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Author: Yaaqub (Yamo) Mohamed

How Can You be a Business Analyst without Knowing the ____?

This is one of my favorite questions to ask whenever I get a chance to talk to a group of business analysts, be it a study group, class or during a presentation.

After I run through a whole bunch of jargon, best practices and, in some instances, inter-relationships between the different business analysis knowledge areas from the BABOK®, I tell them, “So, I have a simple question to ask you all.” It usually is rephrased as:

What do you absolutely need to know to be a business analyst?

At a fundamental level, what makes a business analyst good, or even great?

What do they need to know well to excel in performing effective analysis?

What is the ‘oomph’ factor that’ll starkly distinguish how a business analyst recommends one solution or approach over another?

After some fast thinking on their feet, I usually get the following responses (with smug smiley faces and brightly lit eyes):

The methodology of the organization?

I utter ‘no’ immediately.

BA Techniques?

I smile and say no.


I raise my eyebrows and say no.

At this point, I make this a simple fill-in-the-blank question and ask them to amp up the thinking up a notch.

How can you be a BA without knowing the ________?

I get the sponsor, organizational structure, enterprise architecture, domain knowledge (I echo “kinda”), etc.

After dropping my shoulders in a bit of disappointment, I proceed to complete the sentence. (Please don’t expect a magical potion answer here!)

How can you be a BA without knowing the BUSINESS?

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Duh!? Apparently, this is not distilled wisdom extracted after meditating under the supreme BA knowledge tree in the Himalayas.

So, why and how is it important to you as an analyst to know the business well?

How can you learn the “business” better?

In this post, I’ll provide some insight on why this is so essential, even though it’s so simple.

Let’s start with a quote from a great man, Leonardo da Vinci.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Let’s explore the ‘why’ first.

Related Article: Promoting and Selling the Role of the Business Analyst

Here are the three reasons why knowing the ‘Business’ is necessary for you to be an excellent business analyst.

Knowing the ‘Business’ is Your Business

As a business analyst, you’re entrusted to know how an organization functions in the complex web of people, processes, tools, and technology. A Systems thinking hat is essential and something to be used at all times. Let’s examine the definition of a business analyst based on BABOK® V3:

“Business analysts are responsible for discovering, synthesizing, and analyzing information from a variety of sources within an enterprise, including tools, processes, documentation, and stakeholders. The business analyst is responsible for eliciting the actual needs of stakeholders—which frequently involves investigating and clarifying their expressed desires—to determine underlying issues and causes.”

The responsibility of knowing the ‘business’ is assumed in this definition. This is essentially the glue that holds all of the discovering, synthesizing and analyzing together. If I had to define what it means to know the ‘business’ to be a better BA, I would define it as follows:

“Having superior knowledge of the inner workings of the business (or a business unit), the value propositions (products & services) that are supported, along with how different components interact with one another to create positive outcomes for the business and its key stakeholders. The components could include, industry positioning of the organization, business processes, customer segments, revenue streams, key stakeholder interactions, current challenges, constraints, and opportunities.”

This is the Secret Sauce of Going from Good to Great

After sitting through hundreds of requirements review sessions and JAD sessions, I have seen a pattern of what contributes to excellent analysis. If someone is conducting a requirements discovery session to map out the As-Is process flow, the quality of questions depends on how well they have prepared for elicitation and how well they understand the underpinnings of the process or inner workings of the organizational unit.

Knowing how a department works from end to end, even if it’s peripheral to your area of analysis, can significantly enhance your analysis outcome. It can improve the quality of your questions and thereby create better deliverables.

Pause and Self-Reflect for a Moment

I’d like you to think back and reflect on your journey as a business analyst and evaluate how you were able to perform better analysis if you had a better understanding of what you were dealing with. Did knowing how one department hands off work to another help you ask better questions? Were you more stoked when you understood and were able to trace EXACTLY how your work would or could improve the lives of over a thousand sales reps across the country? Were you able to create better process flows for an update of live software that you were involved with initially? If you can find at least one example of this from your experience, the simplicity, and importance of knowing the ‘business’ will resonate with you.

Now, let me leave you with three simple and effective tips that will help you learn the ‘business’ better.

‘No Curiosity’ Killed the BA

Be curious about the project that you get on. Ask to job shadow a business user and ask them what value their department brings to the organization. Obtain possession of user manuals or policies and procedures library to understand how their unit operates. Aim to become an expert in the realm of your analysis, because you can’t give expert advice without being an expert. As an analyst, you must be galvanized with the prospect of knowing the constituent parts of the organization or a department and learning how it all comes together both at the micro and macro level.

Understand the Business Model Canvas for this Business

Another great way to look at an organization is to see it through the lens of Business Model Canvas – a tool to map, discuss, design and invent new business models. You can start by reading this Wikipedia article on ‘Business Model Canvas’ and watching the following two-minute video:

There is also a blank template that you could download and use for mapping out the canvas for the organization that you’re working in. Additionally, you can also zoom in a little bit and create one even for an organizational unit.

Zoom Out and In

In my first book, The Five Pillars of a Great Business Analyst, I underscore the importance of recursive systems thinking. If systems thinking is about having a big picture view of your analysis in the context of the domain, recursive systems thinking is having multiple big picture snapshots, and zooming out each time until you see how it all ties into the overall business. As you go through the analysis of a piece of a problem domain, think of what people are involved, what processes have an impact on their work and workflows, and what systems they use including IT and Non-IT. Repeat this process by zooming out to relate it to the next level up in the organization until you’re able to understand how this aligns with the overall objectives and value propositions offered by the organization (e.g. how a change in billing system to enable online statements impacts the billing department, and then to sales and marketing department and then how it affects the organization’s overall objective to go green).

I wish you luck with your ‘business’!

Please use the space below to provide further comments or questions on the theme of ‘knowing the business’ or to provide more suggestions of how to learn the ‘business’ better.

The 11th Powerful Business Analyst Lesson from Life of Pi – This Will Surprise You!

It was a tex-mex night at Rose and Crown pub where we have our monthly GTA Business Analysts meetups. Bennett (who is btw, the voiceover for the intro on the BA podcast that I host) always has interesting insights that he brings to the table (no pun intended).

He seemed to really enjoy the “10 Powerful BA lessons from the Life of Pi” that to my pleasant surprise became the top article of 2013 here on BA times. In addition to these 10 inspirations, he reminded all of us about a scene from the movie that can serve as a very important lesson in life; his perspective on this event in the movie inspired me to write this post (Thanks! Bennett).

Let’s also explore the angle of how this can serve as a powerful lesson for Business Analysts later in this post.

So, the scene he was alluding to was the one that can make you wonder to say the least.

When you read about this in the book or watch it come to life in the movie, you will be taken aback. The first question that may cross your mind is:

“Are you serious?” or “Why Pi Why? Why did you do that?”

It so happens that when you are in the middle of the ocean with thinning supplies and having company that can eat you up alive any second, your gut response would be to elude danger. Pi had to build a satellite raft to stay away from the big beast and to ensure he stays alive out in the wild waters. So, when the storm hits the ocean and everything goes helter-skelter the tiger gets overthrown into the ocean.

Hurray! The danger is averted!

“Adios Tiger!”, you may exclaim sub-vocally rejoicing Pi’s freedom in the theatre or jump up in joy if you are in your living room.

However, he does something that has a deep meaning and implication to his survival.

He pulls the tiger back on the boat and rescues him. Because he knew that the Bengal beast was the reason for his survival. He had to be alert and resourceful to continue to survive and also keep the tiger alive. He lived because he knew he was going to die, he forged ahead in the unknown territory because the ocean was a dead end for him, and he was sane because the sheer panic to survive left no room for insanity.

It could have been Pi’s perfect moment to scoot away and bid adieu to the big cat. However, the same danger was the very root of his survival in the sea. Pi remained alive, agile and alert because of the tiger. He had a purpose to serve and something to look out for and to look after. Someone to fear from and to confront with.

So, here is another lesson for life:

“Bring the tiger in”

When we are riding a high wave in the ocean, confronting real tangible fears of the water and the unknown, that’s what is making us strong. There are times when we do realize that an imminent danger is a bad thing, when in reality it may not be.

So, what is the tiger in the context of being a Business Analyst (or any professional)?

Let me illustrate with three examples.

A Tough Project – Staying On

Sometimes, the urge to quit an organization or project because of tough stakeholders or insurmountable politics or other challenges will seem like an obvious choice. However, this can make us stronger and build our resistance and immunity to face them in future. When you make a reasonable assessment of the danger and get a perspective on the situation, you can use a tough project as an excellent growth opportunity.

Career Stagnation – Moving On

As a business analyst, you are champion for facilitating the change in an organization. If you fear change or fear the possibility of confronting a career change, you maybe in trouble. Without tangible career growth, if a stable job and wonderful colleagues (is there anything more?), make you feel like this is your dream job, then you need to step back and get a perspective. Moving on to explore other opportunities is another way you can bring the tiger in.

An Unreasonable Project Manager or People Manager

Most of the times an unreasonable project manager or people manager will have something useful to offer as an experience for you. Take it up as a challenge to question estimates, provide reasoning, and persuade to help a PM understand your POV. If your career manager has unreasonable demands, use this an opportunity to negotiate and set realistic expectations.

As you can see, there is always a reason for an event to take place in anyone’s life or career. The immediate danger of the tiger actually kept Pi live; so, when you confront your tiger make sure you think of this lesson to help the beast embark on your boat and make you stronger!

So, what has your tiger been in the present or past projects? Are you bringing it back on the boat?

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

10 Powerful Business Analyst Lessons from Life of Pi

FEATURE April9thIf you’ve read the novel Life of Pi, you probably know it is one of those novels that’s bizarre, yet fantastical, filled with events that are accidental, yet have a grander plan, and comical, while poised.

I am sure you would have gleaned many useful lessons and inspirations from the movie (or book) while being awestruck by the cinematic grandeur of its special effects. Some of the lessons that I present here maybe pure common sense, but take on a different color when you view them through the lens of the movie.

1. Adversity Will Make You a Better BA – But Why Wait? 

Pi’s life was less than ordinary, with ordeals throughout his life. He kept surviving despite the odds. Like Pi, we are all much more capable, but unaware of our true potential until adversity strikes us, or our project. We see the real strength of Pi when he is thrown into the sea by the forces of nature.

Time and time again, I have seen BAs try to evade a potential threat (lay-off, no promotion or career growth) by becoming active with their network, joining IIBA, and investigating the possibility of getting certified. It is human to react to a threat, however, why should we wait until it is presented to us? 

We really don’t have to wait for an adverse project or organization situation to maximize our strengths and capabilities. 

So, don’t wait until you get laid-off to take the next big step in your career. 

2. Keep Moving

Remember in the story when Pi reaches the glorious and wonderful island during his tribulation in the ocean? He felt like he had found heaven. It was an Oasis of life with food, fresh water, and shelter. However, as night approached, he quickly realized that the island was a dangerous abode for him (no spoilers here – if you’ve watched the movie, you know the exact reason).

We often become part of such an organization or project in real life. Things seem wonderful and everything looks perfect. However, if we don’t pause, take the time to “step outside of the cubicle” and holistically look into ourselves or where the project is headed, we may end up sinking into a deeper quagmire. 

So, next time it’s all rosy and cozy, step back and evaluate if the situation or project is really “safe”.

3. Let Go! 

Pi had an extraordinary ability to cope with loss and focus on surviving whatever came next! Letting go can be painful, especially if it is something that is dear to you. 

As BAs, when a situation demands so, we should let go of: 

  • The way we have done things in the past. 
  • The templates that we hold dearly (stop being template zombies!) 
  • The organization culture and standards that don’t make sense. 

So, take a closer look at what you are holding onto like a vice grip and see the benefits of letting go when possible.  

4. If Methodology is Religion – Be a Good Disciple

During his younger days, Pi experiments with different religions. He navigates through and appreciates Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. He finds peace, tranquility, and meaning in each of these religions by questioning and understanding the basic tenets. Although quite different, he acknowledged that each religion contained valuable philosophies and practices – elements to help him survive the sea, and the tiger.

In the context of being a BA, a methodology is like a religion. There is innate value in every methodology. While it is good to believe and follow a certain methodology to help us through the good and bad times, it is more important to have universal good practices to hold onto. These practices will serve as anchors during adverse project scenarios and situations. 

5. Get a Grip on Reality Sooner

When Pi was catapulted out of the sinking ship into the wild ocean, he cried like there was no tomorrow. However, he quickly recovered and did not allow his grief to overcome him. He was able to understand the context of the problem and planned the next steps that kept him alive. 

With the pace of change and volatile stakeholders needs, it is easy to lose sight of reality in projects. As business analysts, we should always be on the lookout for expressions and cues that reflect this. Rather than whining and crying, it is better to grasp a sense of the reality and the ability to respond in a positive manner sooner.

6. Resilience, Adaptability and Co-Existence

From his school days in Pondicherry, Pi, demonstrated qualities of springing back to normalcy. He was mocked and teased, tormented and traumatized, but he never gave up and always had a way around it. 

The very nature of our work exposes us to a wide range of personalities and archetypes. We need to learn to understand them in order to be able to work with them. This is also one of the key elements of the “Adaptive Social Skills” pillar in my first book – “The Five Pillars of a Great BA”. It also applies quite well to this example. Sometimes, we have to overcome adversities with people as well as processes (read organizational process assets), even if it means gritting our teeth and bearing it. 

While keeping his distance from the tiger, Pi comes really close to living with the beast by marking territories and setting some rules (remember how he does it in the movie?). He also starts to develop a bond with Mr. Parker (the tiger). 

As business analysts, we deal with project stakeholders and interact with them for workshops or other analysis work. It is always useful to establish this interaction by setting some ground rules and defining the various roles and responsibilities. 

Tough projects don’t last – Tough BAs do! 

7. The Resourceful Toolkit 

Pi invented many ways to take care of himself and the beautiful Bengal tiger Mr. Parker. For example, he created a mini raft to keep a safe distance from Mr. Parker in the main boat, and innovative ways to fish for them both. He also created a mini rainwater harvesting system to collect drinking water. 

On the flip side, his entire survival toolkit was tested when all of his innovative tools vanished due to a massive whale doing a backflip in the water. 

As business analysts, we are faced with dire project scenarios and needs. We need to learn to be innovative by coming up with ways to elicit, analyze, document, and communicate the requirements and overall vision of the project. In this increasingly unpredictable project world, it is to our advantage to develop alternative ways to keep the project afloat, like Pi and the boat. 

On the flip side, putting all of our eggs in one “tool or technique” basket is not a good idea. The tools or techniques that we currently use could be overthrown at anytime. You must continually expand the tools and techniques you know. 

8. The Reciprocating Stakeholders 

Mr. Parker and Pi, at some point in the movie, develop a somewhat uneasy relationship. We see quite a dramatic turnaround in their relationship – from almost killing Pi to becoming dependent on him. This however, happened slowly and with reason. There were reciprocating moments that lead to this, like when Mr. Parker defeats the hyena and Pi feeds him the fish so that the tiger will not starve. 

This principle of reciprocity can be applied to our project scenarios as well. When we help our stakeholders understand the upcoming change and honor everyone’s best interest, we get rewarded by their support. In every negotiation that involves stakeholders, we should always consider how a change could benefit them without belittling ourselves. In doing this, you will build good karma with them and they will help you when the need arises.

9. Reflection and Learning 

You may think that being in the middle of the ocean with a wild animal is not the best place to learn and reflect. Pi, had a different viewpoint. One of the ways in which Pi remained sane was by keeping a journal to keep track of time and his ideas. He read books and had a “continuing education plan”, even though his life may have ended before getting that next CDU.

Business analysts sometimes have wonderful excuses to not invest in learning. We often cite the “crazy-busy-project” examples to avoid learning, absorbing industry standards (like BABOK), becoming certified, or even engaging in passive learning activities like listening to audio podcasts.  

So, I hope you think of Pi when you create an excuse to not learn.

And now, the last and the most important lesson: 

10. A Twist in the Tale – There is Always the Other Side to a Story 

If you’ve read the book or watched the movie, you know what this is about. I won’t give many details here as it may lead to some spoilers.

Business analysts should understand that there is always the other side to our viewpoint – always another side to any story. It is your job as a BA to determine the side that is not obvious and be aware of it. We should be cognizant of and keep an alert nose up in the air for:

  • Eliciting any hidden information (“Elicit” after all means drawing forth something that is latent or hidden).
  • Organizational politics that may be hindering or inhibiting our work.
  • Hidden agendas of a stakeholder or stakeholder group.

I hope you found this post useful and as enjoyable as I did writing it.

Which of the 10 lessons above is your favorite(s)? Is there anything else that you would like to add? 

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

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