Principle #4: Lead and facilitate

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Business analyst’s hat stand

During my career as a business analyst, I had to take on a variety of leadership roles, sometimes quite unexpectedly. I would find myself in situations where there was collective hesitation about the next steps, confusion about what to do, or conflicting interests grinding the discussion to a halt.

A group of business stakeholders unsure how to approach defining a set of complex business rules…

A requirement added by an executive in passing conversation that does not make sense, but that nobody dares to challenge…

A difficult stakeholder unwilling to negotiate required changes to their business process…

A project manager who establishes a rigid project plan before a sizing assessment could be completed…

A project team ready to roll out a new solution without any change management activities, because “we will just tell everyone that they have to do it this way now”.

Two directors who are unwilling to make any compromises and disagree on every second requirement…

Do I need to continue?

Often in these circumstances, it is not clear who should take the lead. Do we expect the project manager to assign next steps? What if he is not a part of the meeting?

Should business sponsor have the last word about what is in or out of scope?  What if they are about to make a bad decision?

Will we rely on the vendor to recommend process changes to us?  Would they make recommendations that will make it easier for them to meet the timelines, regardless of whether it makes sense for our business?

Do we let one of the business owners make decisions for other stakeholders? What if they don’t even try to understand the needs of other teams, as long as their group’s interests are protected?

These are difficult situations where ignoring the problem, a bad decision or unwise steps can have a high cost. These are also the situations where a formal leader such as an executive or project manager may not have sufficient information or the right mindset to make a decision or to direct others appropriately. Sometimes business analysts, with their exposure to the business problem, understanding of business process and interests of each stakeholder have the most knowledge to base the decision on.

In these critical moments, some analysts will take on the leadership role, speak up, make recommendations, put an effort into persuading others, or organize the team to take the required steps. Others will feel intimidated, unsure of their abilities or accountabilities, unwilling to take on the risk, or hesitant to go ahead without support. And support of a good mentor who would understand the challenge and encourage you to lead is hard to come by.

In the end, you will have to handle these leadership opportunities using both your judgement and gut feel. With time and practice, you will get better at it and may enjoy the leadership aspect of the job.

Those experiences helped me shape my mindset and learn to relate to different perspectives. But I also realized that my experiences were not unique at all. Every analyst will from time to time find themselves in a “leadership vacuum” situation catching one unprepared. You may have to lead a meeting at a moment’s notice, arrange an emergency conference call with partners or clients to resolve an urgent question, or deal with critical defects that will require you to negotiate with architects and developers and discuss pros and cons of solution options. And in some situations, you may find yourself giving suggestions and recommendations to powerful persons, and may feel heavy weight on your shoulders.

Do not be intimidated – you are doing your job. You can be a successful leader with the right mindset:

  • Remember that all problems have a human component. Watch out for, and learn to deal with human biases, misconceptions and emotions.
  • Understand that a distracted, confused or angry stakeholder will not be giving you quality information. Deal with stakeholder’s state of mind first, before trying to collect information or elicit requirements.
  • Remember that without successful communication among members of the group, no group can move in the same direction efficiently.
  • Help teams communicate by setting the right example: get agreement on what the group is trying to achieve; re-confirm direction as you go and check whether everyone follows and understands what’s happening.
  • Be mindful of different communication preferences; frame and adjust the message as needed for business, technical and project stakeholders.
  • Don’t just tell others what to do – persuade, explain and make logical arguments, help others see your point of view.
  • Look at every stakeholder as a person with a unique point of view. You cannot predict in advance who will be most supportive, informative and insightful. Listen to different perspectives, and then analyze and make conclusions. Do not pre-filter information based on what others told you – remember that people have biases and hidden agendas.
  • Sometimes, people who are opposed to change have very good reasons to be against either the change itself, or the direction that the solution is taking. Don’t discount and dismiss the naysayers. Ask them why, and listen without prejudice.
  • Remember that a good leader does not have to be senior to every other person in the room. You can lead as a diplomat and encourage collaboration without domination with your personality and approach.

Most importantly, do not turn down leadership opportunities.

Don’t say “I am just a business analyst”.

Instead, think: “I can take on a new challenge. I am a business analyst, after all.”

With business analyst mindset you have the right foundation to become a true leader – a leader who strives to do the right thing, leads others to do the right thing, and knows what the right thing.

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