The Art of Professional Pushback


I am not sure if there are many other fields in corporate America that require the finesse necessary to execute the professional pushback as greatly as business analysis. Just by the shear nature of what analysts do, we are constantly uncovering inefficiencies and making recommendations for improvements or enhancements. Sometimes those recommendations are system-focused but they can also be people and process focused.

I have to admit, I was not skilled at this art early in my career to my own detriment. It took me a while to figure out that being “smart” was not the only requirement necessary to be successful in my chosen field. Being able to professionally provide the facts about a specific problem / opportunity that may a) uncover harsh realities in the organization b) pull back the political hierarchy impeding progress on something or c) just be plain unpopular – is truly an art.

There are many skills you can focus on to enhance your repertoire in this area: professionalism, focusing on the facts, ignoring the politics, and providing a balanced view. The earlier in your career that you can master these skills, the more successful you will be in your business analyst career.

So, how do you improve or practice the art of professional pushback?

The answer starts with the keyword: Professional.

Regardless of how people may behave in your organization, it is imperative that you remain professional at all times. I have fallen down here once or twice as well and learned valuable lessons from it. The most important thing to realize is nothing is that important.

I think at times, we as BA’s tend to get into a “sky is falling mode” because a requirement was missed, or a process is all wrong, or vendor relationship is difficult to manage. The reality is information technology projects are all about change and managing it properly is the mark of good BA. It is very easy when we get into these difficult predicaments to lose perspective and have passionate reactions. It is important to remain calm, cool, and collected to continue to build credibility with your project teams and business customers. This is the mark of a true leader.

Focus on the Facts
Without stating the obvious, BA’s are very analytic and we can be somewhat esoteric, at times, when what we really need to do is focus on the facts. We will sometimes have to present unpopular information but if we can focus on the facts and let the “powers that be” make the decisions, we will alleviate a lot of the stress and pressure we put on ourselves.

The challenge after the facts are presented is to be at peace with whatever decisions are made (unless you know that the world as we know it will never be the same until “they just get it” – which I will write about another time under the title of “How to sing the same song different ways”). This is an important point because as analysts’ opportunities and / or problems and ways to solve them may be so obvious to us (likely because we have been analyzing it while we take a shower, drive to work, drive home, etc.) but it is not always so obvious to others. Many times it is to our advantage to provide back up data to support our recommendations. I have found numerous times over my career that although the answer seems so obvious, I get more traction if I have the facts to back it up.

Ignore the Politics
To the degree that you possibly can, ignore the politics…

You don’t want to get sucked into the endless and negative hole that is corporate politics. You have an advantage in this arena because you can use the “I’m only an analyst” card to your advantage. Basically, that means you don’t have anything to win or lose based on the information you are presenting. Analysts in fact are in a unique position because we can provide data / facts from a neutral position.

An example would be, you are reviewing the current state process flow for a project you are on, and you uncover several inefficiencies in how the process is being done. Based on the above recommendations, you put together a professional presentation, pulled together the appropriate stakeholders, and present the facts. The decision makers then have a decision to make – to do something about it or not, but you have done your job and done it quite well.

Provide Balanced Views
It is very easy in corporate America to align yourself with the most vocal of customers, and to propagate their agenda.

These are the customers that say, “I need a website”. Yes, but what are your business requirements. “I just need a website to do x,y,z.” This is a classic example of where the professional pushback is not just necessary, it’s mandatory. If you find yourself in this situation (as many of us do), gently pushback and say, “It is really important I understand the business problem you are trying to solve, so I can help you think through the best possible solution”.

Once you have uncovered the true business problem, then you should make recommendations that are well balanced to your business partner. For example, we could create a website and it will cost this much, and take this long to develop, or we could just add a new report which will cost this much and take this long to develop. It’s providing that balanced view, giving stakeholders the facts, and then letting them make the best decision based on all the information provided.

If you have already mastered some of these skills then you are likely already experiencing great success in the business analysis field. If some of these situations feel familiar but you haven’t figured out the best approach to addressing them, I hope this provides some guidance. And if you are brand new to the field of business analysis, this should give you great insight on this profession and what you will likely face in the years ahead – hopefully this information equips you to face those challenges.

Author: Kimberly Terribile is a Manager of Business Analysis in the Clinical Trial Operations group within Development and Medical Informatics at Pfizer. She began her career with Cap Gemini Ernst & Young in 2000 and spent 5 years working on a wide variety of large scale software implementations across telecommunications, government, and health care insurance. In 2005, she went to ESPN where she became the Manager of the Business Analysis group. Subsequently, she accepted a position to teach business analysis with a niche training vendor. She also did curriculum development as the Director of Product Development.

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jessy posted on Monday, July 6, 2009 6:39 AM
Kimberly Terribile:

Yes. Being professional and smart will make you a better business analyst.

“By ignoring the politics, a BA will succeed in the project.” I wonder if it true. Corporate politics are plotted in a way that you cannot avoid.

I think you have to play it smart. Of course, do not go to their level.

Tony Markos posted on Monday, July 6, 2009 9:44 AM

I enjoyed your article. You state that it is important for BAs to not to just follow the dictates of the most vocal of customers who often state something like "I just need a website to do x, y, z". but to understand the business to recommend the best solution.

While I totally agree with your statement, there are those who believe that as-is analysis is a waste of time - an excuse for BAs to sit back and collect a paycheck for a while until they are forced to get on with “real" work of implementing a management dictated solution. In defense of their viewpoint, sooo many as-is analysis efforts have been so poorly performed that the value of such a study can seem minimal.

The solution is to employ an as-is analysis technique that is focused on the essential and has its own built-in credibility check so that the value of the analysis is glaringly evident to even casual observers. Unfortunately, today's most popular analysis techniques, including use cases, activity diagrams, and BPMN lack such a credibility check, as the essentials are process inputs and outputs and none of these techniques seriously addresses such.

Sunitam posted on Tuesday, July 7, 2009 3:41 AM

I liked the way you stated the fact that its not about just being an implementer and doing what client wants, but telling them the best way to handle their business problem.

I would also like to add that each of the feature should be mapped to the high level Business Value and that is when we can compare and say for that Cost spent, this is the Business value achieved and you are so close to achieving the final goal!

Seher posted on Wednesday, July 8, 2009 2:17 PM
I agree... professionalism is the root of all BA activities. To be calm and controlled allows your various stakeholders to see that you can handle all kinds of issues and pressures without 'losing it'.
Victor posted on Thursday, July 9, 2009 3:42 PM

As the former Director of the business analysis center of excellence for FSL Informatics at Pfizer's R&D headquarters in New London, I can compliment you on a well written article, albeit your position about office politics are a little naive.

Jean Hollands, author of Same Game Different Rules: How to Get Ahead Without Being a Bully Broad, Ice Queen or Ms. Understood, said "The person who says "I'm not political" is in great danger.... Only the fittest will survive, and the fittest will be the ones who understand their office's politics."

As a BA you cannot ignore office politics, you need to maintain your neutrality and arbitrate them to guide your stakeholders to consensus.


Kimberly posted on Sunday, July 19, 2009 5:17 PM

Thank you for your feedback. I believe we are in absolute agreement.

The primary point I am trying to make in the article is to not get caught up in the politics. I concede that 'ingore' may be to strong a verb.

Barrie Callender posted on Thursday, July 23, 2009 8:12 AM
I also enjoyed the article, and fully understand the gist of "Ignore the Politics".

In my experience I have learned to "Recognise the Politics" and consider what the best approach is to get a decision from the stakeholders. Sometimes bringing them together to lay it on them can be a bit like lighting the blue touch paper and standing well back. It's a call about the people involved in the decision, some would appreciate a briefing beforehand, some a quick word and some can take it on the day.

However, I choose to "recognise the politics", the objective is to get a decision even if it isn't my preferred decision. I've learned that advising on the best decision to take carries less consequences than making the decision. In other words my best decision isn't their best decision, but so long as I can help them make their best decision I can let mine die quietly.
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