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Author: Richard Larson

With over a decade of experience in working for GoPromotional UK, Richard Larson has been an integral part of marketing GoPromo’s award-winning brand. Richard’s skillset varies from a deep understanding of product strategy to his consistent ability to design, analyze, and execute team-based marketing projects. Richard’s team leadership at GoPromo is complemented by a love for data-driven results and his ability to connect with audiences."

A Primer on Working with Executives:Swim with the Sharks Without Getting Eaten Alive (Part 3)

Parts 1 and 2 of this series dealt with communicating with executives and what is needed to influence them.

Now let’s move on to the 3nd key to work effectively with executives, which is that executives make decisions. That may seem really obvious so let me explain why this is one of the keys to help you avoid being “eaten alive.”

I believe that good decision-making is the main value of executives to organizations. As BAs or PMs, we can add to their value by making good recommendations and serving as trusted advisors.

The recommendations we make don’t have to be elaborate business cases, but that is certainly one way. They could be simple solutions to resolve a project issue. Or solving an ongoing problem on a task force. Or any number of other ways.


Since there are many ways and points for us to influence good decisions, I think it’s important to understand how decisions are made so we can best influence them. It’s helpful to have an effective, repeatable process to learn the right inputs for the decision makers at the right times. Let’s explore two complementary processes.

Decision-Making Process #1

First is a 7-step model published by UMASS/Dartmouth University[i] lists these steps. I included a few tools and techniques that are helpful at each step.



1.       Identify the decision

Problem/Situation statement

2.       Gather relevant information

Data, root causes, environmental factors, costs, benefits

3.       Identify the alternatives

Brainstorm, Collaborative games

4.       Weigh the evidence

Weighted Ranking Matrices, Decision Trees

5.       Choose among the alternatives

Recommendation, Decision Analysis

6.       Take action


7.       Review your decision and its consequences

Evaluation, Metrics & KPIs

Decision-Making Process #2

Along the same lines, Watermark Learning has used for many years a simpler but similar model called SARIE. It stands for Situation-Analysis-Recommendation-Implementation-Evaluation. See Figure 1 for a diagram of the steps.

The steps leading-up to a decision are the Situation, Analysis, and Recommendation points. When I first learned about analysis, we called them “Findings and Recommendations.” But, having a clear implementation plan or strategy, and outlining how effectiveness will be measured will assist the decision. Those plans are actually part of the recommendation.

As a decision-maker at our company for years, I noticed it was easy for our staff to make recommendations, but that is the easy part. And very often they are subjective without the other steps. The hard but necessary work in this model is defining the problem and analyzing it, generating alternatives, plus how will implementation work and cost, and how will we know if it was effective? 

For you blue-energy folks there are articles on the Watermark Learning web site to read about SARIE in more detail. The reason I also like that the Dartmouth process is similar to SARIE and expands it a little.

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Figure 1: SARIE Process Steps


Trusted Advisors and Decisions

Let’s cover one more set of things affecting decisions by executives. Let’s say you go to the doctor’s office and step on the scale. OK, maybe not the best thought. When you use a scale, though, it’s hard to argue over weights. What I mean is some of the techniques for analyzing decisions will help us better determine acceptable recommendations. Standards like the BABOK® Guide and PMBOK® Guide list several types of decision analysis tools.

I have found two to be especially helpful and practical when making decisions in our company and with our clients.

Weighted-Ranking Tables

Weighted rankings allow for analyzing and ranking alternatives under consideration and to find the “best” alternative according to criteria important to decision-makers. See an example in Figure 2. The criteria are the key to making this tool work. Each criterion is given a weight – hence the name of the tool – and is used to compare and score each alterative in the left-hand column against each criterion in the rows across the top – Cost, Increased Sales, etc. The total scores for each alternative give the “best” one. Typically, this is the one to recommend and the one executives are most likely to accept all things being equal.

Another tool relies on what I would call “the power of four.” The color quadrants we saw in part 2 are another example and there are countless others. Many paradigms rely on combinations of two variables to explain complex issues and situations.

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Decision Matrices

Decision Matrices, for instance, capture four categories of actions for solving any problem. They are useful because they help guide a team to think through different courses of action based on variables important to decision makers. See Figure 3.

They use two variables normally, and this example shows “Benefit” from high to low and “Implementation Difficulty” from Hard to Easy. I’ve seen other sets of variables like acceptance or cost, so use whatever seems to be relevant to, you guessed it, decision makers. The key is to peg alternative choices into one of the four quadrants, using some expert judgment. Normally this technique uses a continuum on both scales but this simple example is for illustration only.

Decision Matrices help us focus on business benefits over features starting with “Quick Hits” but including “Prioritize.” They are valuable allies to help executives think beyond the “low hanging fruit” or the “sexiest” choices. Last, the visual nature of this and the Weighted Ranking Table will appeal to executives too.

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Figure 3: Decision Matrix Example


To summarize this series, when we work effectively with executives, we are serving them in a professional and consultative way as Trusted Advisors. By maintaining a “reversal of focus” and concentrating on the executive vs. our own anxiety we can reduce our nervousness and increase our confidence and value.

  1. I hope you can use your new knowledge of communication styles to help you relate better to executives (and build self-assurance at the same time). Matching the communication style of an executive is a great way to mirror them and put them at ease.
  2. The best way I know how to build confidence with executives is to make recommendations that influence them to make good decisions that lead to solutions with value. Remember the best “formula” for being influential is to build Trust, do our Preparation, and to show Courage when making recommendations. It is the essence of a Trusted Advisor.
  3. Finally, settle on a decision tool or two to help you pave the way for good decisions. We explored two favorites of mine but there are other good ones than can help us work more successfully with executives.

I meant for this series to be simple, recognizing it is not necessarily easy. Hopefully you will find it so and you can use the ideas to help you “swim with the sharks” in your organization.

[i] Dartmouth decision-making process, – downloaded June 25, 2019

A Primer on Working with Executives:Swim with the Sharks Without Getting Eaten Alive (Part 2)

In part 1 of this series, I introduced 3 keys that can help to work more effectively with executives.

Key #1 was to understand executive communication styles and how to respond appropriately to each to put executives at ease and earn respect.

Key #2 in this executive primer is that executives can be influenced to make better decisions. I don’t mean they can be fooled, manipulated, or tricked. What I mean by influence is “the ability to proactively shift the thinking, actions, and even emotional states of other people” (Neitlich[1]).

To that definition I would add project professionals (Business Analysts, Project Managers, and others) are influential by recommending solutions of value that lead to solving organization problems. Recommending valuable solutions is integral to the very definition and promise of our work. Our most effective and most valuable way to work with executives is to influence them to make the right decisions. We’ll return to decisions in part 3.

Again, I’m not ashamed to admit that starting my career I was scared silly of executives. It took me years to realize they are just people playing their role. They can be brusque, certainly, but you can use that kind of trait to learn how to frame your communication to them (as described in key #1 of this series).

What also helped my effectiveness was recognizing that as a project professional I only had two forms of “power” to influence executives. Executives have position and reward power to influence decisions and direction. We need to reply on personal power and “expert” power to be influential, both of which are covered indirectly in this part of the series.

The Influencing Formula

A few years ago, my wife and co-author Elizabeth Larson and I wrote a book called The Influencing Formula[2]. It provides a practical framework to avoid being “eaten alive” and for being influential when working with executives.

The 3 main elements of influence we found in our experience are:

              Trust + Preparation * Courage

Following are short descriptions of each “variable” in the formula.

Establish Trust

The Influencing Formula has dozens of ways to help build trust. I condensed those down to a dozen in Figure 1. We each do some of these items automatically, and others are areas we could improve on. For example, I am honest and act with integrity without thinking about it. However, communicating bad news is something I need to work on as is acknowledging mistakes. (The latter goes along with my “blue” nature I mentioned in key #1.)

Hopefully you can use this checklist to good effect since all the points will help you build trust with executives. One way to use this list is to do a self-assessment and find 2-3 main areas to work on.

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Figure 1: A dozen ways to build trust with executives



Of the 3 variables in the Influencing Formula, Preparation is the most visible part of working with executives and is the basis of “expert” power. Because of that, we need to do our homework and be thorough when we interact with them. In school we heard about the “3 R’s”. Here are 3 different ones plus a bonus “R.”

  • The first R is Research – discover what you can about your audience, their communication preferences like in key #1, and the business issue at hand. Prepare thoughtful, strategic questions. Be thorough with your analysis and be ready to provide data to back up your findings.
  • Root Cause– always focus on solving business problems, and not systems, technology, or on symptoms. Then be relentless in getting to the root cause and not be satisfied with putting band-aids on symptoms. I can’t stress this one enough, although it can get tricky because it can be political.
  • Recommend – perhaps the most important part of being a strong BA or PM are the recommendations we provide. For instance, the core definition of business analysis in the BABOK® Guide[3] is:

“… the practice of enabling change in an enterprise by defining needs and recommending solutions that deliver value to stakeholders.”

  • The bonus “R” is Respect – executives are always busy and we don’t want to waste their time. Start and stop all sessions on time. Note their communication “color” style and respect it. For example, with a “Red” style, get right down to business. With a “Green” type, give them time to think about a proposal. Acknowledging and acting on communication preferences is a form of respect.

Showing Courage

Have you ever worked directly with your CEO, CIO, or senior executives in your organization or given presentations to them? How did you feel? If you were nervous at first it would be understandable.

A common fear of working with executives comes from focusing on ourselves and a fear of failure, which I mentioned in Part 1 of this series. It can sometimes be paralyzing. And, blaming others for not listening to us or adopting our recommendations is also not courageous or productive.

On the other hand, have you ever made recommendations that countered what the executive or executive team initially wanted? I am sure that took courage and some “personal power.” For example, let’s say executives wanted to solve a problem by replacing an existing system with a new software package. After you analyzed the situation and did some root cause analysis you feel that better documentation and training would solve the problem more effectively and be much cheaper.

What do you do? If we have done our prep work and focus on what’s best for the organization, it can be an important boost to the courage needed to propose an alternative solution. It also helps reduce personal risk, especially if the favored solution was one proposed by the executive you are working with. I’m not saying there is value in being labeled a contrarian and going against the grain. But executives will notice if we are open and transparent and show that we always keep the best interest of the organization in mind.

To recap, project professionals are influential by recommending solutions of value that lead to solving organization problems. Making valuable and viable recommendations is integral to the very heart of what we do. Part 3 of this series covers the 3rd key to working with executives which are things to know that affect executive decision making.


[1] Andrew Neitlich, “How to Master Influence Skills,”

[2] The Influencing Formula, © 2012 by Elizabeth Larson and Richard Larson.

[3] A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK® Guide), © 2015, International Institute of Business Analysis

A Primer on Working with Executives:Swim with the Sharks Without Getting Eaten Alive

Even though my wife Elizabeth Larson and I owned and ran a business, I wouldn’t exactly have used the term “executive” to describe us.

But, we have both worked with several. And, in building and running Watermark Learning we shared an important characteristic with executives which this series of articles will explore.

Early in my career I was scared at the thought of interacting with executives, much less thinking I could ever be effective or influential with them. I found one executive to be particularly intimidating, and his name was Harvey Mild. He was anything but mild, though. He loved to challenge people and if you weren’t completely prepared, he was the kind of senior leader to figuratively eat you alive. Interestingly, I have a great deal of respect for him thinking back on those days.

A good share of my nervousness early on with executives like Harvey came from an inward focus stemming from insecurity about my work and knowledge. It wasn’t until I gained more experience and learned to focus outwardly when dealing with those in authority positions that I started becoming more effective.

All the areas covered in this series will help you become more focused outwardly on executives rather than inwardly on yourself in your contacts with them. This reversal of focus can change everything about our confidence and effectiveness. It will help us to function more as Trusted Advisors, the best way I know how to be effective with executives.

There are three key points I believe will help you to work more effectively with executives, none of which sound profound on the surface. The first one is covered in part 1 of this series, with the remaining two covered in parts 2 and 3 respectively.

  1. Executives communicate in one of four basic styles and how best to respond to them
  2. Executives can be influenced through our recommendations
  3. Executives make decisions and understanding the process and using techniques will help us be more effective.

All three keys will help you work more effectively with executives and help deliver valuable solutions in your organization.

Part 1. Executives Communicate…Like People

Since executives are people, they don’t all think or act alike, nor do they communicate the same. So how can we best function knowing that? Well, one way is to understand some basic communication styles and make sure we use the knowledge of a particular executive’s style to communicate in a way he or she will respond to best.


Communication Styles

So, what are the basic styles you should pay attention to? Many personality and communication profiles like the one from Insights Corporation use a quadrant system like the one in Figure 1 to depict how we all think, learn, and communicate.

I am assuming most people have seen something like this before. Frameworks similar to Figure 1 are often based on continuums using two variables: 1) whether we are more task or people oriented and 2) if we are internally-focused or externally-focused. Another way of expressing the quadrants is to think about where people get their energy from. We humans are surprisingly consistent in how we fit into one of the categories and how we prefer to communicate. That knowledge can help us communicate more effectively with executives.

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Figure 1:Communication Styles, courtesy of and © by Insights Corporation

Red executives are direct, action-oriented, quick to make decisions, and opinionated.

Yellow executives are also direct, but care more about relationships and interactions, need to be involved more so than reds, and like to socialize.

Green executives are reflective sorts, preferring more structured activities than yellows, need time to reflect and think, often consulting with others before making decisions, making them slower and deliberative.

Blue executives on the other hand, are less direct like greens, but unlike greens they are more detail-oriented and focused on facts and research. They similarly need time to make decisions because they want to immerse themselves in the details. They are also opinionated, but in a right-wrong way.

Do you recognize yourself in one of these quadrants or on the line between two? For example, I think of myself as fairly “purple,” having both red and blue energy. And if you are still reflecting on which color you are, it is likely you are a green or blue (please excuse the old joke).


A handy way to use color categories to help you interact more effectively is that of “mirroring,” which you may have heard of.

The concept is meant to remind us to match or “mirror” the style of the person we are communicating with to better relate to them and put them at ease. The best politicians and salespeople use this to help them quickly connect with their prospects. Watch how good salespeople you interact with use this technique.

For example, if a prospect talks quickly, a good salesperson won’t …talk…real…slow. It even extends to body posture. If an executive you are speaking with leans forward, do the same, and don’t lean back in your chair. I recall a sales candidate who I interviewed several years ago. He leaned back during the whole interview while I was leaning forward. His overly casual posture communicated indifference and even a little condescension – needless to say we did not hire that person.

Not only will mirroring put people at ease, but it shows respect and helps build trust too. I don’t mean we should parrot the other person, which is obnoxious. What I suggest is to try and match the tone and emphasis, and also the style and “speed” of the person you are talking to.

For example, if you are dealing with a “yellow” executive style, by all means avoid boring them with details (but make sure they are available if you are asked about them). Or when meeting with your blue or red executive, when should you initiate socializing? As a blue/red, I like to socialize, but prefer to do it after the task at hand is done. If the meeting’s purpose takes the allotted time, I’m fine with little or no socializing.

Handling Executive Colors

See Figure 2 for some tips on handling the various executive communication styles.

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Figure 2: Handling Executive Communication Styles

To start employing this first key, I suggest you begin by observing styles, then practice mirroring, both verbally and non-verbally. Look for part 2 of this series for tips and techniques for influencing executives.

Leadership Lessons from a Grade School Teacher

Would you like to be a better leader? A more effective mentor?

If so, you can probably benefit from reflecting on past mentors of yours who have influenced you. For me it was a favorite teacher of mine back in 6th grade when I was 11 years old. Mr. Fernholz was a young and engaging teacher. He was to me the embodiment of what a good teacher should be.

Mr. Fernholz stands out to me not so much for any specific things he did. Rather it is because of how he approached his job and how he made his students feel. Well, I’m not sure about how others felt, but I hold him in high regard to this day.

1. Genuine Encouragement.

For one thing, he did not talk down to us or demean us like some of the previous teachers I had (oh the stories I could tell.) He genuinely respected his students and wanted to bring out the best in us. There was nothing obvious about it as much as his attitude. It took me years of reflection to realize how much he respected us.

One personal example was his encouragement of me. I wasn’t the best student at that time and did not work as hard as I should have. My 6th grade friends were not the best students either and there were strong social pressures to slack off. My grades were OK but not great. Mr. Fernholz frequently remarked that I was not working up to my potential.

Mr. Fernholz could have just accepted my under-achievement like my other teachers had. Instead, on many occasions I remember him saying “if you don’t go to college, I will hound you until you do.” HIs quiet encouragement was a constant motivation and not only through college, but during stressful times throughout my career. Thanks, Mr. F!

People on our teams and those we lead or mentor need encouragement like my 6th grade self did. It needs to be genuine, though, and not patronizing. People sense the difference and your interactions will be less effective.


2. Fairness.

A good leader/mentor is also fair, so when praise is warranted, they will give it. But when guidance is needed, (s)he will provide that too in a fair way. An incident in my 6th grade class illustrates this point.

Towards the end of my 6th grade term, the class took a major test. It was difficult, but I had studied for it (likely after some encouragement from Mr. Fernholz). Sometime during the exam, I accidently kicked some books out of the shelf below my seat. This was not surprising since I was a fidgety kid. I ignored the books so as not to appear like I was looking up answers in them.

When we got our exam results back the next day, I scored well, higher than any other exams I completed that year. It was astonishing, then, when Mr. F wanted to talk to me after class. He told me another student said she saw me cheating on the exam by looking up answers from the book that had fallen. My better-than-ever results probably added to the credibility of the accusation. Still, I was dumbfounded and hurt that someone would accuse me of something so untrue.

To this day I believe that my teacher had somehow perceived I was telling the truth. Maybe he was able to read my body language and other non-verbals to make his determination. He may have also factored in my past behavior, which if not exemplary, was at least free of any issues. He probably also took the context into account—such as some previous awkward interactions between “my accuser” and me. Maybe Mr. Fernholz understood it, but I’ll never know.

3. Set boundaries.

A final significant memory of 6th grade has to do with discipline. Our class had a disruptive kid who I recall was named Mike (it was a lot of years ago). Mike was a classic problem child, and today might be given special counseling or medication. Mike frequently acted out his feelings and disrupted the class on many occasions.

Partway through the school year, Mr. Fernholz set aside a corner of the classroom with masking tape that would be “Mike’s Area.” When class was in session, Mike was not supposed to leave his area, which reduced his disruption a great deal. It really did improve the classroom dynamics. In today’s world I fear that kind of treatment would likely get a teacher reprimanded if not suspended.

What I can now reflect on is that Mr. Fernholz’s treatment of Mike was pretty fair. The kid wasn’t ostracized since he stayed in the classroom. He could participate in discussions and was expected to do al his normal work. What “Mike’s Area” did for him was to set boundaries that he seemed to need. (Some kids today are said to have “boundary issues” when they overly pester others.) That certainly described Mike, and my teacher’s handling of it was appropriate and effective.

We need to be able to set boundaries with people on our team and with whom we mentor. The boundaries might be the amount of time they take up. They might be the kind of advice a mentee seeks. Over the years, people who I have mentored will easily stray from career advice to asking for consulting help for solving work problems. Every mentor’s boundary line is different, and my advice is to be aware of yours and set expectations up front.

To summarize, I have come to realize Mr. Fernholz was my first mentor. He was also an early example for me of a good leader. He may or may not have viewed these things as his role, but he was effective in them. We can improve our own leadership by thinking about and modeling the way effective mentors have helped us. You probably have good role models in your life that you can reflect on how they helped you and how they made you feel. Please share your tips for how your mentors have helped you.

Why Agile isn’t Enough Part 4: Lean Startup Learn Phase and BA Techniques that Enhance it

In previous parts of this article, we covered an overview of Lean Startups and its Build-Measure-Learn (BML) methodology.

We also explored the Build portion of the cycle, the first step in a Lean Startup. Another article examined the Measure phase of the methodology, which can provide the measures to learn if our product is on the right track. 
Lean Startup was created by Eric Ries and detailed in his seminal book The Lean Startup  published in 2011. Lean Startup helps to guide product development, whether in established companies or startups. It is designed to shorten product development time, helping us deliver products and their features that customers need, not just what they tell us they need.
In this part we’ll examine the remaining portion of the B-M-L cycle, Learn. 


After building a product or features, the second part of the Lean Startup method is measuring how a product is adopted and used. That phase is covered in part 3 of this series. Metrics should be meaningful and should allow us to measure our learning and progress towards goals. Essentially, a Lean Startup grows when meaningful measurements are obtained and then “validated” to provide the learning needed. Validated metrics are those we can learn from to make needed additions, changes, and even “pivots,” which we’ll get back to. 

Validated metrics are those we can learn from to make needed additions, changes, or even “pivots.”

3 Things to Learn

Learning is the key to a successful startup, whether that startup is a product or an entire company. Here are 3 important things we need to learn according to the Lean Startup method1:
  1. What customers really need and want, not just what they say they do (in Business Analysis, we constantly strive for that, right?).
  2. Which elements of our strategy are working (or not). That helps the team to maintain the strategy or modify it. 
  3. Whether we’re on the right track to delivering a viable, sustainable product or business. If we are on the right track, we persevere; if not, we need to pivot. 
And we’re not just talking about any old learning. We need any learning to be validated: backed by empirical data, which results in more useful truths and actionable information than traditional market forecasting or business planning. Validated learning is our best ally in testing and challenging assumptions and pre-conceptions. 

Persevere or Pivot? 

This question is perhaps the most important one for a Lean Startup. Returning to our B-M-L cycle again in Figure 2 we need to learn if our target metrics are moving our product towards the goals in the initial vision or not. 
  • If the metrics show we are moving toward the goals, then the startup can and should persevere. 
  • If the metrics are not moving us close enough to the target, we can design new experiments to test possible new features. Maybe we were testing the wrong thing. But failing that, or if we cannot generate new hypotheses, it is time to pivot – either by changing the product or to cancel it outright. I can attest that is a difficult decision having had to make it more than once. 
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Figure 2: Persevere or Pivot in Lean Startup


Examples of Pivots: The Importance of Learning

  • Did you know that YouTube began as a video dating service with a slogan of “Tune in, hook up”? It did not grow as they had hoped until they discovered the appeal of a general video sharing service they are today. 
  • Groupon started as a platform for rallying people to social and charitable causes but started to fade after some initial success. They added a subdomain that pooled people together to receive discounts and that feature proved far more popular. 
  • In 2004 Yelp was a service where friends could ask each other for direct recommendations for things, which was not moving the company towards their goals. When they learned users were writing reviews for fun, they pivoted to focusing just on reviews that is their business today. 

Learn/Decide – 9 Techniques 

Besides the Business Analysis techniques to facilitate learning, I’m including techniques in Figure 3 to help with decision-making. That is because the “persevere or pivot” decision is the most important one a startup must make. Business Analysis skills such as facilitation can greatly assist during “pivot or persevere” meetings. Eric Ries suggests startups hold these roughly every month or two1. A suggested focus of these meetings is to review the relevant metrics against hypotheses and consider alternatives. 
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Figure 3: Techniques for Learning/Deciding


In summary, we’ve seen several ways in which Business Analysis can help fuel a lean startup. 
  • Lean startup methodology relies on the Build-Measure-Learn cycle. It is focused on learning and delivering on what customers really need vs. what they say they do. What could be more important? 
  • Building – focus on finding “problems worth solving” and start by building an MVP, which is the fewest trips through the B-M-L cycle to build a product that provides the most validated learning. 
  • Measuring – valid measurements are the unsung heroes of a successful startup. Without valid measures we can’t learn as quickly or maybe not at all. Remember to avoid “Vanity Metrics” and collect “Metrics that Matter” using AAA metrics –Actionable, Accessible, and Auditable. They are essential to learning what customers need. 
  • Learning – is the acknowledged key to making Lean Startups succeed. We need to learn what customers really need and want, not what we think or what they tell us. We also use that learning to facilitate “persevere or pivot” sessions. 
  • Techniques – there are several proven, standard Business Analysis techniques that can help at every stage of the Build-Measure-Learn cycle. Not an exhaustive list to be sure, but we covered 20 of them and have a summary of the 20 as a free downloadable “template” available on 
Finally, if Build-Measure-Learn is the central engine driving a Lean Startup, then Business Analysis techniques and skills are the fuel for that engine. Accordingly, Lean Startups represent an exciting future for those of us who practice Business Analysis. 

[1] Eric Ries, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, New York: Crown Business Books, 2011

[1] 5 Big Brands That Had Massively Successful Pivots¸ Published February 15, 2018. Downloaded June 12, 2019.