An Overview of the Analytical Thinking and Problem Solving Soft Skill

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An Overview of the Analytical Thinking and Problem Solving Soft SkillIn the world of underlying competencies that contribute to strong business analysis, the soft skill of analytical thinking and problem solving may seem pretty self-explanatory. Clearly, it involves sorting through business problems and information in an informed, methodical way. In order to do this, an analyst must research the problem and then propose intelligent solutions.

But BABOK[1] has further defined this soft skill into four specified sub-skills that an analyst can strive to attain. All of these are essential to help analysts transcend the mere absorption and repetition of information and to instead offer knowledgeable, in-depth assessments and confidence-inspiring solutions. They are:

Creative Thinking

In the world of business analysis, creative thinking is more than just thinking outside the box. BABOK defines the creative thinking portion of the problem solving skill as not only “generating new ideas” but also “finding new associations between existing ideas and concepts.” An analyst’s role is not just to take the entire burden of coming up with solutions on herself, but to use enterprise analysis, interviewing skills, and other tools to spur her colleagues and stakeholders to come up with new ideas. As BABOK notes, “In addition to identifying . . . alternatives, the business analyst can be effective in promoting creative thinking in others by asking questions and challenging assumptions.” Creating thinking in the business analysis realm, therefore, includes helping others to stretch beyond their normal boundaries when soliciting their thoughts, and having the logical skills to make appropriate connections between different ideas.

Implementing the Creative Thinking Skill

To gather raw input that can spur creative thinking, consider a brainstorming session. You can also glean information from a larger group of stakeholders or customers by using open-ended survey questions. A focus group (even online) will enable you to prompt participants and follow up on ideas. Once you have data from your survey or session, your goal is to formulate a concrete solution from the data. Mindmapping diagram tools can be helpful in not only documenting brainstorming sessions and open-ended conversations, but in making connections between data and tracing how that information can be applied to organizational solutions. Once you present this information to stakeholders and management, even if you can’t think of every possible solution, the research you gathered from participants will give credence to your conclusions.

How do you know when you’re succeeding at creative thinking? BABOK defines success measures as generating and applying innovative ideas, as well as getting full buy-in from stakeholders on your ideas—more easily done when their ideas are solicited and fully considered as well.

Decision Making

Whenever an analyst or a project team is faced with more than one (seemingly viable) potential solution, it’s time to make a decision. Effective decision making requires strong research skills; when pertinent information is not available, decision making becomes guesswork. BABOK notes, “Decision analysis includes gathering information . . . breaking down the information . . . making comparisons and tradeoffs between similar and dissimilar options, and identifying the option that is most desirable.” Many problems such as gold-plating and scope creep can come in when new decisions about a project are made. BABOK also notes that analysts “must be aware of the traps . . . including the tendency to accept the initial framing of a problem, the sunk cost fallacy[2] , and the tendency to place greater weight on evidence that confirms existing impressions.” In other words, effective decision making includes removing one’s emotions—whether excitement about an out-of-scope addition or dread over a re-design—from the equation.

Implementing the Decision Making Skill

To help effectively analyze each proposed solution, consider a flowchart tracing each proposed solution’s pathway from inception to completion. Get input from all stakeholders on each solution, and then share the flowcharts. Confirm (or at least identify) any assumptions so that the charts have greater validity. Then ask stakeholders if this is really where they want to go.

How can you measure if you’re exercising good decision-making? BABOK defines measures of success in this area as having stakeholders’ confidence in the decision-making process and in having the final decision solve the problem.

Learning

Learning for business analysis is not like other learning. For a business analyst, good learning skills encompass not only absorbing new information but effectively applying that information in innovative ways. It’s gaining knowledge that has the flexibility to be stretched over different applications. BABOK notes that “once learning about a domain has reached the point where analysis is complete, the business analyst must be able to synthesize the information to identify opportunities to create new solutions and evaluate those solutions to ensure that they are effective.”

Implementing the Learning Skill

When faced with any new process, system, business, or business application, develop the habit of engaging the five Ws (who, what, when, where, and why) when gathering information. Keep asking the last question—why—until you find the real need for the system or application. Also, it’s essential to keep taking in relevant information to ensure your thinking processes do not become routine. If your organization cannot swing a continuing education or conferences due to budget constraints, ask whether your department can swing a lower-budget library of just a few business analysis books and magazines each year. Also, don’t forget to take advantage of free online webinars

According to BABOK, you’ve successfully learned your business domain when you can identify problems that relate to each other from various parts of the domain and when you can quickly take in and apply new information.

Problem Solving

Here is an area where your discovery skills come into play. For an analyst, successful problem solving means not only gleaning the information that everyone gives you (and commonly assumes), but digging for the “real, underlying problem” (as BABOK puts it). An analyst must call assumptions what they are, address “conflicts between the goals and objectives of stakeholders,” and list alternative solutions. The process should give all stakeholders the opportunity to voice their objectives and concerns, and document these (even if only in meeting notes).

Implementing the Problem Solving Skill

Before you can solve a problem, you must first define it clearly and be sure that everyone agrees on it. A fishbone diagram (and the accompanying root cause analysis that often accompanies them) may help you identify the true problem. In your research for the analysis, be sure to include interviews, problem reports, enhancement requests, and use case scenarios as they are applicable. Share your research to ensure that all stakeholders understand the true nature of the problem. Then, solicit and brainstorm possible solutions. (Before you choose or recommend one to implement, you’ll want to make use of your Decision Making skill!)

How do you know when you’re solving problems well? BABOK defines some measures of success in this area as being able identify and offer solutions that solve the real problem as well as establishing a problem-solving process framework that leaves politics out of the problem-solving equation.

As you’ve probably surmised, these soft skills will closely integrate with a myriad of business analysis techniques, any combination of which can ensure your success. Honing these soft skills—and choosing and implementing the right accompanying tools and techniques—can help you negotiate roadblocks and bottlenecks to your project.

Author: Morgan Masters, Business Analyst, Modern Analyst Media LLC

Morgan Masters is Business Analyst and Staff Writer at ModernAnalyst.com, the premier community and resource portal for business analysts. Business analysis resources such as articles, blogs, templates, forums, books, along with a thriving business analyst community can be found at http://www.ModernAnalyst.com 


IIBA®, the IIBA® logo, BABOK® and Business Analysis Body of Knowledge® are registered trademarks owned by International Institute of Business Analysis. CBAP® and CCBA® are registered certification marks owned by International Institute of Business Analysis. Certified Business Analysis Professional, Certification of Competency in Business Analysis, Endorsed Education Provider, EEP and the EEP logo are trademarks owned by International Institute of Business Analysis.


[1] A Guide to the Business Analyst’s Body of Knowledge® (BABOK® Guide), Version 2.0, International Institute of Business Analysis, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, ©2005, 2006, 2008, 2009.

[2] The sunk cost fallacy is the reasoning that since time and resources are already “sunk” into a project’s current direction, that time and those resources will be wasted if one changes course—even to correct the course—halfway through.

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