While business analyst profession is closely associated with information technology, first and foremost we work with people, and a lot of information we receive is pre-filtered through human perception and interpretation.
I recall an occasion when our analysis of a set of business scenarios was declared complete by all stakeholders. We’ve conducted a number of reviews and walkthroughs. We’ve built a decision tree, captured variables and enumerated all possible outcomes, or so we’ve thought.
As a parallel activity we have requested access to the raw operational data to confirm our assumptions and find real-life illustrations of the scenarios captured. Once the first data set came through, we have discovered a couple of unknown outcomes that did not fit with our scenarios.
The problem we were solving was complex volume reporting, and it turned out that the unaccounted scenarios fell into two categories. Both were undisclosed or skipped during the requirement analysis:
- Routinely ignored – these scenarios happened once in a while; and as handling them manually was so time-consuming and tedious, they were ignored and swept under the carpet as not worth the trouble of counting them.
- Items with unclear ownership – the rules for counting these were ambiguous, so different groups were known to quietly double-count these. Since detecting the double counting would have been time consuming and cause arguments over the unresolved rules, nobody bothered.
Each of these scenarios existed for years, and for very human reasons they were handled in this casual manner. How easily do you think the stakeholders responsible for volume counting would either own up to letting these cases pass, or admit to not knowing what was going on? And how many people in the same situation would do the same?
Business analysts, as the professionals, are intimately involved in solving business problems. We know more than anyone else that each problem has a human aspect, and there are usually explanations and history behind them. Our job is not looking to blame anyone or indicate the faults of their ways. Our job is to help our clients discover and recognize the root cause of the problems and be honest about what works, what does not work and why. Without that, it would be pretty hard to get to the actual solution of the problem. And the solution must include addressing the human aspects of the problem, tactfully and diplomatically.
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Now, imagine meeting a group of business stakeholders for a new project for the first time. There is a round table, and each person introduces themselves and says a couple of words about what they want to achieve.
“I would like us to have a more efficient way of delivering our services to the customers”
“I’m here to represent the human resources group and to support all change management activities”
“I’m from enterprise architecture and will be ensuring that the solution that you want to build aligns with our architecture guidelines”
“My team is supporting this process and we are the main subject matter experts and users of the future system”
“My goal is to ensure that the new system captures all the data required for the profit and loss reporting”.
Beyond these rational statements and official stakeholder roles, each person will also have their own emotional, political, calculated or completely irrational thoughts, agendas and perspectives. This will happen, inevitably, because all of them are human.
Someone will have an ambition to use the project success as another stepping stone on their path to promotion, and will let nothing stand in their way.
Another person may be a little scared that they don’t have enough knowledge going in.
Someone else will feel very jaded about yet another project that they expect to fail, just like the two projects before.
Someone may be assigned to their first major project and feel very excited and ready to go into battle.
And there might also be someone who will see the project itself as a threat to their influence and the size of their department.
As a business analyst, you will have to deal with all these diverse characters, their strengths and weaknesses, their stubbornness, biases, focuses and phobias. Your discovery of the business processes and current state of business, your analysis activities will be shaped by both rational and irrational sides of your stakeholders. The information that is shared or not shared with you, the explanations provided, the way the stakeholders will present their problems and requirements to you, or interact with each other, will never be completely logical. Oh, and by the way, neither you will be always completely logical in processing the information that you receive, since you will also have your strengths, weaknesses, biases and phobias, whether you recognize them or not yet.
So, what’s a business analyst to do? How can you possibly succeed in already complex environment, possibly new industry or new organization and under tight timelines, when in addition your stakeholders may be driven by their hidden agendas?
- Just like any other person before you who had to lead and influence people, you will have to listen to them, pay attention to what they say (or not say), ask questions, observe and experiment.
- You will have to lead by example, suggest options, mediate conflicts, and negotiate support and mutual agreement.
- You will have to be ready to facilitate a meeting that gets out of hand – perhaps by calling a time out or a break, speaking to the disruptor one-on-one, or parking a hot issue for further investigation.
- You will need to be patient, to slow down the discussion as needed to make the group comfortable, and try different ways of explaining complex concepts to help everyone achieve understanding.
- You will have to practice having frank conversations, ask difficult questions in a non-threatening manner, and use empathy to understand the current state with all its imperfections.
- You will need to be a thoughtful listener who sometimes has to read between the lines and guess what questions to ask next.
- You will need to learn to stand your ground and not be intimidated by people senior to you when you believe someone needs to speak up, and it looks like you are the only one ready to do it.
- And sometimes, you will have to lighten up and use a little humour to relieve a tense situation and avoid a brewing conflict.
These skills come easy to some and not so easy to others. For all of us, we usually get better with experience and sometimes learn faster after we earn a few scars. The important part is to realize that diplomacy, tact and a bit of psychology is part of the job, and an important component of your business analyst mindset.
You work with people to help solve problems created by people, and to create solutions that will be used by people. Understanding people, listening to them and recognizing their motivations, needs and biases is critical to your job as a business analyst.
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