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Author: Teri McIntyre

Business Analyst Says: Let’s Pretend We’re Secret Agents

“Please don’t call me by my real name, it destroys the reality I’m trying to create.”

–Wallace Ritchie, “The Man Who Knew Too Little”

Back in 2009, I presented at an education conference that had as its theme “CIA — The Not Secret1So Secret Service.” All presenters were to incorporate a spy story or approach within their presentations to support the theme. My topic — an introduction to business process mapping — was by request so I welcomed a little extra inspiration to heighten my own interest.

While most people went the route of James Bond or Jason Bourne or the like, I was drawn to a favorite, little-known 1997 movie “The Man Who Knew Too Little.” In this movie, the lead character, Wallace Ritchie (played by Bill Murray), flies to England to spend his birthday with his brother James. James, however, has a business engagement is not too keen to have his brother involved with it. Instead, he signs Wallace up to participate in the “Theatre of Life,” a role-playing exercise that promises to treat the participant as a character in a crime drama.

Things go off the rails early when Wallace answers a phone call intended for a hit man, and he is mistaken for a real spy. Wallace becomes tangled up in a plot to kill Russian and British dignitaries on the eve of the signing of an important peace agreement between the nations. For Wallace it’s all an elaborate act; to the men who want a second World Cold War, Wallace is public enemy number one.

While I found the film entertaining, I also found it informative in respect to how I conceive of my business analyst dealings. I often feel like a secret agent when embarking on a new project or rather a new stage within the “Theatre of Life.” Walking onto a new stage means coming into contact with a new configuration of players, some of whom have been patrons of that particular theatre for many, many, many years. It means entering an evolving story, one that has characters entering and exiting stage left and right, up, down and center. It is our challenge as business analysts to infiltrate this story, flush out the secrets and motivations of the characters, survey the stage for dangers and allies, and ultimately fulfill our mission.

In a nutshell, we are secret agents.

Literature and cinema have schooled us well that all secret agents are governed by two sets of rules of engagement: those laid out by the boss and those learned on the job. I recently re-watched this movie and found myself yet again inspired by its entertaining and informative applications to my business analyst career. So I decided to start sketching out some of the various rules of engagement I have learned thus far on my secret agent missions. Presented here is a sampling of these rules, as identified in collaboration with this particular movie.

Play the role that fits the situation

There is no law that a business analyst must play the same role in every situation. Thank goodness! One key characteristic that separates good business analysts from great ones is the ability to assess a situation and take on the role required. You are always ‘you,’ but sometimes a little play-acting is necessary to get done what needs to get done.

Wallace: You’ve got a great accent, are you from here?

Wear the appropriate uniform

Pretty simple rule — match your attire to the role and to the situation. If you are working in an environment that is t-shirts and jeans, don’t show up in a suit and tie. And vice versa. You are revealing your status as a secret agent otherwise! Respect the situation and it will respect you.

Lori: Do you think I look silly in this outfit? I could take it off if you like.

Always carry the right tools

You need a solid set of tools for whenever you enter a new stage. Be selective with what you choose to put in your toolbox; you can always pick up other items along the way. I always have a white board pen, a little squeezeable toy and a rotation of three favorite necklaces. These items become my indispensible project assets. The pen lets me draw/write things down almost everywhere (all you need is a glass surface), the toy helps me alleviate frustration and the necklaces, well, just make me feel good.

Wallace: Conveniently found a mallet outside but I’m gonna swap it for this one, ok?

Never give up on you

Being a business analyst is hard, dirty, exhausting work. Don’t try to tell me anything different; I know of what I speak. Expect some bruises, some scarring on your missions. But don’t just give up when things get tough. Giving up on yourself is to allow external forces to become more powerful than your own will. Draw on your strengths even more readily to push through the negative, and remain confident that you can achieve success no matter the obstacles being faced.

Wallace: Hang on Bill, clench your buttocks.

Stand by your principles

Adapt to the situation but do not adopt it. Be authentic. Do what is right and not what you are told is right. Comprising your principles is akin to sacrificing your arm. You risk the quality level of your produced work and of not being seen as standing for anything.

Wallace: And I want a stairmaster, I want a juice master, I want a thigh master, and I want a butt master. And if you can’t give it to me, then I’m going back to Des Moines.

Don’t get boxed in

Believe it or not, you are paid to be creative, to think outside the box, to even blow up the box if need be! Being analytical does not mean following every prescribed rule or template out there. It means learning from these entities and assessing how best to apply them to the box so that you can do your absolute best. There may not be an ideal solution for any given situation; you need to be innovative and individualistic and creative enough to when/where/how to deploy your skills to the greatest effect.

Wallace: It’s for allergies — actually, it’s a powerful agent that sharpens my senses, yet deadens my emotions.

Know what works

Textbooks, training courses, templates, etc., are great starting points when embarking on a new mission, but that is all they are: starting points. Don’t be brainwashed into believing that there is a single right way of doing anything or that the same approach is applicable to every situation. Wrong! Learn the methodology and methods but always assess each unique situation to determine what will work and won’t work.

Wallace: They pay all your expenses, you’re licensed to kill, but there’s a downside. Torture.


Take the shot

You will encounter people who throw roadblocks your way occasionally; accept this. But if the roadblocks are not constructive or serve to satisfy individual agendas or hamper your work in any way, be direct as to the potential damage the blocks may be inflicting on the project. Be as polite as possible, but don’t be afraid to exercise some strategic confrontation in order to set up the tactical shots.

Wallace: Yo matey, you just stabbed me with your pen.

Question those in charge

In theory, a business analyst needs to question everyone and everything. What often happens though is that access to the higher end of reporting channels is blocked from your reach. Don’t accept this if you know or even suspect that the answers you seek are behind that block. You need to get at agendas and biases earlier rather than later. Continuously seek more answers for your questions rather than settle for the ones received.

Wallace: Time out. Uh, I hate to break out of character, but, you cannot shout into a person’s ear. It does damage. The spitting I don’t mind…

Team does so have an “I”

Yes, yes it does. Being on a team does not negate your individuality, nor does expressing your individuality within a team equate to being an egoist. You still need to look after you; it is just that now you need to figure out a way to translate that need constructively into the team narrative. You have uniqueness, a distinctiveness that should not be stripped or hidden away in the name of achieving a false ideal of what it means to be part of a “team.” It should be privileged, maybe even exploited a little.

Wallace: Well what about our story? Are we just a doomed couple, do we have to be Bonnie and Clyde? Can it be like The Getaway, couldn’t it be like that?

Have a signature drink

Or dessert. I much prefer the idea of a signature dessert.

Now your turn: what secret agent rules have you discovered through your missions?

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Teri A McIntyre, MA, CBAP, is a principal at Charann Consulting, providing business analysis and project management services to public and private industry. She is a Libra/Tiger, which scares and pleases her and her clients simultaneously. She adores analytical work and getting in front of the clients but rebels against putting a pre-conceived box around how such activities should be completed. Personal philosophy: Why should a painter paint if he is not transformed by his own painting? – Michel Foucault

Business Analyst Says: Do Something Worth Remembering

All I did was create some pretty-looking clouds. You would have thought I invented clouds.

 “Do something worth remembering.” So said Elvis Presley, who did many things worth remembering, like his infamous pelvis shake and those peanut butter-banana-bacon sandwiches. But how often do we take the time to recognize whether we have done something worth remembering in our careers?

As practicing business analysts we do ‘things’ every day. The requirements are gathered. The stakeholders are identified. The documents are written. The hands are held. This is all expected work, rote work if you will, of a business analyst. And certainly we love what we do, routine or not; we remember all of it. But is any of what we do in the daily grind worth remembering once the project is over, once the deliverable is delivered, once the milestone is achieved?

I go with “No.” Many a project has crossed my desk over the years, and mostly they stand out now as comprising lines on my CV. I don’t want to give the impression that I move on and forget everything that came before. I do remember all the projects I’ve worked on and often refer to past work as part of a future project. However, it is on the rare occasion that I can narrow in on some accomplishment or action which bookmarks a project as being unique and worth remembering beyond the advantages of a new career experience. We should strive to do something worth remembering, not just something that can be remembered, to give those experiences a little extra ‘oomph’.

I’m talking about the things that become humorous anecdotes relayed to friends over drinks or creative examples provided to a potential employer in an interview. These may be big ticket things but often these are the little things that get overlooked in the daily grin, that get lost in the purgatory heat of getting the job done and getting it done well.

One such bookmark for me centers on the aforementioned pretty-looking clouds. They started as a quick means to an end and wound up being something worthy of remembering not only for me but more importantly for my client.

It all started innocently enough.

I participated in a large-scale corporate website renewal project last year. By the time I was assigned to the project, the organizational unit owning it had already solicited two external reports on what needed to be addressed with the renewal, completed an RFP, and hired a consulting firm to complete the design by the time I arrived. This all sounded great until I started reviewing the consultant reports and the RFP. It became clear almost instantly that the scope and requirements for the project were ill-defined. Not only was the cart put before the horse, but the horse was completely absent from the landscape.

Never one to back away from a challenge, I furrowed my brow to figure out how to quickly elicit the missing business requirements to fill in the blanks. What I knew from the RFP and the project sponsors was that the organization needed a new website and that it was going to happen. Not a whole lot of insight there. I also knew from these two sources that I couldn’t re-interview or meet with the stakeholders regarding the requirements; these individuals had already been through two rounds of interviews with the consultants and had participated in multiple in-house discussions before my arrival. They were agitated by the lack of project progress, and it was strongly advanced that if I went the interview/discussion route again the project could collapse.

I heeded the advice wisely and devised a tactical plan of attack. After all, one reason I was brought into the project was to diffuse this agitation not exacerbate it. Luck was on my side when one of the project sponsors casually mentioned that the consultants had provided the interview transcripts along with their final deliverables. I combed through this source material and determined that the business requirements could be synthesized into five major themes. With this step complete, I took those themes and broke them down into accompanying requirement groups or business functions that would prioritize the functional and content requirements work later on.

While this achievement was thrilling for me, I knew no standard template or approach was going to work in the presentation of this information. I needed a hook, something creative that would grab the attention of these disgruntled stakeholders and keep it long enough to peek my head through opened door and win their preliminary support for further requirements work.

In a late-night rush, I decided to (a) present a picture of the themes (themes were limited to titles of three words each), (b) present one quotation culled from the interview transcripts for each theme, and (c) present the picture as a cluster of clouds to represent my own brainstorming activities on the project. There were three reasons informing my decision:

  • It was a website project so the stakeholders were open to a ‘non-traditional’ approach.
  • A picture would represent to the stakeholders an investment of my time and effort in understanding the project.
  • The text quotations would demonstrate to the stakeholders my investment in listening to what they had to say.

Portraying the latter reason was critical – I needed to present their words back not only to demonstrate my investment but to also attune them to understand that they were invested in the project too. For as disgruntled and unhappy as they were by that point, they needed to be reminded of their initial investment and enthusiasm for the project. This meant finding the right quotations; I couldn’t just pick any collection of words that fit the theme. They had to resonant as much as the visual, if not more.

I’m now irrevocably associated with “the clouds”.

Well, to say that the clouds were a success would be a serious understatement. I created the one-page picture and sent it to the project sponsors first. Unabashed glee may not be the best description of their reaction but it is darn close. Excitement for the project ratcheted up immediately within the project team and I was off and running. I presented it to the stakeholders next and the response was just as positive. I had hit the nail on the head.

The effort spent on the quotations paid off too, as people embraced the exactitude and simplicity of the words I presented back to them. They started trying to figure out who said what, sometimes even mildly arguing over credit. Through a single afternoon discussion we all arrived at the project muster point I desired: it didn’t matter who owned the quote, what mattered was the depth of commonality across the entire stakeholder group in understanding what the project needed to achieve. It didn’t matter that Person A said the words; it mattered more that Person B through Z also agreed with the words.

With the commonality recognized and accepted, great things started to happen. Those stakeholders that were still in the project, but were ready to bolt, started voicing their frustrations constructively and engaging with the project in a more active and optimistic fashion. In fact, the one stakeholder I was told would never get on board became one of the project’s biggest supporters. As well, those that were still engaged but with low enthusiasm started increasing their engagement as well and translating their increasing enthusiasm into actionable tasks and positive commentary.

That one-page document with the pretty-looking clouds became the lynchpin for the project. Whenever the project appeared to stall or lose some momentum, out came the clouds. Whenever an external party questioned the work and scope of the project, out came the clouds. Out came the clouds everywhere. It became a punch line of sorts; “remember the clouds!” was a familiar refrain throughout the early weeks. One of the project sponsors even talked about having a t-shirt made with the clouds that she could wear to executive meetings and presentations!

With these pretty-looking clouds, I did something worth remembering without any expectation of doing so. A creative, tactical gamble paid off more than I anticipated. For me, the clouds got the job done; for my clients, the clouds got the job done well. I won’t be remembered for the deliverables or the content audit or the many other routine tasks I completed to successfully implement this project. I may not even be remembered at all in five years’ time. But those pretty-looking clouds will be, and it is satisfying to know I played a central role in their creation and longevity.

So, do something worth remembering. And not just for your clients or for a promotion or some reward, but do it for you. Go outside the boundaries for the standard rules of engagement. Take risks if the circumstances warrant it. Make it a habit to reflect on your work beyond what you needed to accomplish and take stock of the worth of your contributions. Such reflection will make you a stronger business analyst and reveal opportunities you may not have conceived of as being possible.

 Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Teri A McIntyre, MA, CBAP, is a principal at Charann Consulting, providing business analysis and project management services to public and private industry. She is a Libra/Tiger, which scares and pleases her and her clients simultaneously. She adores analytical work and getting in front of the clients but rebels against putting a pre-conceived box around how such activities should be completed.  Personal philosophy: Why should a painter work if he is not transformed by his own painting? – Michel Foucault