expectations that experimenting and innovating is the goal. The more ideas, the better. We are not driving for perfection. It’s like a brainstorming meeting on steroids. Encourage crazy ideas and actually try it out. There are no judgments and the wildest crazy ideas are always welcomed.

Another tactic is to experiment with screen or report design by having multiple variations mocked up. The key is not just to focus on one mockup but to have many mockups. This allows the group to “riff” off each other by taking elements of different mockups and combining them together in new exciting ways.

One of my favorite tactics is user experience development and testing space. User experience folks will tell you it’s a preferred tactic to have users just play with your interface (screen or report) and watch how they use it. Gather a group and invite them to play or experiment with a design. The designers in the room are silently watching actual users interact with their design. The designers learn from watching the group play and experiment with the design. Designers then change the interface based on their observations. Rinse and repeat. One session is usually not enough. They key here is not to tell the user how to use the interface but to let them play and experiment freely in a safe environment.

A badass professional can open themselves up to new experiences so they can learn. They understand that failure can happen and work to create safe environments in which to play and experiment. Our culture needs to change the way we see failure. We must start seeing failure as an opportunity to innovate and not as something bad.

To succeed without learning is a failure. There are many instances in my life where I have executed a task perfectly the first time only to fail the second time miserably. Beginners luck can be a curse because you miss the opportunity to learn from failure. Only through failing do we truly learn.

A badass professional is reflective in their failure but not to the point of obsession. Look back and determine if there was a lesson to be learned. What went well? What didn’t go so well? What still baffles me? What if I did something different instead? Then get up off the warm fuzzy safe pillow in your safe environment and try it again. Remember you didn’t learn to walk without falling first.

Take the example of switching jobs. You prepare that killer resume and get in the door for an interview. You did your homework on the company and prepared yourself for the usual interview questions. It seems like everything went well but you didn’t get the job. Learning from failure requires being reflective or thinking about it. This shouldn’t be an all-day marathon conversation going around in your head. Jot down a few things you thought you could do better. Follow-up and get some feedback from the interviewer if you can or a colleague on interviewing better. You failed to get the job, but you succeeded in learning how to do it better next time.

Let’s build a strategy together on how to help your organization fail in a safely and fail faster so they can learn and drive innovative new solutions and approaches.