Tag: Communication

BATimes_June22_2022

Requirements Gathering: Pants or not?

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to wear real “business casual” pants to work. Not since the Before Times has a client seen me from the waist down. Well not anymore! For the first time since February of 2020 I will sit down with a client…in person…in a room…with pants on. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.

We BAs are social creatures. Being locked-up in my house for the better part of 2 years was not…shall we say…optimal. Don’t get me wrong, It was great spending every minute… of every hour… of every day with my lovely wife of 32 years. Really…it was…great. It’s just that I struggled to do my job well… heck, I struggled to get out of bed sometimes.

I have spent 30 years splashing around in the wading pool of process design and improvement…and almost every day was spent interacting with live human beings. A June 1st article in the BATimes by Lee Templeton, listed “10 Soft Skills You’ll Need To Be A Successful Business Analyst” (check it out, it’s a good read). As she points out, these soft skills are people related skills…you know…for working with people. I have these skills! I’m really good with these skills! But now that the world has seen that working from home actually…er… works from home… there’s a perception that getting together in a brick and mortal room is no longer necessary (as if donuts and coffee weren’t necessary). Unfortunately most, if not all, of the skills on the list… the skills I have… suffer in both application and effectiveness during a virtual meeting.

We all know that rapport building is the poster-child for BA skills. It’s number 1 on Ms. Templeton’s list for a reason. We can’t do our job without it. Clients need to trust us. We’re going to get them to air their dirty laundry… to tell us the bad and the ugly as well as the good. They say “you can’t read the room on a Zoom”. A more truthful statement has ne’er been uttered. I need to pick up on the vibe in the room so I can adjust my strategy, delivery, and approach. Where are people sitting? Is their body language open or defensive? Who’s giving furtive glances to whom? Well let’s see…people are sitting at their kitchen tables…their body language is, well …slouchy… and they can’t glance at anyone. Of course, I can see that much only if they have their cameras on! A quick show of hands…who’s had their initial meeting with a group of SMEs where everyone had their video turned off? I swear I lose a little piece of my BA soul every time a window goes dark. Oh, I can build that rapport, and those relationships… eventually… but what I could do in 30 minutes in person can take hours online. C’mon SMEs! I don’t have all day!

Back to the list…Enthusiasm. Great…I’m enthusiastic. This should be an easy one. But just how enthusiastic can I be when I’m a head in a box? I’m talking with my hands like an Italian grandmother…showing how this flows into that, where this step loops back to here…and no one can see it! OK…Creativity… creativity… maybe I should throw up a whacky virtual background… break some ice… get a chuckle from the guy sitting out on his deck. What do I have that wouldn’t A) offend someone, B) make me come across as goofy and unprofessional, (as opposed to goofy but professional?), or C) make my head disappear? Ugh. Boring corporate logo it is.

So what’s a BA to do? Well, we need to Adapt (another soft skill from Ms. Templeton’s list). We need to find new tools and techniques that not only allow us to do what we did in the Before Times, but to do it better. We need to embrace the new reality, jump on the bandwagon, go with the flow, and do some other catchy phrase that hopefully involves the word “paradigm”.

Remote learning for school was the necessity that drove the invention of new types of learning software. The glazed-eye inducing PowerPoint deck was joined by game-based and interactive Q&A platforms, concept visualization tools, old-people-friendly software for creating short videos and animation, and my favorite…virtual whiteboards. I have fond memories of the smell of a new dry-erase marker in a room with whiteboard walls… of gliding around the room scribbling this over here, laying down an arrow to that over there, drawing a cow in the corner while everyone’s on a bio-break…ah, the good ol’ days. But we must Adapt, right?

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My first go at Adaptability was to find an online whiteboard. Boy howdy! There’s a lot of ‘em. Here’s as far as I got before succumbing to virtual overload. (deep breath, here we go)… Microsoft Whiteboard… Miro… Explain Everything… TutorialsPoint… Educreations… Limnu… Mural… Groupboard… Ziteboard… ConceptBoard… LiveBoard… StormBoard… ThisBoard.. ThatBoard, and TheOtherBoard… and my favorite “we’ve run out of whiteboard names” board: FigJam. It was interesting to see the differences in functionality…and by extension, the requirements the BAs wrote. Some were straight up blank boards (i.e. lazy BAs), some were big on templates, some had magic Post-It notes, some allowed you to embed files, some had voting and cute little avatars, and some tried to do everything…and failed spectacularly. I even bought a graphics pad and pen to see if my horrible handwriting was just as horrible in the virtual world. It was worse.

OK, so I spent so much time on the virtual whiteboard tool investigation that I stopped there… but my point is that there are options out there for adding virtual tools to our BA toolbox. Software, however, is not a soft skill. It’s only part of the picture. We need to consider what new people skills we might need. One example is Virtual Contributor Management (I just made that up).  We’ve all had to deal with the “Dominant Contributor”. You know, the guy who takes over the conversation, is first to jump in with the answer or a comment, and routinely interrupts polite people. He’s hard enough to manage in a room, but in a virtual meeting, he can shut down the highly knowledgeable, but introverted, SME with much greater efficiency and speed (not a process improvement, by the way). We need to learn, and get comfortable with, how best to “mute” a Dominant Contributor (without using the actual “mute” button…although…) and invite others to join in. We also have to sort out the “You go; No, you go; No, you go…” politeness pit of doom. Our audience is now scattered to the four winds, and we have to be able to wrangle them into a cohesive, responsive source of information. What? Are you looking at me for the answer… Good luck because I don’t know. That’s a soft skill I’m working on.

But I don’t need know how to do that just yet, because next week I’ll dust off my neglected khakis, pack up my Big Bag o’ Real World Soft Skills and go meet with actual warm bodies in a real room with a real whiteboard! Maybe I’ll even bring donuts.

 

Note to self: Socks…don’t forget socks.

BATimes_June8_2022

Just Because It’s “Obvious” to You, Doesn’t Mean It’s “Obvious” To Me…

I can still remember the elation of passing my driving test here in the UK.  As is the case with many skills, I often say that I really learned to drive in the six months after passing my test—these were the times where I found myself in unexpected situations that you just don’t encounter during driving lessons.

I still have a very vivid memory of going to a petrol (gas) station for the first time. This is something that they just don’t teach you how to do when you learn to drive. I’d seen people fill up thousands of times before, how hard could it be?  Well, after trying to work out which of the confusing array of variants of ‘unleaded’ would be the best one to pick (Regular? Premium? Performance?), I eventually put the nozzle into the fuel tank and pulled the lever. There was an empty clunking sound. Nothing happened, and certainly no fuel flowed..

I tried again, and again a clunk followed by nothing. I could see the queue of people behind me getting increasingly irate as I tried to operate this baffling pump that just didn’t want to work (while simultaneously trying to look like I knew what I was doing). Eventually, a kind fellow-motorist whispered to me from the opposite pump: “You have to press the button to say whether you’re paying at the pump, or paying at the kiosk”.  Right! Got it! This was one of the (then) new-fangled pumps that accepted credit cards. I was back on track.

To this day, I think it’s weird that you can pass a driving test without ever having to have pulled up onto a filling station forecourt, but I suppose there’s an assumption that it’s ‘obvious’ and everyone can do it.  If you’ve been driving for a few years, it really is second nature. You probably know which side your car’s fuel tank is on, roughly how much it costs to fill up, and exactly how close you like to pull up to the pump.  These things are “obvious” to you, but to a new driver they aren’t “obvious” at all, even if they’ve seen the pump used a million times before.

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The “Obviousness” Trap

There’s a similar pattern in business analysis and projects. Stakeholders will often omit to say things, not because they are deliberately trying to hide something, but because it’s just so obvious that they don’t even think of it!  This is sometimes referred to as ‘tacit knowledge’ and it can prove a real issue in change initiatives if it is not teased out.  Not least because these ‘tacit’ areas can stop entire processes working if they are not addressed (much like the gas pump example above).

As business analysts we are tourists in the processes and situations that our stakeholders live in daily. We ask questions, we elicit information, but rarely do we know the finite detail —for that we rely on the talented Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).  However, in our role of process-tourist, we need to remain curious, ask probing questions while observing and listening carefully. We need to watch out for the ‘obviousness’ trap—where stakeholders skip over something that is actually important.

A particularly good way of overcoming this can be to observe and shadow stakeholders, gently interrupting them when necessary to ask what they are doing and why.  Observation itself is not enough, as we’re unlikely to understand the nuance, so interjecting when appropriate to ask follow up questions is crucial. Of course, this needs to be done with prior knowledge and agreement of those involved, and it’s important that they are briefed on the nature of the project or initiative (and the role of the BA, else they might worry about why they are being observed!).

Additionally, sitting with relevant stakeholders and creating process models or business use case scenarios can be extremely helpful. These help us to elicit and capture the flow of work, and ask questions about anything that is missing. It can also be helpful to ask what exceptions occur, or whether there are any other alternative flows.  When combined with observation, it is a very powerful technique.

 

Whatever techniques are used, being aware of things that are obvious to one person but not another is key. Tapping into the tacit knowledge is key!

BATimes_May24_2022

10 Soft Skills You’ll Need To Be A Successful Business Analyst

You might already know the technical skills you’ll need to be a great Business Analyst (BA) but do you know the essential soft skills? The role of a BA is deeply rooted in working with people. You’ll often be coordinating with stakeholders, running workshops, or presenting documentation to teams. To be a successful BA you’ll need the following soft skills to compliment the technical ones.

 

Rapport Building

You’ll need to build rapport with your stakeholders early in a project which you can do in many ways. While you’re waiting for a meeting to start ask your stakeholders questions like, “how is your day going?”, “what are you doing in the weekend?”. I’ve been in meetings where everyone is silent until the workshop begins. Take advantage of this time to build rapport by finding common interests, showing empathy or complimenting them on something such as a tie, a picture in the background of the Zoom or their promptness. This may seem trivial, but it will set you up to succeed as the project rolls out. Your stakeholders will be more likely to attend meetings/workshops, feel more comfortable contributing and start to champion the project and the changes you’re making within the organization.

Empathy

The Oxford Dictionary defines Empathy as ‘The ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. This is an important soft skill for a BA because we need to put ourselves in our stakeholders’ shoes to understand the problems we are trying to solve. To have empathy means to understand the pain points within the organizations Current State which is essential when we’re trying to fix them. Try to imagine how frustrating it must feel to have outdated, manual process at work when the technology we use at home is so advanced these days. Use empathy to speak to these pain points and get stakeholder buy in and drive user adoption.

Enthusiasm

Depending on the scope of your project Stakeholders may be attending a lot of workshops and meetings so it’s important to be enthusiastic and positive about what you’re doing. Let’s be honest there’s nothing worse than a dull or dry workshop consisting of people talking at you with slides of written content. To get people to come along for the journey we need to engage them and be enthusiastic about what we’re doing. Speak positively about the benefits and outcomes of your project, show visual diagrams and ask questions to get people involved. Having a positive and bright disposition will pick people up when they engage with you, help them focus on the content and be more likely to contribute.

BATimes_May24_2022

Active listening

When we’re working on current state or establishing things like user journeys, user personas, use cases or processes a key soft skill you’ll need is Active Listening. Active listening is a pattern of listening that means listening to verbal and non-verbal cues without judging or jumping to conclusions. When you’re active listening you’re not thinking about what to say next you are completely focused on the person communicating. Don’t interrupt them or propose solutions at this stage, instead paraphrase and reflect what you’ve heard back to the person. This will ensure you don’t miss anything, don’t misinterpret anything and help you understand the paint points your users are experiencing in more depth.

Creativity

When making changes to the organization such as processes, we need to find solutions that work for everyone. For this we will need to think outside the box because realistically we may not be able to meet everyone’s needs, or some people may just be averse to the changes. To facilitate the transition, we can use creative visualizations to get everyone on board the journey; Miro, Figma and Visio are great tools for creating visual diagrams. You can do role plays during workshops, online or in person to outline the steps of a new process. Be creative and use your imagination to make it fun and engaging for your stakeholders.

 

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Adaptability

As a BA you may find yourself on new projects for new businesses often and every situation will be unique. You will need to assess each business’s unique culture, ways of working and environment. Some businesses may be very formal and highly governed while others may be casual and more agile in their approach. To be successful in all these environments you need to be able to adapt, this means finding the right language, terminology, pace, document structure and hierarchy. Recently I worked on a project for a very successful company that still had a startup mentality. They embraced agile ways of working and feared having their autonomy taken away, because of this the word ‘Governance’ was a trigger for many of the staff. We had to adapt our language to suit the client and instead of ‘Governance’ we used ‘Guidelines’. Be adaptable and understand the culture you are working in, don’t work against it, work with it.

Communication

Clear and concise communication is important to be successful as a BA. When working with people things can get lost in translation, its our jobs as BAs to ensure they don’t get lost! Be willing to speak up and ask for more detail if you don’t understand something or when you notice others aren’t understanding it either. At times you may need to control the pace of a discussion, to speed it up to keep people engaged or to slow it down if it is moving too fast. There are times when you will need to paraphrase what someone has said to communicate it more effectively to the broader audience. You can use terms like “what I’m hearing is…” or “To put that another way might be…”. Utilizing your communication skills will ensure workshops and meetings stay on topic and you get what you need out of them.

Patience

You may find yourself in a situation where you already know the journey ahead for your stakeholders for example a company is implementing an out-of-the-box solution. You’ll need patience to assess their current state to find gaps and bring the stakeholders along for the journey so they can get excited about their new technology and processes, even though you already know the outcome. Another example of using patience is in workshops where different participants repeat information to you, you need to actively listen so they feel heard, but it could get a little boring for you. Lastly, not everyone you encounter is going to be a great communicator, some people talk for too long, some people get off topic, some people are hard to understand, and you need to listen to these stakeholders trying to communicate ineffectively and decipher what they’re saying, this takes patience.

BATimes_May24_2022

Improvisation

You will find yourself in meetings with technical people, non-technical people and people from all different units of the business. Analogies are a great way to explain complex strategies or technology to people that don’t understand what you’re talking about. If someone doesn’t understand something a great way to describe it to them in terms they can understand may be using analogies. You can improvise and tell them about “One time I went to the supermarket and at the checkout this happened…. Which is like this technology system that does this…”. You will get better at this over time and come to understand what works for stakeholders from different Business Units.

Conflict Resolution

Often our stakeholders may disagree on things like current state or how future state should be. We need to manage both points of view and bring the team to a consensus where possible. Consensus may not be possible in all situations, but we still need to handle the conversations constructively so that everyone agrees upon the next steps.  Some pointers for conflict resolutions are

  • Defuse Anger and facilitate communication
  • Separate people from problems
  • Listen first, talk second
  • Set out the facts
  • Explore options together

Using these tips, we can find a way to move forward together and keep the project on track.

People Process and Tooling (The PPT framework) is a great way to approach IT changes within an organization. I believe the most important aspect in this framework is people because the technology and processes are no good if the people within the organization don’t use them. You can use these soft skills as a BA’s when engaging people to ensure organizational changes are adopted and in turn, you will be successful too.

BATimes_May13_2022

Can You Picture It? Yes with a Swimlane Diagram!

There is the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” and there is some truth to this.  A picture is not just for capturing great moments like the company holiday party or a selfie with a friend.  It also provides an effective way of showing a process to people.

We see process pictures in our daily lives.  For instance, if anyone has ever brought home a piece of furniture from Ikea, you will recall they provide assembly instructions in the form of a picture, so you know how to put it together.  With the recent pandemic, you have likely noticed the signage that businesses put up on their doors, walls and floors to provide instructions to clients on how to social distance, wash your hands, wear a mask and how to queue for service.

PMTimes_May13_2022     PMTimes_May13_2022

As Business Analysts, we have strong and well-developed communication skills – both oral and written.  Our BA toolkits are filled with the many tools and techniques that we love and frequently use.  When it comes to reviewing a business process with a diverse audience, having it in the form of a picture is one of the best ways to visually explain it.  One of the techniques that does a fabulous job of this is the swimlane diagram.

I have been involved in many business transformation projects and the swimlane diagram is one of my most used techniques for capturing and analyzing business processes.  They provide an illustrated process summary and are easily understood by both business users and technical teams.

“A swimlane diagram is a type of flowchart that delineates who does what in a process.  Much like the lanes of a swimming pool, a swimlane diagram provides clarity and accountability by placing process steps within the horizontal or vertical “swimlanes” of a particular employee, work group or department.  It shows connections, communication and handoffs between these lanes and it can serve to highlight waste, redundancy and inefficiency in a process.”

“Swimlanes were first introduced back in the 1940s in what was called a multi-column workflow chart.  Later in 1990, Geary Rummler and Alan Brache brought forward swimlanes diagrams in their published book Improving Performance.”  Since then, the swimlane concept has become a widely used process modelling technique.  Swimlanes can also be referred to as Rummler-Brache diagrams or cross-functional flowcharts.

The BABOK highlights the swimlane diagram as a business process modelling technique used in flowcharts, Business Process Modelling and Notation (BPMN) and Unified Modelling Language (UML) activity modeling methodologies.  There are other modelling techniques that use the swimlane concept as well such as a Service Blueprint, Customer Journey map and LOVEM (Line of Visibility Enterprise modelling) methodology.

At one time, Microsoft Visio and iGrafx were the primary applications used to design these types of diagrams.   However, today there are a variety of cloud-based service options that provide the same functionality either for no cost or for a subscription fee.

The great thing about a swimlane diagram is that it doesn’t need to be overly complicated.  At a bare minimum, all you need to capture a simple process is:

  • The actors involved (eg. Roles, groups, departments, people)
  • The basic steps / activities (using an action)
  • The decision points (typically in the form of a question)

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Once you have that, map out the sequential steps as they happen through the appropriate swimlanes from the start to end.  There you have it – a visual representation of a business process.  You can elaborate on this simple diagram to add in further details / identifiers (ie. phases, dates, timelines, rules, systems, notes, etc) as well as follow specific process modelling methodology notation.

PMTimes_May13_2022

Some of the benefits to using a swimlane diagram to capture business processes are:

Summary on a Page

  • Provides a visual picture that tells the story of a business process
  • Highlights the various stakeholders / roles, decisions and the hand offs between them
  • Allows for comparison of different states (eg. current vs future)

Easy to understand

  • Describes the steps in a concise and sequential manner
  • Provides clarity on the activities and who’s responsible
  • Both business and technical teams are able to grasp it

Facilitates process improvement

  • Highlights where delays / bottlenecks occur, areas of rework, mistakes or wasted time
  • Identifies any missing stakeholders or steps
  • Provides as a baseline for improvement

While the swimlane diagram has its advantages, there are a couple of pitfalls to be aware of.  A swimlane diagram can become quite complex and hard to manage if it isn’t structured properly.  Also, some business problems may not be apparent in a high-level diagram and swimlane diagrams can become quickly outdated or hard to maintain if it isn’t kept up to date.

Overall, the swimlane diagram is one of the best tools to provide a snapshot of a business process.  This process picture provides a summary that facilitates an understanding for both business and technical teams of what roles/people, activities and handoffs are involved.  Swimlane diagrams are readily used by Business Analysts and non-Business Analysts alike for this reason.  If you are just starting out on your BA career journey, this is definitely a technique to add to your toolkit.

 

Fishing Tips for Business Analysts

Taking a client on a fishing trip requires some planning and some reconnaissance. A guide never wants to hear ‘that’s not that I came for,’ or worse, ‘that was a bust.’

It’s not uncommon to take a person fishing under the premise of ‘I don’t care what I catch, or ‘I don’t really care if I catch anything! I’m just looking for a day on the water.’ In some cases, the client is being open and honest, but for others – as the day wears on – the attitude and expectations can change. The ‘I’m good for anything, fish or no fish,’ thinking can change after a few hours or fishing over lifeless water, or in the early morning spring cold.

I took one gentleman out who just wanted to catch a meal of pan-sized trout for a meal. After catching a few that matched these criteria perfectly, he eagerly offered ‘enough with the small ones, where are the trophies!?’

Know The Client. Know the Ask

Knowing your client in Business Analysis (as well as in guiding anglers) gives you an out-of-the-gate advantage. Conversations around where the client’s expertise lie, as well as their vested interests in the project, allows you to deduce what might be most important to them, as well as the depth to which they want to be involved in the process, including scoping a solution.

A client yet to catch their first fish may be content with just that, but a client who fishes frequently may have a better idea of what’s out there to be had and have different expectations. Knowing a bit about them identifies the extent to which they can help plan and steer the process.

If a client is one of the owners of the business, for example, and clearly understands the business functions, they may want to be very hands-on in the details of the project. Conversely, perhaps the client is currently getting things done manually in the organization, meaning that any form of a solution will be a step up and advantageous, and they will like to be more dependent on you (the guide) to document a potential solution.

Conversations upfront, with pointed questions about what the request or ‘Ask’ is, and what the expectations are, will make for a smooth trip, shall we say.

Don’t Gold Plate.

A few years ago I was listening to my brother talk about an Atlantic salmon trip he was going on up in Labrador. He was telling me all about what the guide had told him and what was being promised. According to what he was told, this would be significantly better than the angling trip of a lifetime!

A few weeks later he called me back to tell me the trip was essentially a bust. They spent half their time fishing for sea trout (an activity they hadn’t signed up for), and they had missed the best run of salmon, meaning no one in the party caught their limit.

Telling a client everything that is possible for a solution to accomplish potentially leads to some headaches. In my humble experience, I find that having the client detail what it is they need keeps things in better scope. Leading the client with lofty ideas oftentimes gets into solutioning (the how) as opposed to good analysis (the what). A solid understanding of a plan that answers the client’s need is the best starting point, as opposed to burning up the budget with the bells and whistles which can come later (if deemed necessary). As my current manager often says, ‘add the larger pebbles to your jar first.’

Knowing if the client wants to fish for crappie, codfish, or tuna informs the gear you will need, the location you will fish, and how long the trip will be.

In terms of solutions, the local fishing supply store uses an inventory management system, and so does Ikea. There are endless reasons why they don’t need to implement the same one.

Consider the Bigger Environment

Even after you’ve talked to the client and they outline what species of fish they want to catch and how and where they want to catch them, be prepared for surprises. Wanting to fish for brook trout probably won’t work if the wind is in the easterly direction; cod fishing is unenjoyable if there are heavy seas or a lot of choppy waves, and salmon fishing is tough in shallow water in the late summer heat.

Considering external factors (the bigger picture) is one key to avoiding disaster: numbers of transactions, size and type of media/data to be stored, user access to a network or internet connection, personal information stored or moved through the solution, or accessibility and UX/UI issues.

Clients who are moving employees from a manual, paper process to a digital interface may need to consider employees computer skills and abilities. Even if most users are somewhat savvy, there may be some who are intimidated by technology, and they can’t simply be left out of the planning. Perhaps client readiness needs to include employee training.

Has the client implemented software and hardware upgrades prior to deploying a new Learning Management System? Have they considered the use of smartphones as devices that users will log into the LMS with? Have they considered the Information Management issues around the collection and use of personal information during registration?

Whether taking a paying client fishing for tuna, or a buddy fishing for a few pan trout, there are things to consider in order to mitigate problems and end up with a solid solution (full livewell). Ask the questions, know the client, don’t over-promise, and think outside the box, seem to be simple yet effective adages… in the office or on the water.

Either way, good luck!