Tag: Learning

Fill Your Business Analyst Toolbox

Every good mechanic has a toolbox, and that toolbox literally gives the mechanic the confidence and capability to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

Here’s an example. The mechanic gets a call during business hours, sometimes on weekends, from a customer requesting a need or want. What is the first thing the mechanic does? The mechanic asks questions about what’s broken, what isn’t working as expected, or what the customer wants and why. The mechanic needs to get to the bottom of the challenge before offering a solution. This diligence is, in fact, the most important tool the mechanic has – the skill to dive deeply and fully understand what is needed.

Related Article: Business Analyst Experience: Pay it Forward

The next thing the mechanic might do is ask to see what is wrong. The mechanic pulls the offending auto into the shop, or if the request is for something new, the mechanic might see how the manual process is being completed today.
Observation is the mechanic’s second most important tool. Not everyone has the skill to look around at all the moving pieces, check things out, put it up on a hoist, and look at what connects to what.

After the mechanic fully understands what the customer wants or thinks they need, sees what the customer is doing today or can’t do anymore, the mechanic is now ready to begin. The mechanic rummages through those stored items in the toolbox that can resolve, highlight, measure, clarify, explain, visualize, assist, poke holes, slice, or make things run smoothly. The toolbox might start out kind of light, but as the mechanic becomes more experienced, the toolbox get heavier and more valuable with the tools needed to get the job done.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Now, the business analyst gets the call – “I need, I want, I can’t, I wish.” You pull out the first tool from your toolbox. OK, virtual toolbox. This is the beginning of the deep dive.

You want to know everything about the situation, and can’t stop or move on until you have all the details and know exactly what your client is so concerned or excited about. This particular tool doesn’t ever wear out though. Notice that? It actually gets stronger and more accurate the more it is used. Business analysts are lucky this way.

Next, you need to see the challenge or your client in action. Your second tool helps you here as you’re confident about taking things apart, holding them up to standards, checking out metrics, and evaluating performance. You understand any systems that are impacted or needed, can copy down to lower testing environments, and your sign-ons are still active. You have the investigative tools that you need.

Ready to make a difference? Let’s pull out some other tools of the business analyst trade.

Most business analysts need to know how to use the desktop applications in their toolbox, such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Visio. Being able to use these tools comes in handy when it’s time to document notes and findings. This is the toolbox tray where you find your test plans, and the names and numbers of every Subject Matter Expert (SME) you will ever need. That process flow you just figured out is here for anyone who asks, and when you have to explain how you are going to fix something, that PowerPoint you had the skill to do is going to get you through.

Can we have too many computer skills in our BA toolbox? I think not, so we’ll discuss a wide variety of computer skills in another article; they will fit into your toolbox nicely.

Another set of tools you want in your toolbox (and kept sharpened) are those that let you schedule, call meetings, and get everyone on the same page. Sure, the whole BA package (BA 360!) is far more than being a requirements gatherer and meeting caller, but being able to get the right people together, show them your plans, and organize the conversation in a room is critical.

Here are some ideas regarding meetings:

1. Whether the meeting requires a conference room or call-in number, you don’t want to fumble around when you can finally get the right people in the room or on a call. Have the call-in number saved where you can find it quickly; and make yourself comfortable with Meeting Planner, Reservation Maker, or plain old Outlook for meeting requests.

2. I mentioned getting the right people in the room. Being able to figure this out is a key skill to have, and from my experience, it can be a challenge. I still get half way through a meeting and wish I had invited someone. (I even get half way through a meeting and wish I hadn’t invited someone.) Now that you have mad meeting-scheduling skills in your toolbox (right?), you can spend time thinking about who the players are for your task or analysis.

a. What process is downstream and will be impacted?
b. What upstream process has expectations?
c. Who asked for the change or new functionality?

I personally don’t like the “mass-meeting,” but if you are up to herding these cats, go for it. I prefer a room of SMEs. They don’t want their time wasted, and neither do I. Plus, they have all the information you need.

3. Another skill I believe needs to be included in our BA toolbox is whiteboarding. Don’t underestimate the skill it takes to draw straight lines and print legibly! Once you see a BA show amazing whiteboarding skills, you may never want to write on a wall or poster board again due to pure embarrassment. Seriously, try holding a marker over your head, writing the alphabet, and drawing tic tac toe boards. The attendees may not say it out loud, but everyone appreciates whiteboard talents.

There a lot more tools to talk about and we can do that another day, but now, are you ready to list what you have in your BA toolbox? You’ll be surprised at how much you know!

Find some tools missing? Sign up for an in-house training, ask the business analyst sitting next to you to teach you, or, of course, there is the Internet.

Nothing missing? Then now is the time to refresh your old skills using new technology, or challenge yourself and take on a task that requires you to dust off those old skills.

Even virtual tools can get rusty.

Strategy Spotlight: 4 Parts Of The Strategic Analysis Process

Some time ago I wrote a blog about the five terms in the planning process that every business leader and professional should know. It was part of filling in the strategic blank and getting to know the strategic planning process. With the word strategic, and by adding the word analysis, planning, leadership, management and implementation you get the perfect adjective-adverb combination. The terms are defined in my other article (5 Terms in the Planning Process).

That got me thinking about taking a deep dive into each term separately to see what can be revealed. In this feature I will tackle strategic analysis. I suspect it might be a book in and of itself.

I defined strategic analysis as having a simple definition. It is the process of developing strategy for a business by researching the business and the environment in which it operates. Often it requires the knowledge and use of various tools to prepare business strategies by evaluating the opportunities and challenges faced by the company as it moves forward. It takes into consideration internal and external factors that would be impacting the organization.

The key part of strategic analysis is having a good tool belt and know how and when to use the tools. This can be the role of the business analyst.

Often strategic analysis has four fundamental parts: present state, future state, risk, and transitional analysis.

Present State Analysis

Also referred to as current state analysis and is part of situational analysis. Present state analysis is used to understand the internal and external current affairs of a business.

Often when doing a present state you use a combination of high-level environmental scan and tools to dig deeper into your initial assessment. An environmental scan could include:

  • A review of current mission, vision, values, and guiding principles, stakeholder analysis to understand key relationships
  • A review existing organizational structure and mandate
  • A review of past strategic plans, reports, and other relevant materials, interviews with key stakeholders
  • A review of pre-analysis questionnaires
  • Profiling people and their impact
  • Preparing for planning sessions
  • A SWOT, PEST or SOAR analysis

or using other tools or techniques that are more appropriate. This is all done to grasp an understanding on the NOW of the business and becomes the benchmark for future comparison.

Future State Analysis

It is great to get the current state but even more fun to create a future state situation taking into consideration all the factored revealed in your present state analysis.

Future state comes from your discussion with team members from imagining the vision of success and future of the organization, the key strategic agenda items, the strategic initiatives that will help you achieve the desired future state and the work elements that will get you to where you need to go.

Related Article: Four Common Skills Needed to Embrace Strategic Thinking in Your Business

Future state is often forged through dialogue and decisions made about key business impact zones and the solutions needed to leverage opportunity and solve challenges. Often you need to ensure your goals and objectives are set that will satisfy the business needs.

Future state analysis helps create a bridge from the existing situation to the future situations with consideration for strategic, tactical and operational commitments and reality.

Risk Analysis

In risk analysis, I have always likened it to predict the outcome of a game and whether you are dealing with positive risk (opportunity) or negative risk (challenge). There are always the known-known, the known-unknown and the unknown-unknown (look it up). Either way, you need to understand the levels of risks and what is acceptable. Every organization has its own risk culture that will need to be satisfied.

During your initial analysis, risk should have been identified in your initial situational analysis with consideration for economic factors, market factors, competition, technology, suppliers, process, labour markets and business rules to name a few. If you are going from a present situation to a future state of change and transition, then the gap would need to be analyzed to understand the uncertainties around the change and the actions to take to overcome the risk. Always fun.

Transitional Analysis

Also referred to as change analysis, this is where the rubber meets the road. A full gap analysis would be performed to ensure that the recommended solutions can be done and what needs to happen to make sure the change can be implemented. I consider transition, change, and implementation analysis all part of the transformation requirements process.

Things to consider are the context of the change, alternatives, justification, investment, resources, solution value, stakeholder reviews, and decision points and the business state on the road ahead.

In transitional analysis, key business artifacts would be used or created that could include a strategy map and/or a roadmap, work-plans and communication plans. The key is to go the distance.

Strategic analysis is a great adjective/adverb combination. It is the umbrella of a powerhouse of professional work requirements, approaches, and tools and techniques that must be completed to fully understand the business problem or opportunity, the potential solutions, the implementation requirements and the measurements of success from the present state to a new future state. Strategic analysis is an important overarching part and component of the strategic process. All good plans and change start with great strategic analysis and a little imagination (just needed to throw that in).

Strategy Spotlight: 4 Common Skills Needed to Embrace Strategic Thinking in Your Business

Recently I was asked to do a keynote on strategic thinking for a large audience in the retail sector. The audience was mostly business owners who needed to improve their strategic thinking abilities.

As I used my business analysis skills in gathering and documenting requirements to create the presentation and to understand the challenges and opportunities, I realized maybe there is a lack of understanding around what strategic thinking means and the common skills required.

Most strategic experts would agree that strategic thinking is a process that incorporates innovation, creativity, planning, leadership, management and implementation. To think and act strategically means you need to answer the ‘what and the why’ questions within the strategic planning process. It incorporates the way people see their world, analyze their surroundings, and create their preferred future.

Often strategic thinking includes the insights of internal and external stakeholders (like the voice of the customer or employee, financial institution and CFO or accountant, vendor feedback) to ensure a complete understanding of the business. Strategic planning brings you from strategic thinking (what and why) into tactical thinking (who, how, when, how much) but at a higher level. That is why you build strategic roadmaps.

There are common skills that need to be present for strategic thinking to grab hold. They include:

Left Brain/Right Brain Thinking

Years ago I worked with a company that embraced left/right brain thinking, and I became part of their creative teams. Left brain thinking is considered logical and right brain thinking is considered creative.


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When engaging in strategic thinking, it is a good idea to have a team that is well balanced. Some people are far more logical, and others are far more creative. The creative people are great at future envisioning and seeing the importance of future think. At the right moment left brain people are great at the logic of the business. If brought together and facilitated correctly the combination becomes a powerful strategic force.

Avoid the mistake of having all the same people doing strategic thinking. It does not work well.

Envisioning the Future

Strategic thinking requires that you see the future and what you need and want to create. It also requires the ability to take the vision and put it into definable goals and objectives. These goals and objectives need to be further divided into strategic initiatives, elements of work, and timelines with assigned resources. But it all starts with answering a simple question. If you were to receive an invitation to your preferred future, what would that invitation be and what would it look like? Then you need to answer, why is that future so important? If you can answer those questions, then it is a matter of accepting the RSVP.

Calling a Time Out

Calling and taking a time out is something a lot of business leaders and professionals miss the opportunity to do in their business or career. I understand why, we are too busy, we have no time. That thinking is a mistake. The great strategic thinkers of the world take time out to think. When Richard Branson made the decision between his music empire and the airlines he took time out to think. When President Clinton left the Whitehouse, he was asked what he was going to do next. He said he was going to take time off to decompress and think. Strategic thinkers do the same thing. Teams need to leave their surroundings, turn off their distractions (that means smart devices) and connections to their outside world to think. As part of the time out to think, create a perfect brainstorm in your mind and with the minds of others without over analyzing thoughts or ideas. You move your thinking away from the operational to the creative space of innovation and idealized thoughts for the future. You may have a big idea that can radically change your world. Or maybe you make the critical decision on that item that has been in the back of your mind. You just never know.

Coming Back to Reality

Everything needs to land back into reality. This is where you need to balance creativity with reality. Often business leaders and professionals over plan and front load what it is they want to achieve. I have advised countless client organizations to shift their plan timelines or reshuffle their planning deck so they can achieve what it is they are out to achieve.
Don’t make the big mistake of thinking you can achieve everything at once. You can’t. No company I know has endless amounts of resources, time or money. So avoid making the mistake of trying to do everything at once. Listen to the left brain people. This could be analytic type people in your business.

Strategic thinking is about the long game. Unfortunately, many business leaders and professionals engage in short-term thinking either due to the pressure cooker of their lives, thinking of their bonus or present investment return, their jobs and not getting fired, or plugging holes to keep their projects on track and their department or business afloat. We all know that there are times when that is the reality you have to contend with. But to truly have a strategic thinking organization, teams or individuals you need to embrace and support the development of skills that step outside the norm of the everyday business world to create a preferred tomorrow. That means strategic thinkers. Good luck with that.

Better Tools 5: Managing Feedback in Word Documents

SmartExtract is a tool that extracts revisions, comments and similar feedback made by others into a table so that you can review and respond to them.

The table includes the context of the change so you can interpret the feedback, often without needing to refer to the source document.

It complements my earlier posts which describe Word tools for quickly recording content into tables, automating the layout of bulleted lists, and a hand drawn process modelling stencil for Visio. The last post was Better Tools 4: Productivity Tools for Process Modelling in Visio, which provides a set of Visio tools to resize and realign shapes in process models.

Smart Extract

SmartExtract allows you to summarize comments and revisions received in a word document. It extracts the feedback into a table that allows quick point-by-point responses that look very professional. Providing detailed responses is a great way to acknowledge the effort reviewers have put in, and using this tool makes it easy.


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By showing each comment or revision in its wider context, your own review of the feedback can be very efficient, allowing you to skim through minor changes and focus on those that are important. If you do need to refer to the source, there is shortcut key that takes you from the summary entry directly to the page in the document where the comment or change occurs.

If there are multiple reviewers, collating a summary of all changes into a single table is a great way to prepare for document review meetings.
If you record placeholders for gaps and highlight areas for rework in your own documents, the tool can also be used to summarise the outstanding work to be done to complete a working draft.

The summary report

The sample below shows the summary extract. Each change or comment appears in the order it appears in the document and is numbered for easy reference.

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Context

The context of the change or comment is given, with the specific change or comment highlighted within it. In most cases, the context is sufficient to make decisions about the feedback.
If the change or comment is in the body of the document, the context includes the preceding 30-40 words. If the comment or change is in a table, you see the contents of the entire cell.

The page and line number of the change or comment are shown, and a reference to the table row in any table is given. If you click into this heading line and press a shortcut key you will be taken directly to the relevant page in the source document to inspect the comment or change further.
Insertion and deletion changes are shown as they are normally seen in track changes, in a different colour and with deletions shown in strikethrough. Comments are shown in grey highlight.

Only insertion and deletion changes are recorded by SmartExtract; formatting changes are ignored.

A single large table can be assembled from several feedback documents returned to you. There are subtle layout rules in the context entry header that allow you to sort on this column and merge all responses into a single correctly ordered list.

Comment or Revision

The text of the change or comment is shown. As well as showing comments and revisions, SmartExtract also includes highlighted text because some reviewers like to use this as a tool to indicate gaps or other areas of concern.

Often a reviewer will make several minor changes, for example, correction of punctuation or change the tense of a phrase. SmartExtract combines minor changes into a single entry for the entire paragraph concerned. Without this, the summary table would contain many distracting low-value entries.

Author

The author column allows revisions from multiple people can be reviewed.

Action

The action column allows you to record responses to the feedback. Since the context and the comment or change are already present, the response does not have to be very lengthy, and in many cases, the same response is copied from entries above, saving a good deal of time.
Inspiration

I frequently receive feedback on the documents I produce. Collating this and responding to it is a real chore. I decided to write this routine after getting 12 sets of feedback on a lengthy document having to present a summary for a review meeting.

The ability to respond point-by-point to feedback is really important for me. In the past, any response I gave had to be very generic because of the effort needed to indicate each change before responding to it. This routine saves hours of effort and allows me to present professional responses very quickly.

Learning about Word and VBA programming

Word stores changes and comments in separate objects. Listing these in a table is fairly straightforward. However, I wanted one list showing all feedback of all types in their natural order. This meant some preprocessing and sorting to get the items in the correct order. I used arrays and a bubble sort to do this.
I also wanted to include the context; this meant determining the location of the feedback item and extracting the surrounding paragraphs. I had to understand and manipulate document and range locations using character and paragraph information. It also had to switch the source document into the correct mode so that the context copy process extracted the text in the correct format.

Another complication was the treatment of minor changes. I wanted to combine these into one entry for each paragraph. This meant pre-reading the upcoming changes, checking their size and collating them if they were minor, then resuming normal processing from the correct point onward.

As is usual with Word programming, special treatment for tables was an extra complication.

Becoming the Trusted Advisor

A couple of months ago I wrote on the value of the business analyst being a trusted adviser to many people on the project team and within the organization.  Read The Value of Business Analysis: The Trusted Advisor to see that discussion. 

I conveyed the business value of becoming that trusted advisor, but I didn’t tell you how to get there.  So if you read that article and thought to yourself “well that is all fine and dandy, but how do I become the trusted advisor to everyone within my company?”  Well, read on.

Set Expectations

Let your stakeholders know what is coming up next.  You shouldn’t leave anyone questioning next steps or action items; always call those out for both yourself and other team members.  When you take ownership of action items, that is called making a commitment.  It shows a willingness to be held accountable to complete the action item on time.  It does not guarantee completion on time, just shows your willingness to accept the responsibility.  There are many things that can crop up that get in the way of meeting commitments once they are made but never shy away from accepting the responsibility. This is a major way to earn respect.

When action items are assigned to other stakeholders on the team, especially when they intersect with action items assigned to you, check on their progress from time to time.  Your items may have a dependency on other’s action items or vice versa.  In the latter case, stay in contact with that team member and let them know your progress so that they may plan out their work on their action items.  When monitoring the progress of others, do it in a very non-intrusive and non-authoritative way.  Typically, you won’t have authority over someone else’s work so approach this from a co-worker checking on a friend or offering a helping hand.

Deliver

Now that you have made the commitment to take responsibility for an action item or task deliver on it.  Always work to finish your assigned tasks ahead of schedule so when those inevitable items pop up that take your time away from these tasks, you still have time to get back to it and deliver on time.  In this way your team members don’t see all your tasks slipping behind schedule. This is a major way to lose trust.  Be creative when the situation calls for it to complete task assignments.

I was always astounded by my children who always looked like they were trying to get a “C” in every class in school.  A “C” is a passing grade right…the problem was that far too many times they missed that “C”, and sometimes by a lot; so what did they end up with…a “D” or “F”.  When I was in school I always tried for an “A” in every class, whether I liked the subject or not.  So when I didn’t meet expectations what did I end up with….a higher GPA than my kids did.

Communicate

You know the old adage…communicate early, communicate often.  This ties back to setting expectations.  Let your team members know what to expect from you, so they can know how to work with you.  When new issues or risks pop up, identify and communicate them early so they can be properly managed.  Raise those red flags early.

Communicate bad news early.  When the project is behind schedule, when it needs more resources, or when lack of stakeholder engagement is slowing the project, address the issue with the project manager and/or project sponsor.  Be prepared with information and examples, and possibly a plan of action to get back on track.  This again ties back to setting expectations, are things slipping behind because expectations weren’t properly set or communicated?


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Provide frequent updates to the project manager, project sponsor or other stakeholders on your work or the project solution.  Survey your stakeholders to determine the right level and frequency of communication.

Be Consistent

Be consistent in your setting of expectations, making commitments, communication, and interactions with your stakeholders.  Consistency is at the heart of integrity.  Inconsistency tends to build walls between people and inhibit collaboration.  When people don’t know how you will act or react, they may shy away from approaching or engaging you.  As a business analyst you need information, and when your stakeholders do not wish to interact with you or discuss issues in an open way, this impedes your ability to get the information you need to be effective.

Have the Courage to Challenge Appropriately

I will combine lessons from Elizabeth Larson, Rich Larson and Bob (BobtheBA) Prentiss to say have the courage to challenge appropriately.  It takes courage to deliver bad news or just say “No” to someone.  You may see how a simple “No” won’t go very far; people  will find other avenues to get what they want if they see you as a roadblock.  So be prepared to back up that “No” with solid evidence, data and/or facts.  As Elizabeth says ”Courage without preparation is foolish.”

You will not challenge every idea that others have; that  is truly foolish.  Make sure you take the time to understand fully the idea and reasoning behind it.  Determine if the idea has value and feasibility.  Take a structured approach to determining when it is time to challenge an idea.  When you do challenge, make sure you do it with respect to everyone including those that presented the idea to the group.  Make sure your challenge isn’t perceived as offensive or confrontational.  This is another good way to destroy trust.

To Gain Respect, Show Respect

This should go without saying, if you want respect you have to earn it.  One of the best ways to earn respect is to show it to others.  Respect every stakeholder’s expertise in their subject matter or domain.  Respect and acknowledge everyone’s contribution toward the common goal.  Respect their role within the team and organization.

Also, remember that your role within the organization is one of the newest, and not everyone has worked with a business analyst before or knows how to interact with that role.  So some education of your role within the team and organization may be in order.  Take a coaching approach to this opportunity and don’t make any feel dumb because they don’t know this yet.

Be Proactive

Anticipate the needs of others.  Not only your project manager and business stakeholders but your technical resources as well.  When preparing a presentation to management or your project team, anticipate questions you will get and be prepared to answer them.  Have adequate examples and models prepared to demonstrate an idea or concept.

When issues or risks arise, identify and communicate them early.  Possibly prepare an action or risk mitigation plan for it.  Don’t allow tasks to slip so far behind that it affects the project schedule and is noticeable by everyone, communicate roadblocks and other commitments, so team members understand the conflicts and pressures. In this way they understand that slippage isn’t because you are lazy; communicate the situation.

Take responsibility for action items and tasks quickly; ask for them, don’t wait for them to be assigned to you.

Be Authentic

Being authentic is simply being yourself.  Be sincere, speak from the heart, be respectful and be empathetic. Don’t mix your words in a cloud of ambiguity; say what you mean and mean what you say. Take the time to build relationships with your team members and stakeholders.  Be interested in their situation and ideas.  Understand their perspective, motivations and attitudes.  If you are not truly interested in their perspective, motivations and ideas; then don’t pretend that you are.  However, you will find how much harder it is to work as a business analyst when you don’t understand your stakeholders.

If you are able to master these skills and competencies, you will gain the trust and respect of your stakeholders.  Remember, that it takes much longer to regain respect and trust once destroyed then it does to earn it in the first place.  So take the easy road and earn that trust from the first encounter with every stakeholder and work vigorously to keep that trust.  Respect each stakeholder’s role in the project and organization, show your capabilities and you will earn their trust.

If you would like some additional reading on this topic, I suggest you take a look at:

  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey (2013)
  • The Influencing Formula: How to Become a Trusted Advisor and Influence Without Authority by Elizabeth Larson and Richard Larson of Watermark Learning (2012)
  • The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything by Stephen M. R. Covey (2008)
  • Influence Without Authority by Allan R. Cohen  and David L. Bradford (2005)
  • The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford (2001)