The Courage to Scribe - Part 3 (42’s Trusted Advisor)


This article is part of a 3 part series.  Here is Part 2.

Recently I saw the movie “42,” based on the true story of Jackie Robinson,who in 1947 bravely fought custom, bigotry, and violent hostility to become the first African American to play major league baseball. His courage came from his inner strength which allowed him to withstand with dignity the cruel behavior from fans, other team managers and players, and at first some of his own teammates.

As I watched the movie, I was equally taken with the story of Robinson’s “scribe,” Wendell Smith. Also an African American, Smith bravely fought many of the same obstacles as Robinson, but not as visibly, to become a respected sports writer who in 1994 was posthumously inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Wendell Smith introduces himself to Robinson early in the movie as Robinson’s “Boswell,” a reference to James Boswell, the biographer of the 18th-century writer, Samuel Johnson. In his Life of Johnson, Boswell chronicles his conversations with Johnson written on their travels together. Like Boswell, Smith chronicles his travels with Robinson. The movie describes the relationship between these two black men struggling to do what each does so well; Robinson to play baseball and Smith to depict the fight to be able to play the game.

From the beginning, Smith establishes his role not only as “scribe,” but also as trusted advisor. He warns Robinson about the difficulties facing the baseball player. He describes probable situations and provides advice on how Robinson should respond. In preparation for those difficulties, Smith gives Robinson an abundance of advice not related to playing baseball, but how to react to the physical and verbal abuse he is likely to encounter. As is common with trusted advisors, Robinson often views the advice as well-intentioned but ill-conceived, so heoftenpleasantly ignores it, usually to his detriment. Sometimes, however, Robinson reacts hostilely. Smith, who hasalso suffered race-related indignities throughout his career, reminds Robinson of the courage needed to succeed. As the trusted advisor, he encourages Robinson to use his strong moral character to avoid reacting violently to violence.

From HBO’s Game of Thrones, to SamGamgee in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, trusted advisors literally and figuratively take their life in their hands when providing advice that is clearly in the best interest of the decision-maker, but equally unsought and unwanted. Their advice is often neglected at best. At worst, decision-makers react with anger, or in the case of tyrants, even death. Yet despite the physical and/or emotional danger, trusted advisors do not often get much recognition. Writing about Smith, a Los Angeles Times post poignantly reminds us that “As Jackie Robinson was making history, Wendell Smith wrote it. Many fans remember Robinson and his struggle, but few remember Smith, who sat in the stands typing on a manual typewriter writing about integration on the field, while being barred from the press box because he was black.” [1]

So what does all this have to do with the BA both as scribe and trusted advisor?

As with Smith, shunted off to the stands, we scribes are often shunted off to the back of the room. In virtual sessions, scribes are often forgotten and not even introduced. After the workshops, participants tend to remember who facilitated and participated, but not who scribed. Yet we scribes are, after all, the ones who have the greatest opportunity to create structure from chaos. We spend our time to actively listening, absorbing and synthesizing a great deal of information, and structuring elicitation results, such as requirements, issues, workarounds, decisions, etc., into documentation that can be easily read, understood, and confirmed.

Although as scribes we often courageously go out on a limb, we often feel unappreciated. In Courage to Scribe Part 2 I outlined some of the ways scribes need courage, including articulating the need for the role of scribe in organizations which don’t see the need, working with the project manager to put scribing tasks into the work plan, and ensuring that the elicitation activity results are documented ethically. In addition, we need to speak up and be heard when remaining silent could jeopardize the accuracy of the documentation. As trusted advisors, then, we need to work behind the scenes to ensure that the organization provides strong, experienced facilitators and skilled scribes.

Secondly and importantly, we may not feel like we’re in the center of requirement activities, but we really are. What will be remembered is dependent on the job we do scribing. Just as Smith “accompanied Robinson throughout his first major league season, creating his image, reporting his words and crusading for his rights,” we scribes accompany the facilitator, make sense of often rambling and contradictory discussions, while “crusading” always for the right thing for the project and for the organization.

Author: Elizabeth Larson, CBAP, PMP, CSM

Elizabeth Larson is Co-Principal of Watermark Learning, a globally recognized business analysis and project management training company. With over 30 years of industry experience, she has used her expertise to help thousands of BA and PM practitioners develop new skills. Her speaking history includes repeat appearances at IIBA and PMI Global Congresses, chapter meetings, and professional development days, as well as BA World conferences.

Elizabeth has co-written the acclaimed CBAP Certification Study Guide and The Practitioners’ Guide to Requirements Management. They have been quoted in PM Network and CIO magazine. She was also a lead contributor to the BABOK Guide® Version 2.0, as well as the PMBOK Guide® – Fourth edition. 

[1] Bill Plaschke,,0,3199706.column, April 14, 2013, viewed on April 14, 2013.

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