The goal of business analysis is to define requirements for a solution to a business problem, and to achieve a shared understanding of the requirements by all stakeholders. In this blog, we have talked about many tips for achieving that shared understanding: from consistent terminology, to using a variety of BA techniques and sharing as you go.
Now, let’s address something more controversial – listening to opposition, and considering the point of view of hostile stakeholders.
As you initiate business analysis activities, you will encounter both supporters and naysayers. Some stakeholders will be excited about the new project and willing to spend all the time in the world with you working on requirements and ideating what the new solution needs to be. Those are usually the people who expect to benefit the most from the solution. Their manual tasks will be eliminated, their tools will be more fancy and engaging, and they will focus on more sophisticated activities. Ultimately, the most ardent supporters are those who expect the new project to benefit their professional growth and advance their careers. And, of course, there are the sponsors who count on the project’s success to fuel their rise in the executive ranks and increase their influence.
On the opposite side, you may find passive, disinterested, or downright hostile stakeholders. As you start requirements analysis, this group will bring up objections and the reasons why “it will not work.” The requirements workshops will slow down when they start bringing up issues and disagreeing with the enthusiastic crowd. They may remind everyone that they know the process best and must usually deal with the consequences of bad decisions and mistakes made upstream.
However annoying and irritating you may find these hostile stakeholders, they are often right.
Sometimes they will be the only team members who will tell you the inconvenient truth, who will give you critical information about the context, the risks, and the downstream impacts of the change.
We usually expect professionals to be willing and interested in the improvements to their process, products, or customer service. What would be a rational explanation for someone opposing the change that has been approved and funded by their employer?
The reason these groups are pessimistic or critical is often a previous bitter experience of yet another cheerful initiative that went horribly wrong, with all the impacts piling up on their department as flood debris.
A disappointing previous project experience is one of the greatest de-motivators. It may have been a project manager who did not listen and just wanted to “get moving,” resulting in a project completing on time but failing to reach its goals. It may have been another business analyst who thought their job was just to “document the requirements that business gives me”, no analysis required.
We all know how it might have gone down: it’s so easy to just document what the project sponsor tells you to do. No resistance. No accountability. Everyone is happy with your performance. The sign-off is a piece of cake.
But no real analysis is done.
“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” (George S. Patton )
The stakeholders who act hostile and unfriendly now may have been left out of the previous project’s decision room. The impact on their workstream may have been missed or misunderstood. Their gut tells them it is about to happen again.
Dear Business Analyst:
Shared understanding of requirements can only be achieved when the interests of all stakeholders have been analyzed, and the impacts of the change have been thoroughly understood. The stakeholders who are not supportive of the direction of the project or proposed solution may have valid reasons.
It is your job to listen to them without prejudice and look at proposed changes from their perspective.
It is your responsibility to ask open and unbiased questions.
You have to hear each side and analyze their positions and needs ─ before pushing for consensus.
“A consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually.” (Abba Eban)
Consensus, unfortunately, often becomes a beautified façade to cover up the “groupthink” approach. Analysis that may result in unwelcome discoveries often gets replaced with an unspoken agreement not to open a “can of worms”. The project can go ahead, the schedule can be upheld, and successful delivery can be reported by the end of fiscal year. The only downside might be that the real business problem will not be solved, or will be replaced by a new problem.
The stakeholders who are disagreeing with the proposed consensus may be labelled as “non-team players”, “opposition”, or “hostile stakeholders”. But there is a reason why democratic societies have official opposition to counterbalance the ruling party: to keep the majority in check.
There are a lot of excellent books and articles on the dangers of “groupthink”. As part of professional growth, each business analyst should be familiar with the concepts and the risks that consensus without analysis may create. And most of all, experienced analysts need to learn to recognize when they themselves become the victims of the “groupthink” mentality.
From this perspective, encountering opposition on the project is your wake-up call. Be grateful for a reminder to consider the opposing point of view. Appreciate anyone who is not afraid to speak against the majority. They may be wrong, but they also may be right.
So, don’t think of dealing with opposition as confrontation. We are wary of confrontations in the workplace and often unwilling to engage. Start with listening. Show willingness to consider an opposing point of view, and be genuinely curious as to why. You may learn something that will change your position as well. You may discover a gap that requires a change in direction or additional analysis.
As a business analyst, it is part of your job to uncover gaps – not to cover them up. As a professional, you must care about designing the best change for the business as a whole, not just for one executive who tells you “This is what I want”.
So when you encounter resistance, remember these Do’s and Don’ts.
- Take it personally
- Blame the opposition for not being “team players”
- Ignore resistance
- Take orders without analysis
- Ask why
- Be impartial to get to the truth
- Listen to their story and try to understand
- Address impact on all stakeholders during business analysis
- Analyze the information given to you
“The opposition is indispensable. A good statesman, like any other sensible human being, always learns more from his opposition than from his fervent supporters.” (Walter Lippmann)