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Author: Bruce Harpham

Back To The Future: Two Ways To Develop Better Future State Skills

A key business analyst skill is describing the future state of a project. After the dust settles, what does the customer get? What will the website do? Articulating answers to these open ended questions is a key ingredient to the project planning process.

Producing a future state document requires creativity and strong relationships with stakeholders. In this article, I will cover both of those areas. By implementing these ideas, you will be able to make a greater contribution to your projects.

Tip: For guidance on how the future state concept fits into business analyst deliverables, read Sergey Korban’s article here, The Structure of Business Analysis Documents.

Improving your ability to develop the future state is a skill that has value beyond any one project. It is a way of training yourself to see opportunities. Rather than simply stating “improve process X by 5%”, you will have the capacity to ask bigger questions. Does it make sense to keep the process in place? There’s no point in improving a process that fails to create value.

Work Out Your Creativity Muscles With These Exercises

“Creativity is a great motivator because it makes people interested in what they are doing. Creativity gives hope that there can be a worthwhile idea. Creativity gives the possibility of some sort of achievement to everyone.

Creativity makes life more fun and more interesting.” – Edward de Bono

When you start a project, the desired future state is often vague. In the early stages, the project vision and project charter may still be under development. That is where your creative approach adds significant value. 

Here are six other ways to improve your creativity skills at work. Practice these ideas and you will soon become the most creative person on your projects.

  1. Ask “Why” three times. Asking multiple times is important because many people provide unhelpful answers at first (e.g. “that’s the way I was trained.”)
  2. Study products and services outside of your industry. Jim Collins and Jerry Porras write about Nordstrom’s legendary customer service in “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.” Part of Nordstrom’s success is due to training all staff in customer service.

    Industry provincialism – studying only what your immediate competitors do – is a sure-fire way to limit your creativity in coming up with new ideas.

  3. Read “The Ten Faces of Innovation” by Jonathan Littman and Tom Kelley to learn about how industrial design IDEO approaches product development. In reading the book, I found “The Anthropologist” concept the most interesting.

  4. What would the ultimate customer say about this project? When you work on projects, you may think of your customer as another employee of the firm. The ultimate end customer is the person outside the organization who hands over their money to buy products and services. Focusing on the customer is one way to cut through the complexity that plagues projects.
  5. Forget Constraints For A Few Minutes.
    Constraints – limited time and money – are an ever-present reality for business analysts. At times, “excessive realism” hurts more than it helps. What would your project achieve for customers if the CEO handed you a blank cheque? Aim to come up with at least ten ideas!
  6. Pursue Creative Activity Outside of Work.
    When you’re a driven professional, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about work constantly. For the sake of your own happiness, you owe it to yourself to periodically explore a creative activity.

If you work with Excel and PowerPoint all day, consider experimenting with painting, drawing or music. In addition to intrinsic benefits, these pursuits help me to relax. That way, I’m able to be refreshed when I return to the office.

Work On Your Interpersonal Skills To Build Better Relationships

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” -Peter Drucker

As knowledge workers, we communicate for a living. As you work on building a future state or a project vision, it is common practice to seek input from stakeholders. A large project could seek comment from sales, marketing, customer service, legal and other units. Some stakeholders will enthusiastically share their views while others will be taciturn.

As business analysts, we need to tools to work effectively with people. In the early phases of a project, you have the opportunity to build effective relationships. The following five tools and resources will help you work better with your stakeholders.

1. Get Your DISC profile and learn how to use it.

I learned about the DISC ( ) behavioural profile from Manager Tools. This instrument is extremely helpful in understanding your communication behaviours.

2. Take The Dale Carnegie Course.

One of the longest running business skills courses in the world, the Dale Carnegie Course comes highly recommended by Mary Kay Ash, Warren Buffet and Zig Ziglar. The course takes place over a number of weeks and offers ample opportunities to practice communication skills and receive feedback.

3. Talk About The Elephant In The Room.

Some people get nervous when analysts and project managers start talking about projects and the future state. The project can be seen as criticism of the people who run the status quo.

Address this concern openly by focusing the conversation on the future. Resist the urge to get embroiled in fights over the past.

4. Go Slowly.

Relationships with stakeholders are built over time. If you are meeting someone for the first time, they may be wary of you and the change you represent. Fortunately, you can build trust over time by keeping your word and communicating frequently.

Tip: Don’t rely on one mode of communication alone. For example, if you tend to use email, add occasional phone calls to your stakeholders to improve the relationship.

5. Practice Active Listening Behaviors.

Did anybody ever teach you how to listen effectively? It is not a skill that is widely taught despite its importance. Practice the foundations of active listening – maintain eye contact, take notes and periodically confirm your understanding verbally – to signal you are paying attention.

Tip: A classic active listening technique involves saying: “I understand that the invoice process takes up half your day – did I get that right?”

Discussion question: What is your favourite way to build the future state and get your projects started?

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

7 Business Analyst Lessons From The Godfather

harpman Aug18Business analysts have plenty to learn from “The Godfather.” Whether you’re the head of the Corleone crime family or leading an IT project, analysts and mobsters have a lot in common. Don Vito Corleone may not have used Excel and Microsoft Project, but he knew a lot about delivering projects and getting results.

Read on to learn important career lessons from The Godfather. I will be sharing key points of the story, so stop right now if you are concerned about spoilers from the movie!

1 – Why You Need To Build Your Reputation For Results

When you first think about the mafia and organized crime, you probably think about violence. Certainly, violence is part of the mafia toolbox. Interestingly, violence was not the ONLY tool that the Godfather employed.

As The Godfather went through his career, he built up a reputation for results. Whether it meant helping out the local grocer or a tenant, the Godfather delivered. His reputation gradually grew to the point where violence was rarely needed.

Persuasion and diplomatic tactics were enough for him to reach his goals.

Lesson: What is your reputation at the office? Do you have a reputation as a complainer or someone who delivers results? It’s a difficult question that needs to be answered.

If you’re unhappy with your reputation, don’t panic. You simply need some focused advice to improve. You need a trusted advisor for perspective.

2 – Recruit A Trusted Advisor

Everyone in the family respects the Godfather for his long experience. You could say that he is the subject matter expert in many aspects of the family business. Yet, he also knows that there are gaps in his knowledge. Running a mafia business entails confrontations with the criminal justice system. So, the Godfather wisely sought a dedicated lawyer.

Tom Hagen, lawyer and consigliere to the Corleone family, advises the Godfather on a range of matters. I also find it interesting that Tom is one of the few non-Corleones admitted into the inner circle. His trusted advisor status combines expertise with the detachment of being a non-family member. Business analysts can learn from Tom and the Godfather’s relationship. They are close enough that Tom can share difficult truths without few of reprisal.

Lesson: To grow your business analyst career, find a trusted advisor outside your organization who can give you an unbiased second opinion on challenges you face. It could be someone in a different firm or perhaps a friend from college who went to law school.

3 – Start With Subtle Communication

Communication is one of the most important skills that business analysts possess. Understanding technology deeply and the practical objectives of the business require empathy and careful consideration. Bluntly denying a user’s request for new features may be the right move, but it matters how you communicate that fact.

Surprisingly, the mafia world also requires subtle communication skills. The careful viewer of The Godfather will observe that bullets are rarely the first means of making a point.

Early in the film, the Don has to make a point to a movie director. He starts by sending his advisor, Tom Hagen, to make a subtle request. Unfortunately, that initial attempt at persuasion is unsuccessful. The Godfather has to turn to radical methods in order to make his point. Knowing when to escalate a situation into a confrontation is a delicate art that the Don mastered in his long career.

Lesson: When you face a conflict, consider your communication strategy. Start with smaller gestures – such as a short phone call to a colleague before you consider escalating a problem to senior management.

4 – Have A Succession Plan

In the life of a business analyst, people come and go. The Corleone family is no different. When the Godfather dies, his son Sonny takes over the family in a moment of crisis. This situation is a textbook case of succession planning gone awry.

In my view, Sonny is not ready to transition to leading the family.

Nominating the eldest son to lead the organization is the succession principle used by the Corleones. In the corporate world, the analogous situation would be automatically promoting the most experienced employee to management in the event of manager departure. This approach has the virtue of simplicity. Unfortunately, promotion based on years of experience doesn’t consider individual skill or leadership ability.

Lesson: when you are involved in long term projects – anything over a year – succession planning cannot be ignored. Don’t be afraid to bring up the topic, even if you are not formally assigned to a management role.

5 – Know Your Strengths

Taking on new tasks and responsibilities can be dangerous. In an effort to impress management, you can offer to automate a process only to realize later that doing so requires programming knowledge you don’t have. Ultimately, you need to focus on your strengths to succeed as a business analyst.

Don Corleone faced a similar challenge in deciding whether or not to expand his empire to include illegal drugs. Despite the profit opportunities offered, the Don refused to enter the business. In the eyes of some, this made him a traditionalist who was behind the times. In his world, I would argue that the Don made the right decision – expansion into the narcotics trade would attract too much unwanted attention from the authorities.

Lesson: When you encounter an activity that requires new skills, think carefully about deciding whether it makes sense to learn it. Repairing your weaknesses rarely pays off compared to investing energy in your strengths.

6 – Understand The Challenge of Change Management

Many business analysts work on projects that include a change management component. This kind of change includes training stuff on a new process, introducing new habits and altering reporting relationships. Even long overdue change and improvement can make stakeholders feel uncomfortable. Without the right preparation and approach, poor change management will doom a project.

In the Godfather film, Michael initially looks at ways to move away from his family. Early in the story, he is proud of his accomplishments in the military which sets him apart from his siblings. Ultimately, Michael’s efforts to escape from his family’s traditions are unsuccessful. He ends up running the crime family’s operations rather than reforming them.

Lesson: Sometimes, you will fail at change management. Be prepared for that eventuality.

7 – Give Favors To Build Relationships

When was the last time you gave a favour to someone? It could have been a small gesture – getting coffee for a colleague or teaching a technical skill to a new hire. Giving (and, occasionally, asking for) favors is a key aspect of building relationships. For the best results, set yourself a goal to make give favors to your colleagues a few times a month.

My favourite example of the Godfather giving someone a favor is one of the least well known. At one point, an elderly woman is having difficulties with her landlord. The Godfather steps in and helps her out. In this case, it is unlikely that the woman will be able to help the Don.

Lesson: Sometimes, you give a favor simply to make the world a better place.

Now you’ve learned about the Godfather’s techniques, it is time to put them into action. This week, choose one of the lessons from this article and put it into practice.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.