What are the most critical skills for a business analyst? There are certainly a lot of skills listed in the Business Analysis Book of Knowledge (BABoK). But what should a business analyst focus on to really stand out in a crowd?
Let’s face it, the excellent business analysts are not just order takers – people who gather information, organize what they’ve received and then deliver it back in a pretty package. The really great business analysts start at the same place – gathering information – but then they proactively prod, poke, and tease out the things that are hiding between the lines. They anticipate what the stakeholders will say and prepare alternatives and recommendations ahead of time so that they are ready when the topic is discussed.
Certainly the ability to execute the techniques described in the BABoK are important. But the excellent business analysts produce quality work, and that gets to the issue of knowing how to elicit the right information from the right sources in order to uncover the right requirements that address the true (but not necessarily explicitly stated) business need.
So what skills are needed to obtain that quality end result? The following four lead my list:
- System thinking
- Critical thinking
- Pattern thinking
There are many books and articles on the above topics – a quick search of the internet or your favorite bookstore will reveal plenty of info – so this article will simply provide a brief introduction to the topic, and describe how using it helps make an excellent business analyst that stands out in the crowd.
First, the definition of a system: “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole“. Systems come in all flavors, the two key ones with which a business analyst often works are computer based systems and social systems.
At the core, systems thinking focuses on interrelationships – the interrelationships between the individual components within the system boundaries, the interrelationships between the different layers within an individual component, and the interrelationship between those components and things outside of the system boundaries. Systems thinking is holistic thinking – it is about seeing the interconnected whole, not the individual parts. While it may be necessary to breakdown the system into smaller parts to make work more manageable and less overwhelming, those parts need to be brought back together coherently. The business analyst needs to see the individual trees, but never lose sight of the forest – or of the terrain, climate, fauna and other flora of which the forest is a part, or of the leaves, branches, roots, buds, and bark that comprise the tree.
System thinking is about how the system behaves when all the components parts are working together, both internally and with those external entities that exist beyond the system’s borders. If there is some unexplained behavior, it may well be because there are missing elements that need to be considered.
Systems thinking is important to the business analyst because it helps to ensure the proper scope has been defined, and that all pertinent parts and interrelationships have been identified. It underlies the identification of the stakeholders, as well as providing a check on requirements coverage.
Critical thinking evaluates the information received to ensure it is true and logical. It looks past the explicitly stated information for hidden meanings and agendas. It recognizes what information arises from the belief systems of the stakeholders, and separates those elements from the underling facts. Critical thinking also filters out the business analyst’s own emotions, belief systems and biases, which can sneak into decisions affecting what information to elicit, how to interpret received information, as well as what / how information to present on out bound communication.
Business analysts that practice critical thinking do not arrive at conclusions without sufficient and careful thought. They do not take things at face value. They are skeptical of collected information until it has been subjected to evaluation from as many viewpoints as is practical. Their conclusions reflect logical reasoning, avoiding conclusions based on common logical fallacies such as: Spot has four legs and a tail. Spot is a dog.
Therefore all dogs have four legs and a tail.
So why is critical thinking so important to a business analyst? Bottom line – it’s a quality assurance check. While critical thinking does not ensure the accuracy of requirements and the elimination of biases, it goes a long way towards that goal. And the more accurate and factual the requirements are, the better the chance that the resulting system will meet the true needs of the stakeholders.
Pattern thinking addresses the organization of information. Pattern thinking is the ability to group information into ‘buckets’ in which the elements in each bucket share something with the other elements in the same bucket, while differentiating one bucket from all the other buckets. The set of ‘buckets’ comprise an information taxonomy.
Pattern thinking helps the business analyst in the following ways:
- The patterns uncovered can suggest ways to organize the information, both for purposes of documentation and for the system design. Grouping requirements, for example, by major feature or function (or adorning the requirements with additional classifying attributes) makes for better comprehension that simply a long list.
- If the business analyst can see similar patterns between the system under investigation and systems encountered elsewhere, the business analyst gets a sanity check on the accuracy and completeness of the current work, and may get clues for additional areas of inquiry. The business analyst may also be able to leverage, reuse and adapt deliverables from the past work to the current work effort, thereby accelerating the delivery of the new system.
The challenge of pattern thinking when looking at patterns that have been used elsewhere, is that the system under investigation may have unique characteristics which would dictate a different set of organizing patterns. The business analyst needs to be cautious about simply reusing a previous set of ‘buckets’. This doesn’t mean that the business analyst needs to redefine the information taxonomy every time. It does mean that the business analyst needs to recognize when the taxonomy is inadequate for the current problem, and either extend/enhance an existing taxonomy or create an alternative one. The business analyst may need to look to a second level of characteristics to identify the pattern that is most appropriate.
Communication gets at the core of the business analyst role. A business analyst is the bridge between the people who want something done (e.g. the business stakeholders) and the people who can produce that something (e.g. the technical experts). Communication is the paving materials for that bridge. For the business analyst, communication comes into play for both the inbound flow of information (e.g. requirements from the stakeholders) and the outbound flow of information (e.g. proposed product designs, product issues, etc.). For all practical purposes, a person can’t be a business analyst if they can’t communicate. And the better the communication skills, the more effective a business analyst can be.
Communication covers more than just being able to string words together according to the rules of the target language, spelling words correctly, and forming a well-structured paragraph or document. A business analyst who is a good communicator is more effective in the role because – in addition to the basic communication mechanics above – they are able to identify and act on the following communication elements for maximum impact:
- the correct audience to receive the information / obtain the information from
- the best mode to exchange information among all involved parties – i.e. group meeting, one-to-one conversation, email, formal written document, etc.
- the best way to organize and sequence the information to be exchanged
- the right level of detail to deliver / elicit
- the relative use of words vs. visual elements (diagrams, charts, etc.)
- the timing for the information delivery / elicitation
- the frequency of the message
- the design of feedback mechanisms to validate and verify the accuracy and completeness of the information exchanged
By applying these communication skills, the business analyst is better able to a) receive focused, higher quality information from the inbound information flows and b) keep the stakeholders informed with the outbound information flows in order to avoid stakeholder surprises and encourage stakeholder participation.
While there are many useful and practical skills a business analyst should have in his/her arsenal – i.e. interviewing, conducting meetings, drawing diagrams, writing well-formed sentences, etc. – it is the business analyst’s ability to apply systems thinking, critical thinking, pattern thinking, and communication that makes the excellent business analysts stand out in the crowd.
- Systems thinking – helps to ensure the completeness of the final system.
- Critical thinking – helps to ensure the accuracy of the information exchanges.
- Pattern thinking – helps to organize information for easier comprehension.
- Communication – helps to ensure the overall quality of the information received, avoid stakeholder surprises, and encourage stakeholder participation.
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