The Six Secrets of Highly Successful Business Analysts

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Business analysts are jacks-of-all-trades -- and masters of some.

Perhaps the most multidisciplinary professional services role, BAs work with all project stakeholders to elicit, analyze, communicate and validate requirements for changes to business processes, policies and information systems, as well as manage on-going stakeholder expectations and energizing their atmosphere.

The International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA) defines the role as “an agent of change,” whose responsibilities are to “identify and define the solutions that will maximize the value delivered by an organization to its stakeholders.” This role is particularly important in specialized areas such as custom software development, where BAs ensure that the development team has a clear understanding of the customer’s overall needs and, ultimately, makes sure that business objectives are met.

Six Secrets of Highly Successful Business AnalystsBut, unfortunately, this seemingly endless list of responsibilities and considerable creative flexibility means many BAs fall short. They often spread themselves too thin, lack the requisite confidence to speak with authority, or don’t understand fully the important role they play in providing recommendations and guidance to the entire team. These challenged BAs are “thermometers,” simply gauging what’s going on around them and reporting the results -- but doing very little to change them.

The rare BA is a “thermostat,” who’s able to alter the environment in order to reach a desired outcome: the successful completion of a project. I’ve been lucky to work with many elite BAs in my decades of corporate experience and, more times than not, they excel in the following six areas:

Building consensus

The success of a project often hinges on the wide-ranging support of key stakeholders, including executives and department heads. Obtaining buy-in from these important individuals is no small feat, and the ability to obtain it is often mastered only after years of on-the-job experience. A project’s success also depends on the ongoing, enthusiastic efforts of team members. A less-than-energetic effort by these individuals will result in poor quality, missed deadlines and personnel issues.

So how do you get everyone on board? Any number of appropriate strategies are available to facilitate the team decision-making process, but one widely used approach is with Six Sigma-based consensus-building tools. Popularized by U.S. manufacturers in the 1990s, Six Sigma-based decision making techniques involve using prioritization matrices to rank the available options by a variety of objective variables like cost and feasibility.

More complex than a simple list of “pros vs. cons,” this approach is designed to produce the best outcome based only on the choices that are available. For example, a project team must choose between 15 different versions of software. To create consensus within the team, the BA develops a matrix that includes 20 different variables, such as cost, ease of use and operating system requirements, then has the team rank each software version on each variable to arrive at the best choice.

Prioritizing among competing interests

BAs also work as facilitators during the decision-making process. While they do not necessarily drive subject-matter experts towards specific solutions, or assume too much influence over project decisions, they enable conversations and arbitrate territorial disputes among different departments or individuals. This ensures that the most qualified decision maker is heard and limits the impact of political or personality-based considerations.

Additionally, projects often fail because of a lack of leadership, inappropriate direction or insufficient emphasis on managing requirements. To keep a team focused and organized, BAs also must understand team psychology and use their top-notch people skills to remove or circumvent barriers to success.

Minimizing process

In manufacturing, process plays an important role in making sure that products coming off the assembly line are identical, often with tolerances of a millimeter or less.

Unfortunately, in most business applications, excessive adherence to process can produce a similar result: cookie-cutter solutions. Process often considers the contributions of individuals as an interruption, a distraction that impedes the quickest route from Point A to Point B.

Process can also contribute to inertia and apathy, which hinder creative problem solving. While we often focus on scope creep, if we’re not careful process can be a creep as well. Process-driven solutions frequently stifle the wide-ranging solutions of motivated, veteran team members as well as the fresh ideas and limited bias that their less experienced coworkers can provide. BA are skilled at determining what processes are required for the project to be executed properly – and which ones are superfluous. For example, a BA might suggest streamlining a decision-making process for purchase approvals, or call attention to the fact that some employees are being overly managed.

Facilitating healthy debate

On project teams, disagreement is not necessarily something to avoid; in fact, it can often result in a better outcome.

Often moderating or playing a lead role in meetings, BAs play are crucial to fostering constructive debate by setting the tone and building trust among all participants. The also make sure conversations are inclusive, positive and focused on the pertinent aspects of the project, not individuals or personalities.

Elite BAs also interact with project members at their level and ensure team members don’t feel vulnerable, which can destroy the creative process.

Minimizing anxiety and low morale

Anxiety often runs high when team personalities clash. It’s normal – not everyone always gets along. But it also can be prevented by creating norms and expectations within the group and limiting the toxic effects of low morale.

It may sound simple, but BAs can foster one of the best habits of project teams: to avoid criticism of clients, individuals or, really, anything except the weather. A positive disposition is both infectious and highly productive, so BAs are skilled at keeping the griping to a minimum. That extends to the use of positive body language and non-confrontational phrases like “what if,” which encourage collaboration and team problem solving.

Generating creativity

The human imagination is not always open for business A late meeting on a Friday afternoon? Lunch meeting over lasagna? Both strong candidates for seemingly unproductive brainstorming sessions.

But with an elite BA at the helm, an energetic presence, positive outlook and confident demeanor all can go a long way in spurring innovation and collaborative efforts. As most individuals respond well to positive feedback, affirmation, too, is frequently a successful tool used by BAs to stoke creativity – a key distinction between a BA thermometer that reflects temperate changes and a BA thermostat that regulates them.

Tony McClain is a senior client partner at Geneca, a Chicago-based customer software development firm.


Author: Tony McClain, Geneca Senior Client Partner

Tony brings over 30 years of professional management experience to his role as a Senior Client Partner at Geneca. He serves Geneca clients by leveraging technology to solve their business challenges and ensuring they get full value from their software investment. He is appreciated by clients and co-workers alike as a trusted, collaborative leader and mentor, committed to the growth and success of everyone he works with.

Tony comes to Geneca from Daugherty where he was Head of Delivery and a leading Principal Consultant after successfully performing several IT delivery roles. Prior to that, Tony worked as a lead Software Engineer at Dominick’s. In addition to many years in retail food management at both Dominick’s and Jewel Food Stores, Tony has vertical industry experience in Enterprise Software and Services, Media, Financial Services, Healthcare, and Retail. He received his B.S. in Finance from Illinois State University and his B.S. in Computer Information Systems from DeVry University.

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COMMENTS

Machelle1904 posted on Monday, October 21, 2013 12:12 PM
Tony,

Thank you for this insightful article which really focuses on the key skills we must have as BAs.

I agree that building consensus and prioritizing competing interests are among our top responsibilities. In my experience, it comes down to level setting expectations among key stakeholders. Often stakeholder groups have competing objectives. Management's goal is to resolve a business problem in the most cost-effective and timely manner. The end-user's goal is to resolve pain points in their daily workload. The developer's goal is to fulfill the stated requirements in a timely manner while maintaining the supportability and reliability of the system. Often these goals are in conflict which causes problems for the project. Reminding stakeholders of their common role as shareholders helps bring them to agreement. Our role is to ensure requirements create value for the business while maintaining a positive ROI for the company.

thanks,

Machelle Chandler, M.S., PMP, ITIL Expert
http://www.linkedin.com/in/machellechandler
Senior Systems/Business Analyst specializing in requirements gathering and process improvement
andrewjmitchell posted on Thursday, October 24, 2013 7:07 AM
Thanks for this. I have long argued that BA's are important leaders on project teams. The skills you note in the article are ones that are not often discussed but very necessary.
tony.heap posted on Tuesday, November 12, 2013 5:25 PM
Hi Tony,

One thing that I think is vital to be a good BA is design thinking - the ability to look at the business context and project objectives and design a business change to satisfy those objectives - or even better, to design multiple alternative business changes and help business stakeholders to select the preferred option - much like a building architect does.

What's your experience - is design thinking a characteristic of successful BAs?
raph posted on Tuesday, December 24, 2013 9:27 AM
Hi

Nice article. I agree that top performing BA is about soft skills.

If purpose of a BA is about maximizing the value of a need/a process/a company/a strategy, then the BA can be seen as a coach who will facilitate this effort.

Raphael
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