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Author: Jarett Hailes

How to Become a Hyper-Productive Business Analyst

BAtimes_March15_featureBeing a Business Analyst can often feel like being a rag-doll in the mouth of a large dog.  You often have a diverse group of stakeholders who all have different wants, availability, communication schedules, deadlines, priorities, documentation requirements and the like.  Meanwhile you are responsible for obtaining approved requirements from everyone in a seemingly unreasonable timeframe and can’t even get properly started because you keep getting called into meetings that have no bearing on your specific work.  Some days can feel like you’ve made little or no progress on any of your main deliverables, even if you’ve been ‘heads down’ all day.

Personal productivity is a critical factor that influences the overall performance of a Business Analyst.  Personal productivity is a concept that goes beyond the typical time management topics that concentrate more on the allocation and prioritization of activities.  To be productive, you need to maximize the results of your actions while minimizing the amount of effort that you need to spend in order to accomplish a task.  After all, most of us don’t want to work more in order to get more done; we need to learn how to get more done in less time.

Over the past few years I have experimented with various actions to determine what things I can do within the Business Analyst role which can help to improve my productivity.  Over this time period I have worked with several clients in a wide variety of projects, ranging from strategic enterprise analysis and needs assessments to scrum-driven software development.  Through my experimentation I have found several principles that have had a dramatic impact on how much I can get done in a given timeframe, regardless of the work environment or constraints. 

Clear Your RAM

As human beings we have a limited amount of short-term memory available to us.  We use this memory to keep track of things that we sub-consciously understand we don’t need to know forever; stuff like taking out the trash on garbage day or even the deadline for our requirements document.  The more information we internalize and try to keep ‘top of mind’, the more difficult it is for us to focus on accomplishing a task or processing new information.  As Business Analysts we are often constantly bombarded with new information and must perform many thought-intensive tasks, so if we’re trying to keep track of numerous mental markers we’re bound to be less productive than we could be.

Clearing your equivalent of Random Access Memory allows you to not have that nagging feeling in the back of your head that you need to get something else done or may be forgetting something important while you’re working on a task.  In order to get to this state of mind you need to develop a process that allows you to immediately document thoughts that could be stored in short term memory and thus interfere with accomplishing your current task.  This documentation should be done in a format that will allow you to trust that you will be able to retrieve the information at the appropriate time.  For some people a simple to-do list tucked in their pocket or smartphone may be sufficient.  For others a more sophisticated system like David Allen’s Getting Things Done ensures there is a place for everything and everything is in its place. 

Whatever you do and whatever tool you use, you must feel comfortable letting go of non-pertinent thoughts so you can ensure that your mind is able to focus on the task at hand.  Learning simple techniques can help you clear your mind once you’re comfortable with your chosen documentation system. Things like brief meditation can possibly be used to help you remove those lingering thoughts before you begin working on what you need to.

Eliminate Distractions

How many of you think that you are a great multi-tasker?  In the truest sense of the term (i.e. doing two or more things simultaneously) you are actually pretty horrible.  Research demonstrates that humans cannot do more than one thing simultaneously, and when it comes to rapid switching back and forth between multiple actions, most of us can only really handle two tasks even somewhat decently.  In the golden age of social networks, instant messaging, pop-up notifications and the like, we are ever more prone to face multiple stimuli concurrently, all of which serve to distract us from accomplishing the task that we set out to do.  I find that when I remove as many distractions as possible during thought-intensive activities, such as requirements analysis, I am 3-4 times more productive than if I allow myself to even have the slightest possibility of being distracted. 

Here are some things you can do to eliminate distractions in your day to day life:

  • Close your e-mail and as well as setting you the phones to go to voicemail and/or putting them (since we all seem to now have more than one) on silent. The lure of virtual contact with people by responding quickly to e-mails is one of the greatest time wasting activities we face today. If you need to focus on getting something done, this is the one thing you can do to dramatically improve your productivity. While you’re at it, close all non-essential tabs on your browser and minimize other windows. If you are in an ‘always available’ environment, put on appropriate auto-responder or voicemail messages to explain your absence.
  • Find a ‘right noise’ place for you to get work done. Some people are hyper-productive only when it’s completely quiet in their surroundings. Others enjoy the white noise of a bustling coffee shop or open office work setting. Figure out which type of environment you thrive in and go there when it is time to get serious work done.

Outsource Your Work

No, I’m not talking about hiring a Virtual Assistant or two and then heading to Antigua for a couple of weeks, but where appropriate it makes a lot of sense to have your stakeholders do things that as Business Analysts we are used to do on their  behalf.  In many circumstances this will save you (and ironically enough, them as well) loads of time and allow you to focus on your “value-add” to the process.

For instance, I used to believe that in order to gather high quality requirements myself or another BA would need to run a requirements session or perform other elicitation activities and then document the results.  This involved a lot of preparation and execution on my behalf and in many cases resulted in having to perform redundant activities across multiple stakeholders and subsequently collating and aggregating the findings. 

With one client I decided to see how much of the requirements elicitation process I could outsource to the SMEs themselves.  I held one meeting with multiple stakeholder groups to set the scope of the activity they need to perform, give them examples of what types of results I was looking for and described what would happen in future sessions.  I then let the participants work in groups or individually on their own time to develop their own requirements and then send them to me.  I only needed to follow up with one group to clarify on what they had written, the rest were in a very solid format that I could easily transpose into our knowledge repository.  All told I performed my elicitation activities in about 15-25% of the time it would have taken for me to normally get the same results.

I’ve done similar outsourcing with requirements prioritization, requirements management, requirements verification and validation, solution validation, and solution performance assessment. In each case I was able to shave off at least half of the time it would have taken for me to perform the activities on my own.

Leverage Asynchronous Activities

With many interactive activities I think most of us are used to working in a synchronous manner; we have something we need to get done that requires the involvement of someone else so we schedule a meeting to discuss the item or plan to work on the task together.  While there are many times that a synchronous forum is appropriate and the best method to accomplish something (for example, arriving at a decision or recommendation), there are many things that can be as effectively accomplished in an asynchronous manner that allow us to maximize our productivity by minimizing the amount of time we need to be involved in certain aspects of the task at hand.

For example, I have minimized the amount of structured walkthrough sessions that I perform with my clients by leveraging online collaboration tools such as wikis or multi-user office applications (e.g. Google Docs/Office Live) to allow individuals to provide feedback on requirements documents.  Rather than having 5-15 people in a meeting room at the same time and wasting the bulk of the collective mindshare in the room by going over items one at a time I have found that I get higher quality responses and more in-depth and thoughtful revisions by allowing people to work on their reviews on their own time.  The bonus is that the review process is usually shorter as well; I set a relatively short time limit on the review process which gives the reviewers a sense of urgency and priority to the activity, as opposed to spending the better part of a day trying to fit a review session into everyone’s schedule three weeks out from today. 

For simple tasks that require input I have also found that polls with a comments feature to be a great way to arrive at a majority decision or response quickly.  The key with these methods is to have buy-in from the stakeholders who will be responsible for doing things on their own time.  Otherwise such techniques enable the stakeholder to ignore their duties or claim they weren’t properly informed or involved.

Focus on High Value Options

This one probably seems self-evident, but as a Business Analyst you need to focus on doing things that provide the best value to your stakeholders at a given point in time.  Sometimes what is laid out in the project plan, while logical, may not give you enough time to focus on the things that really matter to deliver the results that are really crucial to the success of the project.  Doing those status reports may seem like a big deal but if you miss your due date on your requirements document then it may be that your efforts were a little misplaced.

In my experience Pareto’s Law applies to most Business Analyst activities; stakeholders receive 80% of the benefits of project activities from 20% of the project’s efforts.  As a result I am always thinking about which activities offer the most bang for the client’s buck and prioritize my actions accordingly.  After completing high-value activities I meet with the stakeholders to reassess the other activities and see if they’re still worth pursuing, or if new high value efforts have been identified.

To help with this constant assessment and select which activity to do when I use a backlog-like list of outcomes and actions that could be worked on.  This allows me to review my top priority items at a glance and pick the one that best fits the time slot I currently have to work on something. Since I can only work on one thing at a time I constantly juggle what is at or near the top to ensure that both long and short term goals are being properly addressed. 

If I notice that some to do’s are constantly low on the list but my stakeholders have expectations for those things to be done, I work with them to clarify the value of these activities and determine if there are ways to either automate or outsource their performance if they are indeed valuable.  Otherwise I suggest they are added to the ‘if there’s time’ pile of activities that are worked on only if all activities relating to direct value outputs are completed.

Finding Your Productivity Sweet Spot

Becoming hyper-productive is highly dependent on each person; what makes you able to efficiently complete things could be completely different than someone else in the exact same situation.  The key to improving your personal productivity is to track your performance of activities and quickly perform a self-assessment when you’re doing tasks.  This doesn’t have to be onerous or documentation-heavy; just keep track of your time on a task and your thoughts about how productive you felt on the activity.  Jot down some pertinent environmental factors (noise level, distractions, stakeholder engagement, etc.).  Then once a week take a look at the tasks you’ve performed and see what worked well and why.

Over time you can reap the benefits of increased productivity by examining how to reduce your effort on specific tasks and find ways to help you focus on doing one thing at a time. These efficiency gains should help you set greater goals for yourself and deliver greater value to your organization and stakeholders.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Jarett Hailes is President of Larimar Consulting Inc. and a Certified Business Analysis Professional.  He has worked with large and small organizations as a Business Analyst, Project Manager and Management Consultant, and is also a Scrum Certified Product Owner and ScrumMaster.

Business Analysts; The CEO’s Army

As the economy slowly recovers, businesses and governments continue to look at ways to maximize their organizational potential with the human capital they currently have. Over the years several management strategies have been presented to ensure consistent long-term performance (and outperformance). Methodologies such as Six-Sigma quantify results to identify opportunities for improvement and monitor subsequent performance. Others take a more qualitative approach and look to unleash the most important asset any organization has – its employees.

One management strategy that was formalized in the 1980s focuses on organizational improvement through ‘inverted strategic analysis’. Management by Wandering (or Walking) Around (MBWA) was introduced in Tom Peters’s book “In Search of Excellence“. Instead of coming up with ideas in the boardroom and communicating these initiatives to lower-level employees to implement, MBWA flipped this model upside down. Management (particularly the CEO) is encouraged to meet with as many personnel (particularly front-line staff) as possible to understand the current state of the organization, learn what is working and get suggestions for what can be improved and how.

Several companies over the past 30 years have followed this management style, including HP, GE, Pepsi, 3M and Wal-Mart. Recently Costco’s co-founder and CEO Jim Sinegal was designated as one of America’s Best Leaders in 2009 by US News & World Report magazine. For decades Jim has effused the MBWA ethos by “store hopping … about 200 days out of 365”. Former Procter and Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley also made it a priority to listen to employees and customers to ensure that strategy and operations at one of the largest corporations were aligned as much as possible.

These examples demonstrate that it makes sense for leaders to keep a pulse on their company by staying in contact with as many people within the organization as possible. However, the larger the company the harder and more impractical it is to spend a large amount of a leader’s time on such activities. How can a CEO get the knowledge needed to ensure they can devise appropriate and relevant strategy while at the same time receive feedback on whether the strategy can and is being executed effectively? I believe that business analysts can fill this gap by becoming the CEO’s “eyes and ears”

As a profession, business analysts have the qualities required to listen to a group of people and then communicate essential information elicited from this group to others. Whether it’s software requirements, product ideas, operational efficiency suggestions or customer feedback, business analysts have the skill set to gather, prioritize, manage, maintain and collaborate with stakeholders to meet the strategic goals of the organization. Most BAs experience this on a day-to-day level, typically between internal business units and the IT organization. But I believe that business analysts can leverage these skills to help the organization in a far greater capacity.

Some business analysts are already well-suited to play the role of the CEO’s sounding board. Those who are assigned to one or more business units typically become intimate with the people and processes that make up the sub-organization. Often these BAs will be privy to knowledge that otherwise has no outlet; whether it’s hearing about issues as to how a certain process operates, or hearing first or second hand feedback from customers about a product or service offered.

Business analysts need a channel to be able to relay this information throughout the organization and ensure that ideas can be systematically evaluated and executed in the appropriate context. Usually, BAs know how to handle this information and leverage it to improve the organization if it’s IT related, but there typically are not structures in place to handle suggestions that would impact other external units.

As business analysts, we often see or hear about opportunities before the decision makers in the organization know they even exist. In order to successfully capitalize on opportunities, decision makers need to have such information in their hands so they can decide whether to act on it. How can we get this information to them in a timely manner?

While each organization is different, here is a proposed framework for enabling business analysts to relay the pulse of the organization to upper management:

  • Have at least one business analyst assigned to work with each business unit on a regular basis. This will allow the BA to get a level of expertise in the business area and will provide staff within the unit with a go-to person to discuss requirements or suggestions for improvement. The number of analysts you need per area will vary greatly depending on the size and structure of the organization. You may only need one BA to cover several units or several BAs to cover one unit.
  • In addition to informal information gathering that will occur as part of a BA’s normal activities, hold formal sessions occasionally to generate new ideas. This does not have to be your typical brainstorming session, and the activity can be targeted to a specific group based on their skill set (although I recommend allowing everyone to do the same activities, as you never know who has a hidden talent in a certain area). For example, have new product contests that pit teams from different areas against each other. As West Paw Design found out, employees from any area can have a creative bent that will improve the company’s offering.
  • Come up with a process to evaluate the information you receive. First you need to classify the information – is it a business requirement, a process improvement suggestion, a product or service offering suggestion, etc.? Each type of information will need to be dealt with via its own process. For example, business requirements may need to be collected and a business case developed for meeting the identified needs, either through technology or process changes.
  • Ideas and suggestions may need to be channeled through some sort of review process. Depending on the size of the organization, it may not be feasible to have all suggestions placed in front of upper management. A vetting process is recommended, performed by individuals who will be held accountable for the decisions made (i.e. which suggestions are to be brought forward). I would recommend that business analysts are responsible for overseeing this process and can participate but are not the ones who make the decisions – this should be left to a group that upper management has confidence in with such matters. As part of the review process, I would look to have an absolute grading threshold rather than a ‘Best X ideas’ threshold. This is not meant to be a one-time event – some months you may get several great ideas while others you may get very few.
  • Have the originator of the whittled-down list of suggestions and ideas present their suggestions to upper management on a regular basis. I would recommend allocating a flexible amount of time based on the number of ideas that have passed the review process. BAs should be in the room to hear the feedback and thoughts of upper management, and to help make suggestions on how to implement the ideas, particularly if it requires effort from many different areas of the organization. BAs can also collect feedback from management to improve the overall process and to communicate decisions and results back to others in the organization.

If such ‘internal engagement’ concepts are foreign to your organization or your organization is not used to tackling opportunities across organizational boundaries, setting up a structure similar to the one above may take a great amount of effort. Here are some suggestions on how to get started on the road to a formal structure.

  • Learn how upper management sees their own roles and how they divide their time currently. Ask them what they’d like to see improved internally in the organization and what sort of things they would do if they had more time. With this information, look for ways to suggest having BAs do some of the ground work on their behalf.
  • Talk to front-line employees and ask if a) they feel they understand the higher level goals of the organization and b) if they feel their voices are heard higher up in the organization. Use straw/anonymous polls to have some concrete numbers to discuss underlying needs with upper management.
  • Leverage the PMO or BA Centre of Excellence within your organization to cultivate ground-level staff buy-in and build awareness for Management by Wandering Around principles. Look for case studies that have demonstrated how such techniques improve financial and operational performance within an organization such as yours.
  • Get BAs on board through the Centre of Excellence. If you don’t have one, start an informal community of interest and discuss ways for BAs to play a more prominent role in the organization.
  • Implement the technique without the structure – find a relatively small opportunity that you can execute on and take it all the way. For example, let’s say BAs are hearing about how everyone dislikes the vacation approval process. Talk to HR about the chance of improving the process by getting people from around the organization involved. Hold a lunch session where people can break up into teams to come up with a new process. Have HR managers review the ideas and pick a winner (with a small prize going to the winning team). They don’t necessarily have to implement the idea as-is, but follow up with them to see how feasible it is to implement a variant to improve the process. Once you have some informal successes, present your results to upper management.

CEOs have many people they need to work with in order to achieve the goals of the organization. They simply can’t be everywhere all the time. Business analysts can extend the reach of the CEO by being a two-way conduit for information that will impact the strategic direction and operational excellence of the organization. A strong, formal structure to perform these tasks will help everyone in the company know that they have a chance to play an important role in the direction of the organization, regardless of their job description.

Do you already have a framework like this set up in your company? If so, do BAs play a part in the process? If so, let me know in the comments section below.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below

Jarett Hailes is a Business Consultant with Larimar Consulting Inc. He has worked with large and small organizations as a Business Analyst and Project Manager, and is also a Scrum Certified Product Owner and ScrumMaster.

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