The Samurai Business Analyst

My Lineage
I am a Senior Business Analyst by trade and recently took the opportunity to set up my own company after a 33 year career with a major financial insurance company in the UK. In the time I worked ‘for the Man’ I undertook many major projects and whilst I have some formal qualification as a BA I have mostly developed my skills via experience, training with several leading companies and learning from others. I have also learnt a huge amount from participating in and speaking at conferences, most notably the European BA Conference held in London every September. These activities gave me the confidence to find my voice as a BA and share my experiences. This blog is not an attempt to be a text book on being a BA, instead it is my attempt to bring a slightly different frame of reference to the role and provide a framework for personal development and growth.
In 2010 at the age of 43 I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease which has been a major challenge for me as the condition has progressed. Living with a health condition has given me greater focus on leaving a legacy and making a difference; outside of the office I used to be a fencing coach and have interests in Zen, martial arts and samurai history and it is in this area that I initially found a real model around which to structure my personal view of the world. My co-habitation with Parkinson’s has enhanced my views and I believe that people perform better when they have a job that they can believe in and grow through. I also believe that everybody frames their world with their own perception and rules. It has taken me a long while to synthesise my job, life and principles but it has been an interesting journey to get here. Hopefully you will find some of the information on these pages of use.

“Because they just are……”

The above statement is not the answer to the question “Why are BAs like Pirates…?” but is the answer that I would sometimes like to give when asked “Why are BAs important?”. It is a question that has reared its head many times during my career and continues to do so now that I am mentoring and training other BAs as part of my own business. I suspect it is a question which many BA Practice/Community Leaders are asked regularly by their colleagues, particularly those that hold the budget for change initiatives and are figuring out what to spend it on. I know it was a question that plagued me when I was acting as a Practice Lead, so why is it such a difficult one to answer to the satisfaction of those bearing the funding? Here are a few observations based on my experience and opinions developed during a 25-year career as a BA:


What’s in a name? The role title of Business Analyst is more ambiguous than others based in the Change arena. It’s pretty obvious what a Project Manager does; the answer’s in the title. Likewise for Solution Designer, Test Manager etc but Business Analyst? What are you analysing a business for? And why? It’s hard to give a concise answer that takes less than fifteen minutes to explain….. so it’s not immediately obvious to the questioner, which in these days of soundbites and info-bursts can be a problem.


Show Me The Money. How do you monetise what BAs do? It’s a real problem because much of what we do is subjective as it involves facilitation and collaboration. And lots of questions…. How do you put a value on those things? I suppose if a BA asks a question like “Is this project really necessary?” and the ultimate answer turns out to be “No” then you could theoretically chalk up any monetary amount the business subsequently saves directly to the BA involved. But the answer is more than likely to be derived through collaboration and facilitated enquiry rather than a unilateral decision by the BA so this is a tenuous idea at best. The activities that are most objective are pivotal to the BA role but are not everything to it. I’ve touched on this topic before so I won’t go into it any further here lest I burst a blood vessel.


Environmental Issues. Sometimes BAs exist in an environment which (either actively or passively) prevents the full capabilities of the BA from being brought into play. A typical example from my experience is any agile oriented delivery method where BAs are kept rigorously within the boundaries of a scrum team and become ‘backlog wranglers’ rather than being allowed to roam amongst Discovery/inception activities or high-level transformation initiatives where their more subjective skills can come into their own. It may be a little unfair to pick on Agile as an example here but seeing as when I was first exposed to that particular method I was told that “there isn’t a role of Business Analyst in Agile delivery” I figure they started it. (This may have been a miscommunication/ misapprehension between the trainer and myself but it has stuck with me; which shows something about how communication is important and how long I can bear a grudge!)


The Truth? You Can’t Handle the Truth!! Sometimes organisations simply don’t like ‘difficult’ questions. Enquiry = discussion = time + cost = “time and money we just don’t have..!!” It’s a simplistic view but an unfortunately common one. Sometimes organisations just want to get things done and anyone with ‘analysis’ in their job title may not be welcomed. Activity can be, and often is, mistaken for achievement in these types of situations and it’s a frustrating place to be, particularly if asking questions is what you do.

So what’s the answer to these challenges to the worth of the Business Analyst? Well, in my opinion there’s no easy one apart from having a fact-based discussion about the subject with those who are asking the questions. Sometimes you must prove that you know what you’re talking about, even if that means confronting some of the stereotypical situations discussed above. Above all, you will need to have faith in the value of the role of a Business Analyst and keep demonstrating the key behaviours of a BA which include courage, comfort with ambiguity and clear communication. Oh and not forgetting courtesy!

Finally, in a bid to demonstrate another key behaviour, creativity, I have knocked the following two by two grid up in an attempt to model the areas where a BA can add expertise and experience, if they are given the opportunity. It’s not perfect but it’s intended to provoke thought on the subject…..

You might choose to add in the techniques or skills that are appropriate to each block or map the amount fo time you spend working in each quadrant during your assignments. Which ever way you use it, be creative!*

*Yes, you guessed it… that’s another key behaviour!

A Little Perspective

This morning we found that our upstairs taps had stopped working, which came as a surprise as they’d been fine the night before. After several attempts to quantify the problem (is it an external supply problem? Yes, no, maybe, I don’t know, ring the water company, get in a queue, ask for ring back, advised they will ring back in two minutes, wait ten minutes, get ring back, put in queue with hold music anyway until operator is ready, report issue, get allocated issue number, then find out it’s not external supply issue but internal plumbing one) I now find myself in call-back limbo after leaving a voice mail for our regular plumber. (Is he on holiday, how long do I leave it before ringing him again/ calling another plumber? Etc). Now, you might well expect that this post will develop into a rant about processes that don’t work etc and it very nearly has, were it not for the other facts about today.
Exactly twelve months ago, June 28th 2021, I was in Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge about to undergo brain surgery. I find that reading that sentence brings a little perspective to my thinking. As regular readers may know, this was in response to my co-habiting with Parkinson’s Disease and my sudden and quite radical deterioration. This time last year I would have struggled to get out of bed and get dressed by myself, let alone call various people about our upstairs plumbing. So whilst today’s problem is stressful, it’s not a patch on the stress I was able to manage last year. Thankfully I had fantastic support from my wife, family and friends and all the staff at Addenbrookes Neurology Ward without which the experience would have been a lot more stress filled but I/we coped with a situation that was pretty traumatic. And it had a positive outcome in that my symptoms have been reduced (not cured completely) to a level where some non-functioning plumbing is a thing I can deal with.
So this is something I shall remember the next time I get stressed about something; is it as significant as brain surgery? A little perspective may help ease the strain of the situation although I wouldn’t recommend surgical procedures as a benchmark for everybody! Comparing the immediate crisis with something else gives you valuable time for reflection and a pause for the brain preventing it from over-thinking and projecting its own fears onto the problem, thus amplifying it un-necessarily. Our brains are hard-wired to emphasise threats; it’s a survival mechanism that we have evolved with so it’s very hard to prevent it happening. But it’s important to take time to think about a problem* as this gives you a real chance to get that much needed perspective and put the whole thing into a context that makes it more manageable. Dealing with problems doesn’t have to need brain surgery after all!

*unless you are faced with a real and immediately life-threatening situation; then I’d advise you don’t hang about and instead just go with your instincts…!

Finding Nemo – Business Analysts and Depth Perception

I’ve been lucky enough to present to several different groups of BAs recently on the topic of Business Analysis as a profession and it’s got me thinking about several topics. As is my wont I’ve let the questions percolate until something in my brain delivers a metaphor or analogy that fits what I’m trying to say. I’ve just had the following come to me during a mentoring conversation so I thought I’d get it down before it fades. Being a BA can be like being a reef dwelling fish. By that I mean that it’s sometimes easier (and safer) to hang out in the depths of detailed coral reefs than swim in the wide ambiguous (and correspondingly scarier) waters of the open ocean. Quite often you’ll find BAs huddled around the flip chart shaped coral of requirements development techniques than flitting through the vast expanse of open water that is the way of change delivery; puzzling through the minutiae of a website redesign rather than asking whether a website is the answer to the business problem in the first place. Why does this happen? Well, for me there are numerous analogies that coral-late* with my experience of the role of a Business Analyst and they can be summed up in the picture below:

The open ocean above a reef tends to have more light, which can be a good thing as it means you can see better but you can also be seen by others. Also, it may be lighter but there’s fewer immediate landmarks to navigate by, although this can be mitigated by being able to look down on the reef below you and see the big picture. Those operating in the depths do not have that advantage and can only see things that are close to them, although they do see them close up. The dark cosiness can be comforting compared to the scary wide-open vista above or the opposite can be true; some people get claustrophobic in small spaces and need large horizons to thrive.   

In the detail there’s less distance from one point to the next so there’s less room/time for errors to be made. Detail dense activities that provide this sheltering level of depth can include process modelling, data modelling, backlog maintenance and other binary outcome** activities; proficiency comes easier after many repetitions. Once you are swimming in more open waters it leaves room for error, or more freedom for creative expression or intellectual enquiry, depending on your preference. Mastering ambiguity takes longer because you’re operating in a fluid environment!

I personally find this sort of thought experiment quite enlightening and there’s probably all sorts of angles that I’ve missed so please think about it for yourself. There’s no right or wrong answers as each habitat has it’s pro’s and con’s for a Business Analyst; ideally the reality is that we move from one to the other during an assignment, swimming in the wide open ocean of options and possibilities at the start of a project, periodically dipping down into the detailed depths where required, whilst occasionally coming back up for another wider view. However taking this oceanic analogy a cautionary step further, BAs should never become performing seals; doing tricks for the Boss in the hope of getting rewarded should not be cultivated. BAs don’t just do what they’re told, we find our way to the most effective outcome. I prefer to liken the BA role to that of the Dolphin; curious, clever, collaborative, experimental and with a permanent grin on their face!       

*see what I did there?

** by binary outcome I mean they are easily judged right or wrong               

And… We’re back in the room….

On the 15th June I shall be delivering the closing Keynote speech at the Business Change and Transformation Conference in London. Hosted by IRM UK it will be the first face-to-face Conference I have attended in quite a while, let alone spoken at and truth be told Dear Reader, I am more than a little apprehensive. Over the course of the last two years I have spoken at various events but the vast majority of them (all bar one) have been remotely via Zoom or Teams or some such software which has several pros and cons to it but the most pertinent for the topic at hand are:
• The audience can see me!
• I can see the audience!
From a position of self-imposed isolation I will suddenly go into full exhibition mode and be expected to look professional and sound believable! No more can I wear flip-flops, comfortable lounge pants and a Star Wars T-shirt whilst delivering my presentation*; I will be expected to move and emote like an actual person rather than a disembodied head in the corner of the screen. It’s a skill I will have to re-learn.


Not only that but I will also be able to see my audience and gauge exactly how my words are being received. No longer will I be relying on emoticons in the chat window, now I will be able to see if my audience is drifting off into oblivion, or worst case scenario, not actually laughing at my jokes.


It’s a daunting prospect.


Now it would be easy for me to default to flashy animations and over the top transitions and make the error of “putting slides before self” as someone once told me, but I need to resist that urge. I need to keep my slides readable, understandable and clear enough so they don’t interfere with the message I’m trying to impart, yet interesting enough to enhance my story for the audience; Less is more, more or less. But not too minimalist that the audience (or myself for that matter) can’t follow my thread. It’s a question of balance; like facts vs emotion. Too many facts and a presentation can seem like you’re reading off a list; too many emotive quotes and imagery and it can feel completely unstructured instead. In general I prefer to keep my slides as the window frame whilst I describe the actual view. Or the picture frame whilst I paint inside it…. There are many analogies that can be employed here but remember the most important mantra about powerpoint decks first uttered by someone much wiser that me… “If you and your slides are saying the same thing, one of you doesn’t have to be there”.


There’s another trick to making your presentation believable. Believe in it. Make it personal through the use of anecdotes to allow people to share in your experiences. If you tell your personal story it adds authenticity and seeing as I’m telling the story of my life with Parkinson’s Disease I’ve certainly got the experience of that to draw on. My keynote centres around my recent experiences of brain surgery in an attempt to mitigate the symptoms and the mental techniques I adopted to help my apprehension and anxiety about the procedure so it’s certainly personal! In fact, some of those techniques will help me get through the anxiety of actually presenting it. Ah, the irony…..
It’s fair to say that actually writing this article has helped me by reminding me exactly how much I enjoy this stuff and that in reality, I’m not that bad at it. Let’s hope the audience in a couple of weeks agrees!

*Ok I never actually did that but you get the point I am making

Curiouser and curiouser….

“Don’t listen to what they say; Go see.”

Chinese Proverb

I saw this proverb recently and it resonated with me as I’ve been considering what I believe to be the key BA Behaviours and coming in high on the list is curiosity. In my opinion a Business Analyst has to have more than an average dose of “Iwundamine” in their bloodstream* in order to do their day job. They must have the ability to think about systems, processes and people with a sense of enquiry that drives them toward understanding how something works, for if they can’t understand it then it will be difficult to change it. Also, if the BA can’t understand something it’s a fair bet that other people can’t either (although they may not feel like admitting it to anyone). People may not even have considered questioning the process as it has just “always been that way” and therefore haven’t felt empowered enough to ask any awkward questions about it. I call these types of situations ‘traditional’ processes, where the way of doing things has been handed down over generations of users without any form of sense check until the original reason is obscured behind layers of “That’s the way it is round here” thinking. This might be just at local level i.e. the particular team you are working with, at middle management level (“That’s the way my Boss likes it done”) to corporate levels (“This comes straight from the top”). The latter level of institutionalised processes can be exceptionally dangerous and can lead to corporate disaster if unchecked. As a BA it’s our job to be the one to ask the WTP question** and it can be a daunting situation to do it in. One way of doing this successfully is to make sure your questioning language is positive, subjective and inclusive. For instance, instead of saying “This looks wrong” or “This process makes no sense” you could try, “It seems to me (subjective) that this process could be improved. (positive) How could we do that?” (Inclusive). You are much more likely to open up debate with this kind of language, although it takes a bit of practice and effort to do it as our brain tends to be hard wired with a pessimistic survival bias, i.e. our ancient reptilian brain finds faults in things and then is eager to point them out to the other members of the tribe. This takes effort to stop but it pays dividends if you can do it.

The other facet of the proverb that I like is that it advocates personal experience as a key component of curiosity and consequently learning. In other words, to really understand something you should actively participate in it. This has several different aspects to it. The obvious meaning is that you can learn about something most effectively by actually doing it or at least observing someone doing it which again is a key point for a BA. There’s no substitute for actually listening in to real customer calls when you’re on a call centre project or undertaking an actual customer journey for yourself when on a web-based assignment in terms of really learning what it’s all about.

There’s also something in the proverb about not taking things at face value without checking your own understanding of it first. As BAs we work with people who may have the title of Subject Matter Expert and we can tend to rely on their opinion or input without question. I’m not saying you should challenge everything your SME tells you as this will soon become both tiresome and irksome in equal measure but you should not necessarily blindly follow their advice either. If you build a good working relationship with your SME and explain that you may have more questions if you need more clarity then it shouldn’t be a problem in the long term.

In addition to this there’s the suggestion within the proverb that experience trumps academic learning. There’s a lot of material out there about being a BA, written by many different people with good intentions, most of whom would advocate that you question for yourself the effectiveness of their advice. I certainly hope you don’t take any of my writings without a pinch of reflection, as they may be out of date or inappropriate for the situation you are in; I offer my experience as advice not doctrine.

Finally, there’s something in the proverb about the very nature of life itself. If the last two years have taught us anything it’s that life is meant to be experienced in full and in person, not remotely. So maybe it’s time to go see what’s out there and start living it again!  

  

*this may or may not be a chemical that generates curiosity in the brain – honest, look it up, get curious……!

** “What’s The Point?” (not WTF which is a completely different situation altogether)         

                      

A Sneak Preview

The following is an extract from my upcoming* book “The Way of Business Analysis – How I Became a Samurai BA”. Enjoy!

Vital BA Behaviours

“Forge yourself in the Way”

Miyamoto Musashi

The following are the important behaviours that an effective BA demonstrates:

  • Curiosity – This is a cornerstone of the BA mindset; if you are not curious about the reason your project exists then you are less likely to ask those killer questions because you won’t be interested enough in the answers!
  • Courage – it takes courage to be a BA and challenge the established view or the empowered stakeholder. It takes courage to go into an operational team and suggest they need to change. It takes courage to let go of control and simply facilitate. But as you move through your career and gain more experience you will find techniques that allow you to do this.  
  • Creativity – you have to be creative as a BA… You will be interacting with many different areas and people whilst finding new ways of working to keep your client team engaged or having to change team practices that are deeply engrained without the changes feeling imposed upon the end customer. All this will take some creativity.
  • Communicative – You must be able to communicate well as a Business Analyst. This is a skill that can be learnt and it is important that you try and cultivate it. Get into the habit of making your communications inclusive and positive as a starting point.
  • Comfortable with ambiguity – this is a key skill. As a BA, you are quite often looked upon by the rest of your team as someone who is comfortable with ambiguity and therefore you are often required to lead them through the swamp of project requirements. Get used to that swamp, you’re going to spend a lot of time there….!  
  • Collaborative – BAs typically tend to be in a collaborative role and finding ways of working together is a key skill. You must always be asking “How can I help you do your job better?” 
  • Critical thinking – Take nothing for granted. Doubt everything (In a healthy way) as a BA and you won’t go far wrong. Remember to keep asking questions because if you don’t then it’s likely nobody else will!
  • Courtesy – where possible do all this with a smile and a pleasant demeanour. (Although sometimes this will be very difficult……!) 

* upcoming in the sense of sometime in the next year or so, depending if I stop procrastinating…. oh look there’s a butterfly…..

The Echoing Silence

This article was inspired by my colleague Joanne Fahy’s excellent presentation on Impostor Syndrome that I was lucky enough to see recently. (Just to prove we all get it.) Also thanks to Dave Harper for being an excellent sounding board!

I was lucky enough to be asked to present at the BA Managers Forum recently and I believe it went well, judging by the comments recorded in the chat window afterwards. It came as somewhat of a relief to me though as I am my own worst critic when it comes to presentations and hold up a standard for myself that is often unattainable. You see I have an expectation as to how I want a presentation to go and I very rarely meet those expectations these days and I’m beginning to realise why. It’s due to the fact that I miss a live audience; or at least one I can see and interact with. I miss being able to make eye contact and get that momentary connection with someone who’s absorbed in what I’m presentng; that instant of recognition that they ‘get’ what I’m saying. A nod of encouragement, a quick smile of recognition, the body language of approval. All of that is missing on a Teams or Zoom call; to be replaced by an echoing silence without even a face to get some encouragement from. It’s no wonder that this silence gets filled on occasion by the whispers of self doubt. So what can I do to mitigate this situation, apart from getting in front of an audience again? Well, next time I start to hear the whispering self-criticism again I can think ” It’s not me; it’s the absence of them.“. I can also tell myself that no-one else is aware of my self-imposed standards so I shouldn’t let them adversely effect me. Finally I can visualise plenty of past success!

I hope these thoughts help overcome any self doubts anyone else occasionally struggles with!

The Language of Teams

I am going to be speaking soon at the UK Business Analyst Management Forum on the topic of Values-based Teams and one of my themes will be the use of language and rituals to reinforce a successful team culture. I want to expand on those topics here (and provide a little preview of the concept to those attending) as I will have limited time at the event to do them justice.

Successful teams tend to create their own language that forges a sense of community. A topical example is the winter Olympics with the snow boarding and skiing events. The language used to describe the skills and techniques is virtually impenetrable to the uninitiated and I have no idea what a front side ten sixty is but the common shared terminology does create a coherent sense of community for all the athletes. This is reflected in the supportive ethos of all the included disciplines and must go a long way to foster the friendly but serious competition.

Another example of the use of language breeding inclusivity and success is the unlikely field of comedy. Some of the greatest shows of the radio age such as ‘The Goon Show’ used repetitive catch phrases and little rituals that added to the audiences sense of inclusion and being in on the act, as it were and this tradition continued with Monty Python where fans would ritually recreate the costumes and dialogue as a sign of their enjoyment and sense of identity with the show. This was taken to its comedy conclusion with ‘The Fast Show’ in which some of the sketches literally encompassed the punchline but it was that minimalist language that made them so easily memorable and correspondingly successful.

This aspect of language may be utilised in any type of team so if you’re trying to build a successful , cohesive team you may want to focus on the language you use and give it some thought. Language allows a group to build a sense of community and with that comes success.

What Isn’t A Business Analyst?

I recently watched the latest BA Brew published by AssistKD on the ‘BA Mindset’, which was a very thought provoking discussion about the ultimate question that has kept the profession awake at nights, what do BAs do? What makes a BA tick? What is the thing that best describes a BA Mindset? I won’t spoil the broadcast by elaborating on the themes any further as you really should watch it yourself but it did get me thinking about the boundaries of business analysis and in my usual contrary way I wonder if we are missing a trick by examining what we are rather than what we aren’t…? Does it help to have a view of what a business analyst isn’t? Here’s my starter for ten…

A business analyst isn’t…

  • Someone who accepts facts blindly
  • Someone who goes with the accepted view of things
  • Someone who needs concrete information to work with
  • Someone who doesn’t ask questions if they have been given a solution
  • Someone who goes with the first answer
  • Someone who needs details to proceed
  • Someone who enjoys repetition
  • Someone who avoids ambiguity
  • Someone who doesn’t need an outcome to pursue
  • Someone who is quite happy to let someone else do the thinking
  • Someone who has to make the big decisions
  • Someone who needs to take the credit
  • Someone who thrives in the spotlight
  • Someone who has one point of view

Hmmm… I’m not sure that has helped identify what a Business Analyst actually is but it has made me feel better about myself! I’m sure there are many more interpretations out there (possibly less romantic than my own) but perhaps that’s the point; the role is so wide ranging that it’s hard to pigeonhole it exactly so there is room for many interpretations. Maybe we don’t need to worry what other people think…Maybe Business Analyst is a way of life not a role title!

PS Has anyone else noticed our persistence in abbreviating our title? Time saving device or subconscious nervousness about it? I’m just asking questions; it’s what BAs do… actually it is what Business Analysts do!

Viewing The Distant Mountain

The title above is an expression from Japanese martial arts that refers to the way an exponent should look at their opponent. The focus of the eyes should not be set on the opponent themselves, but rather should rest slightly beyond them, as if enjoying the view of distant rocky peaks. The reason behind this is that if the gaze lingers on the opponent one may be tricked; a feint made with the hands, feet or eyes could lead to defeat and in the old days, injury or possibly death. By maintaining this viewpoint a martial artist ensured that they got an accurate overall impression of their opponent and the situation.

I have found numerous applications of this technique both in my professional and personal life. As a professional BA I don’t often enter actual combat but the expression is a good reminder to focus on what is important, i.e. the desired outcome, particularly when things are getting on the tricky side. To look beyond the present difficulties at a positive result is a good technique to practice and can help defuse conflict situations by depersonalising it; surely a key behaviour for a BA to exhibit? This mindset has also helped me in stressful situations. I am currently in the process of moving house, hence the blog silence lately and I have been under quite a lot of stress so this perspective allows me to look beyond the immediate hassles to the end goal, which does a lot to relieve the stressful feelings! It’s a mindset that can apply to many things so next time you are stressed or feel pressured don’t forget to look at that distant mountain!