Agile Business Analysis: Interview with Scott Ambler

23 Likes Switching tracks a bit, is there a need for business analysis, the discipline, on the agile projects?

Scott Ambler: Yeah. There is a need to do analysis. For anything even remotely interesting, yeah, you’re going to be doing analysis. But it’s not a phase; doing analysis in a phase is actually a phenomenally risky way of working. It might not be a specific job role. So, I think this is where the business analysis community [needs to pay attention] and this is true of any community; is true of testing, true of project management, true of many other things, true of programming. You really don’t want somebody just focused on that. You need to do the activity but that doesn’t mean you need a specialist in it. You don’t think there is a place for a business analyst role on an agile project?

Scott Ambler: There’s a lot of great opportunity for business analysts. There’s definitely a great opportunity for people with business knowledge and skill on an agile project.
For example, we’ve got this role of an onsite customer or product owner; somebody who represents the business to the team. That’s a role that most business analysts, particularly those that are coming from the business side, are almost ideally fitted for. Because if you look at that product owner role, that onsite customer role; they do a lot of analysis activities:

  • They’ve got to negotiate between a wide range of people.
  • They have to communicate the requirements to the development team.
  • They have to represent what’s going with the development team to the overall business community.

So, there’s a lot of good stuff there for business analysts.

But it’s not a strict business analysis role. We need more than what a business analyst can typical do. They need to prioritize the requirements, because we work in priority order, which enables us to produce higher return on investment. We need people that can come on who can make decisions right now; even if it is not perfect decision, give us your best answer now, but let us know that it’s not the best one…

We don’t need a big document. We don’t need to have somebody to go back to the Steering Committee and wait for the official meeting two weeks from now to make a relatively trivial decision. We need the decisions now…

The analysis effort is very important but it is done in a different and more effective manner than what we see in the traditional world. For the business analyst who wants to step up in that role: Hey great! Do it! …

I’m not saying any of this is easy but it’s a very important role and very interesting. So, I think there’s a lot of opportunity there.

But, if your vision is to write detailed use cases or write detailed data models or whatever your models are of choice and then hand it over to the development team; that’s not of much value. That’s actually increasing risk. We don’t need that.

Assuming people are flexible, and I know a role for a business analyst is just to become a team a team member because everybody on the team should have analysis skills. This is something that’s very easy for people to gain if they’re given the opportunity. So, in the agile world, one of the things we try to do is just grow our skill set, have a wider range of skills and pair with people to work closely with them and collaborate with them. That that way we can learn new skills from them and they can learn new skills from us. So, this actually spreads information amongst the team faster, lowering cost and risk and also increases our skills faster, which also reduces cost and risk as well. So, this is a good thing. But people need to be flexible. Anybody coming in with business analysis skills will start picking up other skills from other team members. They might pick up testing skills, programming skills, whatever. Not that they’re going to become an expert programmer or an expert tester, but they’ll pick up some of these skills and will become better at these sort of things. This is actually critical and this is a big difference. So the analyst needs to do more than just business analysis…

Scott Ambler: One of the challenges I think in the traditional community is that they’ve rewarded people for becoming overly specialized. You’ve got people who are just programmers, who are just testers, just business analysts, just project managers. In the agile community, we’re going away from that because that’s seen as a pretty big risk.

We’re moving more towards craft people, which is probably not an accurate term but I like to use the term ‘generalized specialist’, somebody who has one or more specialties, because you better be able to do something useful, but who’s got a general knowledge of the process and good knowledge of the domain as well.

So, that’s in between. On the extremes, we have generalists and specialists. A generalizing specialist is the person that’s somewhere in between those two extremes and the ‘best of both worlds’. This is the type of paradigm that we are starting to see in the agile community. So you’re saying that business analysis is not as much of a role or phase, within the agile world, but rather a discipline and set of skills?

Scott Ambler: Yeah and it’s pretty more like a discipline or a set of skills that one activity gets. A nice way to say it is that business analysis is so important to agile people that we do it every day. It’s not a phase. Actually when I see an analysis phase in a project that’s telling you that analysis must be a phenomenally trivial thing that we only have to do it one point in the project and then for some reason we don’t ever need to do it again or very rarely need to do it and desperate try to avoid it through the change management process.

Analysis is so important to us we do it on a daily basis. We want to be working close with our business stakeholders. We want to be working on a daily basis to get information from them, to get feedback from them. A lot of that interaction with the business stakeholders is obviously going to be some sort of analysis type of activity.

As a result, we can’t really afford to have only one person that does analysis on the project or small group of people doing it because they very quickly become bottlenecks. We need people who are willing to do analysis and can do it on a moment’s notice. If I realize I need to talk to somebody and get some information out of them, I should go straight to them. I shouldn’t have to go to Sally the business analyst and wait for her to be available or schedule a meeting with her. Then have her schedule a meeting with the person I actually need to talk to and all that stuff. That’s like a bridge or a go-betweener or a Band-Aid. It’s not an effective way of working. It’s better than not doing analysis but it’s definitely not the best way of working. Are there any specific analysis skills or competencies that you see are of big value on the agile project?

Scott Ambler: It’s all the important ones that I would argue that you see in the traditional world: 

  • The ability to communicate with people, to ask questions, and get information out of them.
  • To negotiate priorities between different groups - because the business stakeholders never have one single voice on their own. They need somebody to help facilitate that, somebody who knows the business to begin with.
  • The business domain knowledge, period, is important. It is something that everybody needs to have, not just business analysts.

What’s not as critical, is the specification. Yeah, obviously in a regulatory environment that’s a little bit different…

One of the things in the agile world is that instead of documenting a requirement, we prefer to capture it in the form of a test. So, if you believe that a requirement can be testable, then the next implication is why don’t you just skip over the documentation middleman to begin with and just start out by writing the test. Just cut out the extra busy work. As long as that test is human readable and then you can tie it in with the actual working code; hey, you are off to the races, right? So, just a slight change, just adopting the practice of executable specification, you can have a dramatic impact on your productivity. But it requires a different skill set on the part of whoever is doing that analysis specification effort.

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Tony Markos posted on Monday, September 8, 2008 12:58 PM
I am all for "making decisions right now". Heck, once I have an adequate understanding of the as-is, that is a relatively easy thing to do. But I have to take the time required to learn the as-is; I lack divine intiution.

I may be hearing it wrong, but to me agile is about jumping right into the to-be - largely ignoring the as-is. Am I hearing correctly?

Scott W. Ambler posted on Tuesday, September 9, 2008 5:37 AM
If you visit and spend some time reading about the best practices, you'll see that it's common practice for agilists to invest a bit of time up front in requirements and architecture envisioning.

- Scott
Tony Markos posted on Tuesday, September 9, 2008 10:48 AM

I have to admit, it has always been my experience that, especially on larger scale software projects, more than "a bit" of as-is modeling is required. The way I learned it and experieinced it is that coming up with an adequate as-is model is the major part of the required work (I was actually taught that the as-is model is ninty- eight percent (98%) of the required work ).

BA's often lead Business Process Re-engineering projects - very as-is-oriented efforts.


Scott W. Ambler posted on Tuesday, September 9, 2008 11:46 AM
In Agile Modeling,, we talk about doing just enough modeling for the situation at hand. So, just enough is situational. The larger, more complex the project the more modeling you're going to need to do. A good heuristic is that for every month of the release consider doing one day of up front modeling (i.e. for a 12 month project consider doing 12 days), with a cap of two weeks (10 days) for complex projects and one week for straighforward projects. Naturally logisitics and your organization's ability to focus on getting the job done and stay focused on high-value activities can stretch this out, but I would consider that a significant risk.

My experience is that the professional modelers among us tend to think that we need to do an order of magnitude more modeling than what is actually required. This is because they're often overly specialized on modeling hence overestimate its value, because they've been trained to think that way, and because they often haven't gotten their heads out of the theory of yesteryear. Having said that, the "extreme programmers" among us often think we need to do an order of magnitude less modeling than we actually need to do.

Bottom line is that if you have the skill to model something today, you will also have the skill to model it tomorrow when and if you actually need the details. The goal should be to get the value out of modeling which is to communicate and think things through without taking on the risks associated with too much detail too early.

In the November issue of Dr. Dobb's Journal I summarize the results of a recent survey that we did regarding the current state of modeling and documentation in IT. From the looks of it the agile community appears to be a bit more effective at modeling than the traditional community and a bit more likely to create deliverable documentation. I hope that the article will be an eye opener for a lot of people.

- Scott
Tony Markos posted on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 4:43 PM

Thanks for the informative reponses.

haj posted on Friday, September 12, 2008 12:36 AM
Regardless of the name you apply to your approach to analysis, a characteristic of effective business analysis is clear communication. To that end, can you please clarify your fourth bullet point ("We’re self organizing, so that the people that do the work are the ones that are best suited to organize and plan it. That’s a bit different") which in its current form can be taken to mean either you advocate choosing the workers from the organizers OR that you advocate picking the organizers from amongst the workers. Thanks in advance
Scott W. Ambler posted on Friday, September 12, 2008 7:39 AM
Like I said, it's a bit different. The workers are the organizers. On agile teams there's a blurring of roles. We're moving away from overly specialized people, such as people who are just programmers, or just testers, or just BAs, to people who are generalizing specialists (see ) who have one or more specialities and a general knowlege of the process -- the sweet spot between being specialists and generalists. Generalizing specialists are more effective than specialists as they don't need as much supporting bureaucracy, they have the ability to apply the right technique to the situation to the right degree, and they can interact more effectively with others because they have a better understanding of the issues that they're trying to address. When you're just a specialist you're effectively someone who just has a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

So, instead of having someone do the planning for the team (i.e. the manager), the team itself does the planning. The manager may facilitate the effort, but the team does the majority of the planning work. When done on a JIT basis, this proves to be far more effective than traditional planning approaches.

You're correct that an important part of business analysis analysis is effective communication, arguably it's the most important part. But, we need to step back and observe that the traditional approach to analysis leaves significant room for improvement. The agile community has adopted several improvements, for the most part centered on reducing the feedback cycle and choosing more effective ways for people to share information (documentation, by the way, is the least effective method for people to share info). For several years now I've suggested that the business analysis community needs to point their skills back at themselves. I suspect that if they did that honestly that they'd start questioning the traditional strategies that they seem to prefer.

- Scott
haj posted on Sunday, September 14, 2008 9:43 PM
Thank you for directing me to the 'generalizing specialists article. Excising the circumlocution, your approach relies on an effective team. You pick (presumably expensive) resources who are skilled at more than one discipline. Ideal, that. I opine that such a team is by definition effective regardless of any particular method. In fact, left to their own devices, they may be relied upon to find and apply their own most effective methods, which may or may not be the methods you advocate. It is to improve the likelihood of success when the project team is less than ideal and/or operating in a less than ideal set of cirumstances that we codify and apply methods. The higher the risk, the more strictly we should enforce the methods which are, after all, insurance against failure. It strikes me as specious to promote Agile as a superior method if it requires a ‘better’ team than the alternatives, which themselves have evolved to maximize success even where the ideal team cannot be assembled, that is to say, almost always.
Scott W. Ambler posted on Monday, September 15, 2008 8:57 AM
My experience is that it's realistic to build teams from generalizing specialists, but you actually need to choose to do so. Just as a specialist team would be made up of some novices, some mid-level people and some experienced people so would an agile team made up of generalizing specialists. The novice GSs might just be specialists, the mid-level ones might be people with one specialty and a general knowledge, and the experts would have more than one specialty.

The deciding factor is that you need to build a team with a learning and collaborative culture going in, instead of building a Tayloristic team of specialists.

So, not having a group of experts on hand isn't a valid excuse for becoming more agile. It is, unfortunately, a common excuse for why organizations remain at lower levels of productivity. My advice is to choose to succeed.

Also, I've been pretty clear in my blog, and in other writings of course, that I certainly don't expect conditions to be ideal. Nor have I ever actually found myself in an ideal situation. So, not being in an ideal situation isn't a valid excuse to not become more agile either.

Strictly enforcing methods hasn't worked very well in practice over the years. Sounds good in theory though. You need to choose approaches which reflect human behavior, and as we know knowledge workers don't react well to being told what to do or to being strictly monitored. You might want to read the IBM whitepaper that I co-wrote with Per Kroll on Lean Development Governance which goes into this topic in more detail.

- Scott
haj posted on Monday, September 15, 2008 7:11 PM
No, thank you, I have read enough of the style, and in any case I will be busy searching for an example where “enforcing methods hasn't worked very well in practice over the years”. This could take some time.
Scott W. Ambler posted on Tuesday, September 16, 2008 5:15 AM
You're right, it's likely going to take some time because it's very rare for organizations to write up their failures and share them with the world. What's more common is that the problem gets ignored and then swept under the rug. Worse yet, many organizations will apply the same failed strategy over and over in the hope that somehow they'll get it right this time, being unable to observe the failure patterns that they're experiencing.

To see patterns of failure you need to work at a series of firms, something that consultants get to do but non-consultants generally don't. When you start to notice the same patterns over and over again you start to question what's going on. When you only see a one or two organizations struggle with a strategy, often several years apart, it's easy to assume that it's just bad luck that they both got it wrong.

You might find the results of the 2006 Data Management survey, , to be interesting because it found that two thirds of development go around their corporate data groups. Although this is a complex issue, it's clearly a sign that data management efforts are struggling in many organizations. Yet, when was the last time you read a case study about a struggling data management group?
Acadia posted on Tuesday, September 16, 2008 10:17 AM
Hi Scott,

I have been reading your articles for a while now and on Agile as well. I think Agile came in to place just to create a balance in a world that was relying too much on process and somehow forgetting the end user. I think Agile was a way to cut down the process drone and get some dynamic feedback mechanism into the picture. This is also clear in your article when you say one can choke oneself with all the modeling and documentation that no one will read.

Its also great to know you conducted a survey and you found out that Agile teams indeed focus and deliver modelling and documentation. Something that even you were surprised to learn.

And here is where I find the issue. Since politics is so much the talk these days, I can't help but say that throughout history individuals/ideologies comes to power in the hope of setting right and making better what existed, but end up doing some abject things themselves.

In the same light, I think the Agile community has to clearly advocate what it wants to do and there must be a absolute lack of ambiguity. Many people misunderstand Agile to mean no documentation. I think somewhere the founders did feel that way too and your "just enough" is not really a good enough term. Not having documentation is going the other extreme. Forget surveys and polls, I have found in my own company that after the product was delivered and shipped and the applause died down, people came back to fix something after months just to be utterly dumb founded and not knowing how to go about it. Or users in non-tech groups fumbling and cursing under their breath because no matter how good the usability Help does help many a times.

And when you talk of roles not being super specialized and planning being done by the teams, you have to have a precondition that it works in places where there is a good rapport and trust between the team. I cannot imagine Agile surviving in an environment where there is hostility backstabbing and an aggressive client. And there is no documentation to save your soul. So though your survey speaks clearly, I wish Agile community also understands the preconditions where Extreme Programming and Agile will work well to save a project and where it simply cannot. And I also wish that the Agile community mentions that documentation is really v important.

I strongly resent the fact that in life if you went about changing your mind, you would be booted, but in the software world, a client who changes his mind endlessly is accommodated. I need to understand yet how Agile even tags cost with all the changes and scope creeps with no change management and with documentation coming at the fag end?
Scott W. Ambler posted on Wednesday, September 17, 2008 7:31 AM
Some thoughts:
1. Software development is a complex and situational effort. As a result there is ambiguity in the agile message and justifiably so. One size does not fit all. Perhaps your need for definition is an indication that you may struggle to become more agile?
2. If people misunderstand agile to mean no documentation that is surely not the fault of the agile community, but instead the fault of those people to not do a bit of research. Just google the term "Agile documentation" and you'll find a wealth of articles on the subject. My Agile Modeling book, published in 2002, covered the topic in detail and the Agile Documentation book in greater detail in 2005. The topic has of course been addressed in other books too.
3. Just good enough is in the eye of the beholder. Just good enough artifacts are the most effective you can possibly create. Once again, software development is situational and one size does not fit all. I've described JBGE in detail at
4. If your organization is having problems then you need to learn from your experiences and improve your process. If there is an actual need for more documentation then learn from that and invest effort in it on future projects. Agilists treat documentation just like any other requirement -- it's estimated, prioritized, and then implemented appropriately. Also, is the real problem lack of documentation or poor hand-off procedures? I've seen lots of orgs treat documentation like a band-aid over their release process. Instead of just handing a system off to a maintenance team, keep some of the developers around or bring some of the maintainers into the development effort. Also, were the teams writing high-quality code with a full regression test suite? If not, then I suspect that's your actual problem.
5. Help features, user manuals, ... should be treated like any other requirement (see above). If the stakeholders choose not to invest in these things then who is really at fault?
6. If you don't have good rapport and trust between the team you're in very serious trouble regardless of paradigm. With agile you'll likely fail quicker, which is a good thing. Papering over problems like this only extends the point at which you declare failure, increasing your actual costs as well as opportunity costs.
7. The agile community has been pretty clear about the preconditions for various agile methods. For example, the XP folks have been very blunt about this (once again, invest some time with Google) as have I with Agile Modeling (drop by and search the site).
8. People can and will change their minds. Get used to it, this is human nature. Furthermore, it's the customer's money, not yours, and if they choose to spend it in "questionable manners" that's their decision, not yours. If you resent things like this you either need to work through your issues or you need to find work in another profession more aligned with your value system.
9. The agile community is spectacularly clear about how to handle the cost of changed requirements, see for one of many write ups on this subject. We treat stakeholders like adults and ask that they be accountable for these sorts of decisions, it's their money after all. One of the advantages of agile, and one of the challenges I suppose, is that it provides greater control and visibility to stakeholders. The stakeholders can change the scope, control the budget, and control the schedule. When you deliver potentially shippable working software on a regular basis, that enables stakeholders to make concrete decisions on whether the system is ready to be shipped, whether they're getting what they want, and how much (if any) they should continue investing in this project. When you implement requirements in priority order you deliver the highest ROI possible, as defined by your stakeholders. When you deliver high quality working software, with a full regression test suite, on a regular basis you can accomodate change easily. Working in ths manner requires greater accountability on the part of stakeholders (clearly a challenge in many orgs) and greater discipline on the part of IT professionals (also a challenge in many orgs). We've upped the game in the agile world.
10. If you step back and observe what happens on traditional projects, most of the critical deliverable documentation is written towards the end of the lifecycle just like on agile projects. See
Acadia posted on Wednesday, September 17, 2008 9:36 AM
Scott, thanks for your response and your time. I agree with your comments. The problem is when there is a lot of half-baked knowledge around and time is not invested in reading and researching. And I think practitioners and experts like yourself are doing a fabulous job of putting so much knowledge out there for people. There really is a need for advocates and enlighteners - who know the stuff to educate the people.

My worry is the misunderstanding of Agile must not undermine the role of a business analyst in the project sphere. Reducing our work to mere facilitation may not stand in the way of companies throwing out our role altogether.
Amar posted on Thursday, September 18, 2008 1:51 PM
It is a side question but can I ask anyone of you to shade some light on the type of questions asked on a BA skill evaluation test?
Scott W. Ambler posted on Friday, September 19, 2008 11:24 AM
Agile is real, it works well, it's here to stay, and it's growing. So, the BA community, and other communities for that matter, needs to accept this and find ways to add value on such projects. This will require them to be flexible enough to change. If not, they're going to struggle. BAs clearly have value to add, IMHO, but they need to choose to actually do so. The implication is that they will need to change the way that they approach their work.
Jim posted on Wednesday, November 12, 2008 3:25 PM
I think you've gone a step beyond the Agile Manifesto to say that Agile is against documentation. I don't see that at all, but rather that people and solutions are more valuable than documentation. There are many times that documentation IS part of the deliverable, and I don't see any conflict in that. Bureaucracy or not, if the business requires documentation, we should be delivering it, and why not deliver it in an Agile context? Many organizations believe that they cannot implement Agile because it's anti-documentation. They are legally bound to provide documentation. I'd much rather see the documentation as part of a sprint than a tired old traditional method.
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