The Business Analyst as an Innovation Agent

With competition in the marketplace at an all-time high as well as highly saturated industries the ability for a company to differentiate itself and constantly keep up is increasingly significant. The strategic drivers of a business need to maintain momentum with the ever changing needs and demands of the consumer/customer. This constant change presents a substantial roadblock for heavily process and governance driven multinational companies. The ability to move solutions through various phases of design, approvals and delivery make delivery cycles lengthy which hamper their ability to keep up.
Smaller less process driven companies that are able to maintain insight over the various facets of their business due to the smaller scale of the operations are often able to be more innovative and take solutions to the market in a much more timeous fashion than their larger competitors. 
What is Innovation?
Innovation as it is defined in the dictionary is the act of introducing something new. This definition seems very simplified and does not, in my opinion, encompass the crux of what innovation is. If I implement a new process that causes a drastic drop in sales is this innovation? My belief is that the second part to the definition should include a relationship to business strategic goals and objectives. This creates the understanding that innovation is not just a catch phrase that we use in big meetings in front of important people but that innovation is directly linked to doing something different or new that improves a facet of the business key drivers.
What does the Business Analyst have to do with Innovation?
The Business Analyst as an Innovation AgentThe answer to this question goes hand in hand with the understanding of the role that a business analyst plays within an organisation. Traditional less correct views would say that the BA is there to document requirements. This is often the understanding of the role that a Business Analyst plays but is far from the reality. The output of a BA’s work might end up as a document, but the fundamental understanding of the business problems, goals and objectives that enable requirements to be created is where the skills of the business analyst plays a key role.
The below are my 5 fundamentals of innovation related projects and the key skills the Business Analyst utilizes.
1.       Do not innovate for the sake if innovating
Top on the list and something that needs to be done at the initial phase of any innovation related project is understanding why we are doing what we are doing. Are we just innovating because we have heard of something new happening out there and we want it? An example of this way of thinking can be found in banking and the mobile space. Mobile is a big buzz word at the moment and more and more often when approaching new project mobile is a word that is thrown around. The BA is often given instructions to build requirements focussed around mobile applications. There is a flaw in this process, yes mobile adoption rates are increasing and yes we have new considerations to take into account. But do we make it habit to ascertain why we are building this app on the mobile space? Is there a customer need? What will the benefits be if we build a solution in the mobile space? Is there a problem that we need to fix in the first place?
These questions are all vital to getting innovation right, if we understand why, we can look back post-delivery and say did we meet the objective we set. Mere delivery of a working solution is not the success criteria for innovation, the success criteria is, have we met business goals and objectives and ultimate have we added rands and cents to the company’s bottom line.
When setting project objectives make sure they are S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time Based)
Bad Objective: Increase call centre sales
SMART Objective:  Increase call centre sales from a current 500 Sales a Month to a future 700 sales a month within 3 months of solution implementation
Broken down we have a specific objective (Increase Call Centre Sales), that is measurable (from a current 500 Sales a Month to a future 700 sales a month) that we believe is achievable and realistic and is time based (within 3 months of solution implementation)
Smart objectives enable us to look back at the end of a project and ascertain if we are just innovating for the sake of innovating.
Key Business Analysis Skills
  • Understanding business problems and opportunities to fix those problems
  • Business Objective and Goal setting
  • Requirements Validation
2.       Innovation is a team game – Enable Innovation
The old saying is two minds is better than one is tantamount to the success of an innovation project. The eyes of the customer as seen through a single lens will restrict the ability to innovatively meet the customer needs. Many customers have many needs and it’s important that we take into account different types of customer into account when building solutions. 
The business is also made up of multiple stakeholders and SME’s, these individuals often have a much more in depth knowledge of the business and how it works. Often as a BA we are given the task to elicit requirements for key people operating in senior roles in the company. Are these always the best people to be working with. Does a senior executive that is involved in high level decision making in a large company a customer touch point? Often the answer is no, which means they often are out of touch with exactly what the customer wants. Innovation is something that requires fresh perspective and ideas which can often be found in places not often looked. Involve multiple SME’s in your brainstorming session as this can improve the details you have to work with.
Does the role of a BA as an innovation enabler end here? Can we add something else to requirements to enable innovation in the development team? We often focus on innovation when it comes to big ideas and new solutions but innovation can also happen in smaller deliverables during the delivery of a current business solution. As a BA we can ensure our requirements don’t restrict the ability of the development team to think and come up with innovative ways of doing things. A great example of a good and bad requirement stolen from Modern Analyst is
Bad Requirement: A drop­down list box capable of showing a potentially infinite list of media items and allowing retrieval of a media item within x seconds
Good Requirement: A search mechanism capable of showing a potentially infinite list of media items and allowing retrieval of a media item within x seconds
A bad requirement focuses on a way to implement a requirement and not the underlying requirement that is needed to be met. Had the bad requirement been used the developer/builder would produce a drop down box that meets the stated requirement. Had the developer been given the good requirements then they would be able to apply their minds to technologies and solutions that they have greater exposure to. A great example of this type of innovation is how apple used the scroll wheel which revolutionized an era to meet a requirement that a dropdown list box could have met.
Key Business Analysis Skills
  • Brainstorming
  • Mind Mapping
  • Root Cause Analysis
3.       Not even the sky is the limit – don’t limit your thinking
Limitation of the creative process that allows us to think out of the box can be detrimental to innovation and the creation of innovative solutions to process. If we work within boundaries of what is currently acceptable we will only output along those lines. 
One of the best techniques to adding innovation to solving business problems is to have a brainstorming session where the attendees are told to think of the best end situation they can without limiting there thinking. Compile a series of conceptual views of the perfect solution, if there were no limitations, no budgets and unlimited resources.   Doing this will encourage out of the box ideas that could possibly be more feasible that anticipated. These need not all be implemented but it gives us a picture of the ways that we can begin to solve business problems. 
Nothing mentioned in that meeting is throw away as those out there ideas could become more feasible in the future and when that time comes we as the BA are ahead of the game. 15 years ago if we had sat in a meeting and mentioned the idea of a smart device that is connected to the internet allowing us to constantly be able to manage our banking people would have laughed. In today’s age that is a concept that is part of our lives and is no longer seen as innovation.
Key BA Skills
  • Brainstorming
  • Facilitation
  • Solution Conceptualization
4.       Bigger isn’t always better
We don’t have to build an award winning product to innovate, we merely have to positively affect business process by adding something new. Often the smaller things are overlooked but do not equate to less value. A combination of smaller innovations can effectively be part of a business shift towards a more strategic an innovative environment. 
Innovation at its most effective happens outside of the business operational team, less impact of the day to day business as usual allows the extracted team or people to see where the problems lie and to address them innovatively. Change in any organisation is difficult to handle and the bigger the implementation the bigger the impact on business. Often there is a negative business impact during the implementation phase before the true benefits are felt. The logical solution to this is to reduce the impact on the business, smaller changes can be processed and implemented easier and are more accepted by the end user. 
When it comes to new solutions that have no proven effectiveness it is often wise to experiment and test if the solution would work. An experiment that is small and easily implementable that fails has less impact on the business than a large one. As a BA we spend much time trying to define the requirements for a project hoping that the answer we document is the right answer to the question being asked. But what if it isn’t? Why go out and define a solution that will take 3 years to build and implement only to get to the end to realize that it has little effect of the original objectives?
A concept called “Minimal Viable Product” introduced to me by Nathan, and detailed in the book “The Lean Startup”, proposed that we do as little as possible to push a solution out that meets the business need and objectives. This way we can evaluate it step by step and pivot should we need or carry on with the chosen path. Documenting a solution in a very waterfall method where we have the project decided for a longer period of time does not welcome change. Change is what makes innovation happen, reacting based on changes, both external and internal, will ensure that we get closer to reaching our project goal.
The cycle of learn, build and deliver detailed in The Lean Startup is something that every BA should be thinking. Small cycles where we look at smaller deliverables and then learn from those implementations to build based on what we have learnt will be how we add maximum value to projects focussed on innovation.
5.       Retrospective
Often a BA is involved in the requirements phase of a project, delivers a requirements document and their part is seen as done. This to me is detrimental to the success as well as the ability of the BA to learn. We set objectives and work on business goals but how often do we look back on those. As mentioned in the first point, don’t innovate for the sake of innovating, we need to make sure that we add value. This is where the BA can provide a pivotal role, take learning back to business, let business know that sales have improved because of the changes made or the new solution implemented.
As mentioned in point one we have as the BA ensured that S.M.A.R.T objectives are set and that at completion of the project or iteration can look back and measure if objective have been met. This can be taken back to business to motivate the need and effectiveness of innovation. Even if this is not a primary focus in a project and the project plan does not allow for it, as a professional take some time to have a look at this and provide feedback. Often the business does not get the data they need to make clear, concise business decisions. I see this as the way a BA can add to this ability. 


Looking back also enables you to adjust going forward. What did we do wrong, how could we do it better. What did our end user think? The biggest question in my mind that should be asked during this part of a project is are we heading in the right direction. I think that if we as the BA ask this question more often we would be able to add more value with requirements that align with strategic objectives.    Innovation cries for the welcoming of change, it thrives on the very concept. Feed innovation by turning learnings into actions going forward ensuring our end product exceeds expectations and not only meets it.


Author: Ryan Folster, Business Analyst

Ryan Folster is an up-and coming Business Analyst from Johannesburg South Africa. His strong focus on innovation as well as involvement in the Business Analyst community have seen Ryan develop professionally from a small company, serving a small amount of users, to large multi-national organisations. Having merged into Business Analysis through the business domain, Ryan has developed a firm grounding and provides context to the methodologies applied to clients and projects he is working on.

Ryan has gained exposure to the Human Resources, Asset Management as well as Financial Services sectors, working on projects that span from Enterprise Line of Business Software to Business Intelligence and Compliance. Ryan is also heavily involved in the local chapter of IIBA, currently holding the position of Head of Technology and Social Media.

Ryan is passionate about the role a Business Analyst plays within an organisation, and is a firm believer that the role will develop further in the future and become a crucial aspect of any successful business.

To get into contact please use one of the below channels

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @ryanfolstersa


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