Author: Christina Lovelock

Christina is an experienced BA leader, has built BA teams ranging in size from 5 to 120 Business Analysts and champions entry level BA roles. She is active in the BA professional community, attending and regularly speaking at events. Christina is an examiner for the International Diploma in Business Analysis and is also a director of the UK BA Manager Forum. She has co-authored the 2019 book, Delivering Business Analysis: The BA Service Handbook, which shares insights and findings from research into Business Analysis, practical guidance for BA leaders, and case studies from across the professional community. https://www.linkedin.com/in/christina-lovelock
BATimes_May19_2022

Don’t. Step. Back.

‘We need to take a step back’ is a common phrase amongst BAs, and while the intention is understandable, this entreaty simply isn’t helping.

You know the feeling.

  • The project is already running away with itself.
  • Stakeholders have identified a solution before articulating the problem.
  • This great new idea does not align to strategy or objectives.
  • The CEO wants to implement a system they’ve seen work elsewhere without understanding our context and challenges.

 

You know we need to calm down, think logically, act rationally. In every meeting, you want to say things like:

  • We need to slow down
  • What about the bigger picture?
  • Let’s go back a step.

But no one wants to hear that.

The start of initiatives are about energy, motivation and enthusiasm. BAs can be seen as blockers. What we think is pragmatism can be interpreted as negativity.

 

Restraining Language

When BAs are constantly using language which is perceived as holding back progress, stakeholders begin to avoid us, work around us, and don’t include us in discussions where we could offer a valuable perspective. BAs then become increasingly worried and frustrated, and our warnings become more dire and more persistent.

It can look like our input is focused on restraining the initiative and identifying additional work.

Is it possible deliver the same information in a more impactful way?

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Examine Our Role

BAs often feel we are the conscience of a project, and our job is to protect stakeholders and the organization from poor decisions. Is that a reasonable expectation to set for ourselves?

Trying to reign-in a project which has senior backing, forward momentum and is moving at pace is perhaps not the best way to expend our energy. It’s OK to be on board with an idea and to be enthusiastic. We don’t have to ensure every ‘lesson is learned’. It’s more important that the project benefits from an engaged BA that is consulted at the appropriate time and is seen as someone who is contributing to moving the initiative forward.

 

Enabling Language

Swapping our restraining language for forward-focused language may not be as difficult as we think.

Instead of “We need to take a step back” we can say “We need to be clear on the best next step”.

Instead of using “Yes, but….” to list off all the problems, we can use “Yes, and…” to keep our contribution constructive.

We can use language that says I’m onboard with this project, I want to see it progress and my contribution helps move us forward.

BAs can sometimes see positivity as naivety. It is possible to be positive and well informed. We can use our experience to help projects avoid potential pitfalls, without insisting on a backwards step.

 

Conclusion

BA don’t need to single-handedly restrain projects. In fact the best way to influence projects and products in the right direction is to demonstrate that we are invested and enthusiastic about the outcome.

Language matters. Swapping restraining language for enabling language shows our stakeholders we care, we understand and want a positive outcome. There may still be difficult messages to deliver, but  we can frame these as future-facing hurdles to overcome rather than backwards-facing steps to make.

Goldilocks And The Three BAs

Once upon a time, there were three BAs, they all wanted their analysis to be “just right”, but what does that actually mean?

Balancing Act

‘Just-enough’ and’ just-in-time’ sound like straightforward concepts, but how much is enough? This very much depends on the context and the needs and preferences of your Goldilocks. We always want our business analysis outputs to be accurate, but we also need them to be proportionate and appropriate to the situation.

So ‘enough’ business analysis means: establishing clear expectations and exclusions, sufficient breadth and depth of investigation, engagement with representative stakeholders, utilization of suitable analysis techniques, and a focus on creating analysis outputs and assets that meet a specific purpose.

We can look at the characteristics of ‘over-analysis’ and ‘under-analysis’ to help test the balance, and ensure our analysis efforts and outputs are just right.

 

The First BA: Over-Analysis

This BA finds it difficult to know when their analysis is ‘finished’.

We can always speak to one more stakeholder or hold one more workshop! It is easier to frame analysis outputs as ‘sufficient to meet the purpose’ (which may be to inform further activities, share knowledge, facilitate agreement, enable decisions, etc.) rather than ‘finished’. We must also remind ourselves that new information will always emerge, this does not mean our analysis was wrong but reflected what was understood at that point in time. The purpose of the analysis is to increase knowledge and test assumptions. Some assumptions will be proven wrong, and new perspectives will emerge.

The characteristics of over-analysis:

  • Feeling overwhelmed and experiencing Analysis Paralysis
  • Too much detail, no summary or high-level routes into the detailed analysis
  • Endless meetings/discussions/workshops with no progress
  • Number of requirements out of control
  • Too much focus on edge cases
  • No prioritization of analysis effort
  • Repository of unread documents
  • Total reliance on BA to navigate the analysis, opaque to others
  • Regularly finding duplication of requirements or analysis assets
  • Audience for analysis outputs unclear
  • Being ‘90% done’ for weeks or months.

 

The Second BA: Under-Analysis

This BA does not challenge assumptions or apply analytical thinking.

Stakeholders may have low expectations of this BA, treating them like an order-taker or scribe. When we accept a very narrow role or are told we cannot deploy the full range of analytical techniques required for the situation, the quality and veracity of the resulting analysis will be compromised.

The characteristics of under-analysis:

  • Always engaging the same small group of stakeholders
  • No stakeholder analysis
  • Solution pre-defined
  • No clear problem definition
  • Applying a very limited range of analysis techniques
  • Only creating user stories
  • No consideration of edge cases
  • No templates or reuse, always starting from scratch
  • No peer-review by other BAs
  • Process-view only, no consideration of data
  • Technology view only, no consideration of business
  • Opinion over evidence, deference to HiPPOs (Highest Paid Person’s Opinions)
  • No challenge of ideas/assumptions/processes
  • Undocumented assumptions
  • Writing things down with no critical thinking or analysis.

 

The Third BA: Just Right

This BA understands the audience and purpose of the analysis and is confident in the business analysis skills and techniques which will achieve the required outcome.

A key aspect of creating analysis outputs that are accurate, appropriate, and proportionate is agreeing on who will use the analysis and for what purpose. It then entails considering possible routes to achieving that purpose, how the analysis will be carried out, and getting further agreement on that approach.

A ‘definition of done’ for the analysis deliverables is very valuable, and creates a shared understanding and agreed set of expectations from all stakeholders.

Questions for getting analysis just-right:

  • WHY am I doing this? What is the purpose of the analysis?
  • WHO am I engaging with? Who is missing? Are the stakeholders representative and proportionate? Are they appropriate for this stage? Who will use what I produce?
  • WHAT am I creating? What format, what length, what systems will I use?
  • HOW will I approach the analysis? What business analysis techniques will I apply? How will I select techniques that are appropriate to the audience, timescale, and other constraints? How will I ensure I am producing analysis and not simply documentation? How will I achieve validation and approval of the analysis deliverables?
  • WHEN is the analysis needed? What can be achieved in that timeframe, what cannot be achieved? What constraints does that place on the engagement and investigation? What dependencies exist?
  • WHERE will the analysis be shared and stored? How can I ensure transparency and increase engagement?

 

Conclusion

The first BA is drowning in the detail and doesn’t know where to stop. The second BA is doing what they are told, and not bringing analytical tools and thinking to the situation. The third BA is asking a lot of questions, and quite possibly annoying people who think they should ‘just get on with it’, but certainly has the most chance of producing analysis outputs that are useful and valued.

The recipe for getting business analysis just right is to be aware of the characteristics of over and under analysis, to apply a suitable range of analysis techniques which explore multiple perspectives and to understand the expectations of Goldilocks.

Practicing Practical Optimism

What we believe is pragmatism can be perceived as pessimism. Is it time for BAs to start practicing practical optimism instead?

The Problem With Pragmatism

There are many words that BAs hold dear – objective, holistic, pragmatic. They guide our approach. We want to consider all factors and all perspectives, avoid bias and ensure appropriate action is taken in light of all relevant information. Pragmatism should mean planning for the worst, but hoping for the best. We are skilled at identifying the worst-case scenario, highlighting gaps and risks, and getting to root causes; have we become so focused on being ready for the worst outcome, that we have forgotten to hope for the best outcome? Has our pragmatism turned to pessimism?

We really do want to move forward, learn lessons, and avoid re-making past mistakes. It can feel like a way to achieve that is to focus on everything that has gone wrong previously. This past-focussed pragmatism nudges us closer to negativity.

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 The Problem With Optimism

 Many BAs see optimism as naivety. We believe that if people really understood the issues (as we do) then they wouldn’t be quite so positive! We think that the role of analysis is to surface and clarify needs, issues, and problems, and it’s very hard to talk about these topics in a positive way. We also know that over-optimism in planning and delivery causes many projects and products to fail.

Optimism has become synonymous with unrealistic and uniformed.

The Benefits Of Optimism

There are wide-ranging benefits, observed in comprehensive research from all around the globe.

Optimists are healthy and live longer. They are more likely to achieve their goals. They are more resilient and less stressed. They are more productive and have better relationships. Optimism increases the likelihood of success.

The good news is optimism is a skill and mindset we can all practice and improve at, whatever we consider our ‘natural’ disposition.

Practical Optimism

Optimism does not mean naively hoping for the best, denying reality or failing to prepare. The phrase “practical optimism” acknowledges the unspoken accusation of “blind optimism” and provides a path to taking sensible steps towards the best possible outcome. Genuinely understanding the best-case scenario and always keeping it in mind makes that outcome much more likely to occur!

Risk identification and problem-solving seem to get much more airtime than benefits and drivers. Reminding ourselves of why we are doing something, who benefits and how is a great motivator. Reflecting on how far we have come, highlighting successes, and celebrating milestones all contribute to future-focused thinking. This creates the right climate for practical optimism to thrive.

Conclusion

Pragmatism seems like the perfect balance between uninformed optimism and immobilizing pessimism. In reality what feels like pragmatism can easily look like pessimism. Striving for an approach of practical optimism rather than pragmatism can lighten our mental load, improve our relationships and lead to better personal and business outcomes.

Being realistic can be about striving for the best possible reality. It’s time for business analysis to look on the bright side.

Further Reading:

[1] When BAs Go Bad, C Lovelock, BA Times, 2019 https://www.batimes.com/articles/when-bas-go-bad/

[2] How To Incorporate Realistic Optimism Into Your Life, Forbes, 2021 https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2021/01/07/how-to-incorporate-realistic-optimism-into-your-life/?sh=465ae45476f0

Do We Need A Skills Matrix?

The answer to this question is almost always no. Here’s why…

Drivers

The stated objectives for creating a person-level skills matrix are usually something like:

  1. “We want to match staff to appropriate work by understanding their skills.”
  2. “We need to identify skills gaps and shortages across the team/organisation and prioritise areas for individual and general improvement.”

These seem sensible enough. They sound efficient, future focussed and suggest it will help individual team members to engage in appropriate work and increase their skills as needed.

Reality

The skills matrix appears on the surface to help with these aims. Unfortunately, they rarely meet the intended outcomes.

Here is a typical process:

  1. Drivers 1 and/or 2 exist, and eventually someone says “skills matrix”.
  2. Key skills to include are discussed and agreed. (This takes much longer than planned; technical skills are over-represented, core skills [1] are under-represented and undervalued by this process).
  3. Realisation that we want knowledge areas not just skills. A very long list is produced…
  4. After much questioning and resistance (most) staff rate themselves against the skills and knowledge areas.
  5. This is on the whole unsuccessful due to the Dunning-Kruger effect [2] on the one hand and Impostor Syndrome [3] on the other. (Plus, the fact that most of us think we are self-aware and only 10-15% of people actually are [4]).
  6. Many difficult conversations are then required explain why Person A is not actually an expert in everything and Person B is better than they think.
  7. The people who would be “best” for a piece of work based on the output of the matrix are not available.
  8. Managers and team members are all quite bruised by the process.
  9. Matrix is not updated. It goes slowly out of date.
  10. Abandoned.

 


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Alternative Reality

The skills an individual has is one of many factors which need to be considered when assigning appropriate work. The factors include:

  • What motivates them?
  • Who do they work well with?
  • Who can build relationships quickly?
  • What kind of support/environment allows them to do their best work?
  • Where do their interests lie?
  • Who has these skills/who needs to develop these skills?
  • Is there an appropriate senior person/role model?
  • Who has earned an exciting opportunity?
  • Who needs to stick to the basics?
  • Who can juggle multiple assignments?
  • Who prefers to concentrate on one area?

It is not possible to model all these factors in a spreadsheet. This level of understanding comes from managers having good relationships with team members, being able to honestly discuss personal style, preferences and professional development needs. Managers also need good visibility of upcoming work and assignments to be able to plan appropriately and engage with team members about future work.

Training Needs And Skills Gaps

Good managers know this information without a skills matrix. Given a list of skills needed by an organisation, managers should be able to identify and quantify capacity and competency gaps. A skills matrix is a lazy substitute for good quality management and a distraction that creates the illusion of control.

Individual personal development plans which align to organisational objectives are a more motivating and effective way of establishing and then aggregating team-member level data.

How Can BAs Help?

Business Analysts may be asked to create or contribute to the development of a skills matrix or record our own skills. We can use our analytical skills to establish the drivers and intended business outcomes and suggest alternative methods of achieving those.

Is A Skills Matrix Ever Relevant?

If the answer to the question “Do we need a skills matrix?” is almost always no, then there must be exceptions. Very large, typically global organisations which operate across a number of sectors (such as retail, aviation, construction etc.) that need to quickly mobilise specialist teams need a way of “searching and filtering” on staff. This is more effective as searchable information, with some structured data (e.g., job title, location, knowledge domains) and bio information maintained by the individual (experience, preferences, etc.) to allow the right people to be identified. Implementing this type of system requires appropriate investment in technology and business change. The business case for the ‘spreadsheet matrix’ never stacks up.

Conclusion

The skills matrix is typically a misguided attempt to automate something which needs to be a human discussion. How they are implemented often demotivates staff, serves as a distraction from real work and genuine issues and fails to meet the intended outcomes.  Organisations that want the capability to understand the skills and experience of their staff need to encourage the right behaviours from managers, make appropriate investment in robust decision support tools and engage with staff to capture information which is accurate, proportional and timely.

References:
[1] Core Skills: C Lovelock, BA Times, 2019 https://www.batimes.com/articles/stop-saying-soft-skills/
[2] Dunning-Kruger Effect : J KrugerD Dunning, 1999  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10626367/
[3] Impostor Syndrome: C Lovelock, BA Times, 2020 https://www.batimes.com/articles/impostor-syndrome-business-analysis-is-not-just-common-sense/
[4] Self-Awareness: T Eurich, Harvard Business Review, 2018 https://hbr.org/2018/01/what-self-awareness-really-is-and-how-to-cultivate-it

Job Crafting for BAs

You don’t have to change roles or organizations to get more enjoyment and satisfaction from your work. There are many ways to make your current job work better for you.

Job Descriptions

The description of the BA role looks fairly similar from one organization to the next. Some ask for a bit of specialization, some are more technical, some are more strategic. Sometimes there are formal management responsibilities, sometimes informal support and mentoring. And yes, some organizations put in strange requirements and duties which make us wonder if they know what business analysis is… but, for the most part, it’s pretty standard. And yet, we all know that the practice of business analysis can be very different between organizations and roles. It is tempting to believe that it is purely the organization and culture which is causing these differences; in reality, the individual BAs often influence the role a great deal.

Job Crafting

Most organizations have many formal and informal ways that employees change or ‘craft’ their role. Including things like becoming a:

  • First aider
  • Mentor
  • Social organizer
  • Staff representative
  • Fire warden.

Most of the time people are either asked to volunteer for these roles or assume them by default, but these ‘optional extras’ often give them a feeling of purpose and wider contribution.
This is the essence of job crafting – looking for opportunities to gain or utilize skills in a way that gives pleasure or purpose. Maximizing the things you are good at and enjoy, minimizing those you don’t. The beauty of job crafting is that people enjoy and are good at different things, so no one is being disadvantaged by not carrying out their whole job description, or adding a few extra things in! And – allowing people to work in this way increases engagement, wellbeing, and productivity.

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Crafting Business Analysis

BAs often have a lot of autonomy; to apply the techniques we think are appropriate, to engage with different people, to create the outputs we believe will be suit the situation, and critically how we chose to frame the work we do.

Crafting the Process

The right business analysis approach differs from one assignment/project/product to the next. If we want to inject more creativity, we can do that. If we want more structure, we can do that too. We don’t have to stick in the narrow lane of business analysis consisting of only workshops and user stories. We can create outputs and diagrams which demonstrate the bigger picture, show how everything fits together, and offer value by creating a shared understanding. If you are interested in:

  • Creativity – use more visual methods
  • Variety – learn a new analysis technique and look for opportunities to use it
  • Re-use – create and promote templates
  • Challenge – ask for new opportunities and responsibilities

Crafting Relationships

Good relationships are what make good workplaces. BAs often know lots of people from many different departments and roles, as well as BAs in other organizations. It is possible to build meaningful working relationships, with people who bring out the best in us and motivate us. We can use different engagement methods, such as regular check-ins, newsletters, and surveys to build both engagement and relationships. If you are interested in:

  • Sharing knowledge – start or contribute to an internal community of practice or external conference
  • Developing others – offer to become a mentor or buddy for new employees
  • Learning from others – ask to do shadowing or meet for a regular coffee with someone knows about an area that you don’t
  • Socializing – create a book club/film club/special interest group at work

Crafting Purpose

The stories we tell ourselves are incredibly important for internal motivation. What brings you to work? How does your organization contribute to society or the economy? This is not limited to the public and third sectors. Financial services organizations allow people to buy homes, telecommunications companies connect families all over the world; making a profit does not preclude purpose. How does your role make people’s lives a little better? (whether they realize it or not). If you are interested in:

  • Helping people – consider how what your organization does to make a positive contribution, and how you play a part in that
  • Career development – be clear how the skills and experience you gain in this role is preparing you for the next step
  • A cause or issue – champion it through existing staff groups or start one
  • Fundraising – suggest a staff or team charity

Permission

Many of the ways to craft the BA role can be done with no consultation, permission, funding, or special training. A common reaction to job crafting is that “it wouldn’t be allowed in my organization” when the truth is, it is already happening, you just have to look for it.

Resentment

Going consistently ‘above and beyond’ should of course be recognized and rewarded by organizations, but sometimes it isn’t. Job crafting is not really about being noticed by others or seeking additional rewards. The motivation for job crafting should be that it will increase our job satisfaction, let us use or strengths and pursue our interests and improve our wellbeing. Once you start resenting your organization or boss, the main person impacted is you! Job crafting may not be enough to overcome it, but it’s worth a try.

Conclusion

BAs have many routes to crafting our roles available to us. By carefully considering the relationships we enjoy and want to invest in, by tailoring our approach to suit both the situation and our preferences, and by framing the contribution we make to our organizations and society, we can all be happier, healthier, and more effective business analysts.

Further reading: Rob Baker (2020) Personalization at Work: How HR Can Use Job Crafting to Drive Performance, Engagement, and Wellbeing