Leading from the Side

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Leading from the SideI have been in the business analysis profession for many years and the one thing I have constantly had to challenge myself on is leading without really leading, or what I call leading from the side. As a business analyst, many times we are not in a position of authority yet we have to have significant leadership skills to be successful. If you look at the definition of leadership:

Leadership has been described as the "process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task".[1] A definition more inclusive of followers comes from Alan Keith of Genentech who said "Leadership is ultimately about creating a way for people to contribute to making something extraordinary happen."[2] - Wikipedia.com

Leadership encapsulates everything we do in the business analysis profession. We have to use influence to get others to work to accomplish a task or (my personal favorite) to make something extraordinary happen. In other words, we move mountains every day.

Most people in leadership positions also have the authority or title to help put a little weight behind them in influencing others. Business analysts' are generally in the unique position of not having authority or title to help them be successful from a leadership perspective so they have to be a bit more creative.

What does lead from the side really mean?

First and foremost, it means doing our absolute level best on doing analysis, recommending solutions, and utilizing the right tools. For project level business analysis it means capturing the business requirements and functional requirements to create a product that in the end will make our customers exceptionally happy and their lives immeasurably better. Wow - on paper, that sounds so easy. As we all know, it is not quite that easy.

In project level business analysis we spend hours pouring over the requirements, meeting with customers, documenting, re-documenting, developing use cases, explaining what use cases are (and what they are not), redeveloping use cases, creating and recreating report layouts, and creating and tweaking screen shots. After we have completed that, we have to speak to the development team and get them bought into the requirements, encourage them they can code what is required within an appropriate timeframe, and we may have a few updates to the fields on the reports - and that's ok, we need to be flexible and responsive. We also have to be constantly selling the value of what we do, why we need to do it, and why we need adequate time to do analysis and document the requirements.

After we've convinced the developers the project is doable, then we have to have the business meetings where we have to re-prioritize the prioritized requirements (no, that's not a misprint) and explain we understand they need everything but we can only deliver half the functionality in the time and budget we have allocated. We work closely with the business to try and reassure them that everyone on the team is focused on delivering. We spend hours laboring over the requirements with these stakeholders and we are so committed to them, we are secretly praying the development team will come through and deliver exactly what is needed to make the business folks lives a little easier.

Is that all we do?

What are the skills needed to make all this happen and lead from the side?

It's about listening, influence, educating people, building relationships, and did I mention listening?

Listening is important because it allows the BA to think about and tailor the message back to the sender. The things that are most important to the business or that they might have sensitivity around are not the same things the technical team may have needs or sensitivity around. Listening closely to these differences and responding appropriately is a crucial skill. This also includes things like using the right tools and techniques for the right audience.

Influence... ahh... the illustrious word.

"You don't have to be a "person of influence" to be influential. In fact the most influential people in my life are probably not even aware of the things they've taught me." - Scott Adams

Influence is educating people, getting people to think, getting people to look at things differently without beating them over the head with it. While it sometimes useful to be very direct and to the point, it is also sometimes useful to have the ability to subtly influence the customer, members of your project team, and others. I have found that many times influence and educating people go hand in hand. Sharing different experiences, perspectives can have a profound impact on the way the project team views things i.e. is the glass half empty or half full. I always opt for half full.

Speaking of educating people, take this role seriously. There are still many misconceptions out in the industry about what a business analyst is and what they do. Part of being a leader in your organization is continuing to educate those in your company about best practices, etc. Sometimes this takes the form of lunch n' learns and sometimes it is more informal in terms of one on one coaching. Take every opportunity to preach the value of business analysis. It is still desperately needed and sometimes missing in many organizations.

Building relationships with all people at all levels in the organization. You never know when this will come back to serve you well. You also never know when one of your peers may get promoted, move to another organization, etc. To lead from the side, it is helpful to have colleagues that will speak to your credibility and work ethic. Don't underestimate the power good relationships.

I believe all the skills needed for 'leading from the side' involve an element of listening so try to hone that skill. I have found a large majority of business analyst's have superior oral and written communication skills (and generally like to talk) but it is equally important to know when to listen. It is through active listening you will pick up the nuances to help you be successful when influencing, educating people, and building relationships.

Leading from the side is one of the most important aspects of a business analysis career. Not only will it help you be more successful as a business analyst but it will also help you as you continue to grow and mature in your career. Whether you end up as a project manager, a senior business analyst, an enterprise business analyst, a customer engagement manager, a CIO, or a business architect - these skills will help you.

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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antcraw76 posted on Wednesday, November 4, 2009 7:35 AM
Great article.
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