The Top 10 Skills for a New Business Analyst to Shore Up On

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Have you recently accepted your first business analyst position? Are you starting a new business analyst role and wondering what skills you should work on first?

The Top 10 Skills for a New Business Analyst to Shore Up OnWhile it’s always a good idea to customize your professional development plan by working with your manager, what follows are the 10 skills that new business analysts tend to need to work on first. Invest in improving in these skill areas and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a valued and successful business analyst.

1 - Facilitating Meetings

It’s pretty rare to be a business analyst and not facilitate meetings. The meetings you schedule, plan, and facilitate could be small (just you and a stakeholder or two for a half hour discussion) or large (10+ stakeholders for several hours or even a couple of days). Or they could fall anywhere in between. My experience has most typically involved facilitating 3-5 person meetings that last about an hour, maybe 1 ½-2 hours, some of which include conference call attendees or are completely virtual.

As a new business analyst you’ll want to get the basics of facilitating meetings down and then work on making them more productive over time. I call productive meetings working meetings – because real work gets done.

2 - Analyzing the Problem

When you are new, it can be easy to accept the solution, scope, or project idea at face value. More mature business analysts tend to question assumptions and challenge stakeholder’s solution ideas. The skill behind this line of questioning is analysis and it takes critical thinking skills.

Experimenting with different requirements models, such as business process flows and use cases, can help you improve your analysis skills. So can developing a healthy curiosity for how things work and thinking through problems in a logical way.

But analyzing is only part of the requirements process. The other half of the requirements process involves getting answers to the gaps you find, and that involves asking good questions. That can be tougher than it seems.

3 - Asking Good Questions – And All of Them

Asking questions can be nerve-wracking.

  • What if the question we ask is stupid?

  • What if we are expected to know the answer?

  • What if our stakeholders don’t know the answer?

Learning to ask questions is essential to conducting business analysis. This part of business analysis is called elicitation.

You can build confidence in your elicitation skills by first asking questions of a sympathetic stakeholder or fellow business analyst, perhaps the one assigned to mentor you. Then build your way up to asking challenging questions in a small group setting.

4 - Thickening Your Skin

Business analysis does take a thick skin. Positive feedback is akin to gold but negative feedback is common.

  • In response to your questions, you’ll see eye rolls (or hear silence on the conference line where you’ll assume eye rolls are happening).

  • In response to your well-groomed requirements document, you’ll receive critical remarks – about the requirements themselves or the phrasing.

  • In response to your meeting invites, stakeholders will tell you they are too busy or just simply not show up at all, leaving you behind on your requirements development plan. (What, you didn’t have a plan? Don’t miss skill 7.)

It’s easy to think these reactions are about you and your skills. And while it’s great to leverage feedback to improve your skills, it’s important to separate yourself from the feedback as well so the business analysis process can do its job. Business analysis is an iterative process and a constant barrage of feedback is part of the game.

5 - Writing Requirements Specifications

In a new business analyst role, typically there will be a few types of requirements specifications that are most commonly created. If you landed the job without those specific skills, you’ll want to review your organization’s templates and get familiar with what a good requirements specification should look like. Getting your hands on a few samples from fellow BAs inside your organization is also a good idea, as this will clarify exactly what you are expected to produce. Even if you have experience with a specification type, this is a good activity as standards tend to vary from one organization to another.

6 – Creating Visual Models

Most BAs tend to have a natural preference for either textual or visual models. Requirements specifications ideally include both types of information, as different stakeholders learn in different ways.

Unless your organization uses formal UML or BPMN standards, focus on learning to create simple visual models, such as workflow diagrams, information models, and system-context diagrams.

7 - Planning the Requirements Process

While business analysis is a lot like creating a plan, you also need a plan to create the plan. A typical requirements development plan will minimally answer the following elements:

  • What are the sources of information related to the requirements? (Typically this list will include several stakeholders and possibly documentation, existing systems, or other information assets.)

  • How will you obtain information from each of these sources?

  • What deliverables will you create? How will you review and validate each of these deliverables? Who will be involved in the review and validation processes?

  • What is your schedule for delivering all of the above? This could include a list of tasks and commitment dates and may also include effort estimates by you and your stakeholders.

8 – Getting Agreement on the Requirements

It’s not only important to discover what the requirements are and get them documented on paper, it’s also important to be sure that all of the stakeholders are bought into the requirements. Many new BAs go light on this process. Others allow their own ideas of what the requirements should be to prevent them from incorporating all of the stakeholder concerns.

Whatever the reason, failure to gain agreement leads to misunderstandings later in the project when what is delivered doesn’t match what was expected. Agreement is typically achieved through one or more requirements reviews.

9 – Using Tools and Software

Most hiring managers realize that while they can’t easily teach you to analyze or communicate, they can teach you to use the tools in place at their organizations. Unless you are directly managing or supporting a tool, you probably won’t have been hired based on your pre-existing tool knowledge.

That being said, learning the tools in the organization is an important aspect of becoming a productive contributor. Pay attention to the management tools used for projects, requirements, and software development, as well as tools used by your stakeholders, whether these are proprietary or off-the-shelf tools. Use online tutorials to get familiar and ask for demos from fellow team members. Use your analytical skills to get a firm grasp on how the tools work and how they support related business processes.

10 – Engaging Virtually

Workplaces today are increasingly geographically dispersed. Conference calls and virtual meetings are seen as normal ways to do business. Using instant messaging tools to get quick answers to questions is becoming standard as well. If you are new to conducting effective discussions over the phone or using web-based tools to conduct a requirements review session, brush up on some good practices by reading Paula Bell’s article on being a virtual business analyst.

>> Creating a Plan to Improve Your Skills

We’ve just gone through 10 fairly broad business analysis skills sets that are important for new business analysts. This could be overwhelming as it’s a lot of areas to focus on at once.

But you have something going for you. Since you were hired into the position, it’s likely that you bring some, if not all, of these skills to the table.

Instead of focusing on all 10 areas, focus first on skill areas that are critical to success in your organization and where your confidence is lacking. When I work with BAs on training plans, I suggest picking no more than 3 skill areas to focus on in the next 30 days. Then we re-evaluate and plan the following 30 days. Be prepared to continue this process indefinitely – the most mature BAs never stop investing in their professional development because there are always areas to improve and excel at.

Be sure to get your manager’s feedback wherever possible and select skills that are relevant to your immediate success. For example, it may be that project managers facilitate most meetings, but that you need to be able to take good notes. In that case, meeting facilitation could be on the back-burner while you work on your analysis skills and learning relevant software.

You won’t know what skills are most important until you ask, but now you have a starting point for having a productive conversation with your manager.

Author: Laura Brandenburg, CBAP is the author of How to Start a Business Analyst Career, the host of Bridging the Gap, and offers a free BA career planning course to help seasoned professionals start careers in business analysis.


 

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COMMENTS

fdthornton62 posted on Wednesday, September 11, 2013 4:16 PM
Sometimes you get caught up doing this or that and loss sight of the goal you're really shooting for. So thanks for sending me this email about Laura Brandenburg's article. I have one of her books and the piece was a great compliment to it thanks.
LauraBrandau posted on Wednesday, September 11, 2013 9:52 PM
@fdthorthon62 - What a great point. BAs are busy and have a lot on their plate. Taking time to step back and look at the big picture and what's important to move your career forward can be a challenge. I'm glad you are thinking ahead about where you want to be.

And thanks so much for your kind words. I'm glad you are benefiting from the book and the article!

~Laura
Canadian posted on Saturday, September 14, 2013 8:18 PM
Hi Laura - I just came across this site, and signed up for your "Start Your Business Analyst Career". It is frightening how this article speaks to me!

More to come!
Thanks
Pat
LauraBrandau posted on Sunday, September 15, 2013 10:05 PM
Pat, How wonderful! Thanks for sharing. I wish you lots and lots of success as a business analyst. It sounds like you are in the right profession.

~Laura
MeriGruber posted on Tuesday, June 24, 2014 7:43 PM
Hi Laura
This is a great set of skills to focus on, thanks for the post. I especially like your point about creating visual models. Visual models can help make requirements much easier to communicate, to collaborate and to iterate. I’d like to add the forthcoming DMN standard is also a great way to create visual models of decision-making.
Thanks,
Meri
TheLightedLamp posted on Sunday, January 18, 2015 4:13 PM
Dear Laura,
I don't know where to start but I already left my profession to follow these dreams to be able to raise 3 million seedlings. First hurdle is how to create collaboration when I am just employed as a mere employee of our local government.
The above skills are all new to me. All I got is only this crazy feelings that I can do it. Thank you so much for sharing the above article. Through your guidance, we can do this.
Again, thank you so much.
Sincerely yours,
Nelson
LauraBrandau posted on Sunday, January 18, 2015 9:35 PM
Nelson,

You are welcome. Energy and passion is the start. With persistence and focus, you'll get to where you want to go.

Most business analysts are "mere employees" and achieve a lot of positive change in their organization by focusing on clarity and alignment. Start by creating a pattern of small wins and build from there.

Laura
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