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.

Watch Your Altitude

“State your height and position…” “I’m five foot one and lying down on the sofa”

Neddie Seagoon to Bluebottle – ‘The Goon Show’

When working on a Business Analysis assignment you have got to be aware of what altitude you are flying at. What I mean by this is that you need to be aware of where you are in the structure of an organisation and the lifecycle of a project as this invariably determines the communication strategy you employ and the BA Deliverables you produce. As a general rule the higher up and earlier you are the ‘vaguer’ the subject matter. For instance, if you are talking to a Senior Executive at the very start of project initiation you’re probably going to ask things like “What do you want to do?” but if you’re asking a product administrator at the pre-implementation meeting you’re probably going to be asking “Which product transactions do you want to test?” Likewise at the start of a change initiative you’re more likely to be producing rich pictures or context diagrams than data models and process flows. (Although there is no reason why you couldn’t do the latter in the scenario described if need be).

I have put together a formative picture to illustrate this phenomenon; in the form of one of my favourite formats, a “tooba-too” (For those of you not strong in my local Norfolk dialect a “two by two grid”.) It’s amazing how many models you can make from four little boxes…..

It’s by no means complete but I think it gets the point across reasonably well. The top left quadrant is potentially more abstract with the bottom right one being much more specific. I guess in the top right quadrant you’d find a home for the various reports you would produce on a project on a vertical scale of abstraction…… I’ll leave you to figure out where the other deliverables go…!

Thoughts on BA Fringe

Last night I attended Episode 1 of Series 3 of ‘The BA Fringe’, a regular webinar hosted by my friend and colleague Adrian Reed… and what a splendid hour it was! Adrian had persuaded four speakers to come and chat to us and I found their talks very inspiring. Although the subjects were totally different there was a great deal that was common ground. Priya Agarwal talked about public speaking, Sherry McMillan talked about diversity and design, Leon Bamforth spoke very compellingly about BAs and vision statements and Maria Becerra spoke about Digital Transformation. But the thing these talks all agreed on was that BAs weren’t there just to write down requirements, we are there to think through problems, to match requirements to the corporate vision and to be the conscience of the group when it comes to diversity, the customer and the business case. It was a pleasure to not only hear these presentations but also to be able to freely participate in the chat throughout the session. One of the advantages of my recent surgery to mitigate my Parkinson’s symptoms is my renewed ability to type at all times of the day, something I was previously unable to do, so many times I would be unable to join in with the chat during meetings, which is a real example of the need for considering diversity during design. The design may have seemed valid to able-bodied people but someone with a ‘diff-ability” could have a much less enjoyable encounter with the application. This was a personal issue for me; a common issue for other of my differently abled brethren but may have been obscure or less visible to the dèsigners, which is where this blog and BAs come in; I’m making you aware of questions you need to ask!!

It’s a great job that gives opportunity to help people you will never meet but that’s why I think being a BA is a great opportunity to make a difference!

Calling out ‘Spiral Thinking’

I have noticed a disturbing phenomenon of late which I have christened ‘spiral’ thinking. I believe it is more insidious than circular thinking as in theory a circle brings you back to where you started whereas a spiral takes you downward…. or can do, if not dealt with. Allow me to explain in the form of a diagram.

Imagine a scenario whereby a government is trying to implement a track and trace style application to help manage a health pandemic. If you are identified as an at risk person you are ‘pinged’ by the application and you are asked to self-isolate for ten days, so far so good.

But eventually the app becomes a victim of it’s own success and begins to ping a group of people that are more at risk than the average; in this case NHS workers. SO; more NHS workers self-isolate and are unavailable for work, thus reducing the margins that define ‘keeping the NHS safe’.

This is where the spiral tightens…… and where it is most important for a Business Analyst to show the courage of their convictions. A stakeholder who has a vested interest in the long term goal of keeping the NHS running (a completely laudable goal) comes up with the following rule change. There are now ‘exceptional’ circumstances which will negate the need for staff who are pinged to self isolate. However, due to a desire to eliminate any governmental responsibility no clear definition of ‘exceptional’ is offered. Therefore most NHS trusts interpret it as ‘the circumstances that allow us to keep running’ therefore meaning more staff are exempt from self-isolation. BUT (and this is a very important ‘but’) these staff members are not clinically immune from infection…..

Essentially the flow of events have twisted the outcome into a spiral and at key points, people who thought they were doing the right thing have added to the problem by changing the rules without exhaustively assessing the influence this will have on the outcome. At the first warning of a rule change a good BA should rigorously go through all the potential outcomes to assess the impacts they will have and should equally rigorously explore the wording of the new rules to ensure they work in the right way. They should clearly discuss the implications of the rule wordings and guidance with the stakeholders and ensure that everyone realises the potential consequences.

At the moment there is no official mandate to do this; no Business Analysis work product called an ‘Expected Consequences Table’ actually exists but maybe, just maybe it should…?

In the meantime here are a few guidelines to help identify incidences of spiral thinking

  • The use of Ambiguous Language can be in direct proportion to the degree of ethical/moral abdication
  • don’t assume someone else will ask the awkward question
  • never underestimate the power of peer group pressure to bend our ethical compass

Please note, this post is not an attempt to espouse a political opinion or viewpoint; the quest for clarity of thought and the removal of ambiguity are separate from (or at least outside of) political views. What I am suggesting is that as Business Analysts we should regularly check the motivations of our stakeholders.

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Visualising Greatness

Whilst recovering from my recent brain surgery I’ve been watching quite a bit of sport on tv and have picked up some hints and tips re visualisation which is a very useful technique for training your brain to get used to success. Science has shown that by visualising successful outcomes you are more likely to perform at the right moment and get the outcome you want. There is also a lot to be said for utilising long-term visualisation techniques to allow your brain to get used to an aspirational target. Let’s consider a few examples:  

When a teenaged Richie McCaw was asked by his father what do you want to be he replied “I want to be the best All Blacks captain ever”

A young Serbian tennis player called Novak Djokovic made a replica of the Wimbledon men’s trophy at the tender age of seven years old so he could look at it and imagine what It would be like to lift it  

Sam Warburton was asked by his Dad what he wanted to achieve in life and responded “I want to be a legendary British and Irish Lions captain*”

What do all these stories have in common? Well, the first thing that I notice is how specific their desires were, even down to Djokovic’s modelling of the Wimbledon’s Men’s trophy. Or the fact that Warburton and McCaw both specified the teams they wish to be associated with i.e. the All Blacks and British and Irish lions. This leads me to the second point; the fact that by building these specific visualisations it allowed them to focus their dreams and aspirations at a very granular level. Tim Henman, speaking on the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage alluded to the fact that Djokovic had actually won fewer points in the previous set then his opponent; he just happened to win more of the right points. This may seem counter-intuitive at first but when you consider it in more detail you realise that it is possible to win fewer points than your opponent whilst still winning the match as in essence it is more effective to win break points than holding service points. One can almost imagine a player like Djokovic doing the mathematics around this issue and working out exactly what he needed to do in a match to win with the most efficiency. Which brings me to my Third Point; singularity of purpose. (Or obsession with detail) Warburton commented that once he had set himself a goal to be a legendary lions captain it became relatively easy to measure his progress against that goal. There were only a certain amount of players in his position who were within the criteria for a potential Lions call up i.e. back row forwards that play within the home nations of Wales, Ireland Scotland and England therefore he just had to keep track of a certain number of his competitors and benchmark his progress against them on a regular basis. Not that this didn’t take some effort but Warburton felt this was more than justified.

The fourth point I want to make about these visualisations is that they can be as audacious as you like, particularly if they will not be intended for public consumption at any time. So let your imagination run wild. If you want to be the best keynote speaker on the European circuit then go for it!     

*For those not in the know, The British and Irish Lions are in effect the ‘best of the best’ of Rugby Union players in the Northern Hemisphere and periodically tour the southern hemisphere nations   

It’s good to be here…!

Happy weekend one and all! Ah, it’s great to be back on the old blogosphere again. It’s been quite a week really, for those who don’t know I had elective brain surgery on Monday in which I had two microfilament wires implanted in my brain to mitigate my Parkinson’s symptoms. Now here I am four days later posting about it on LinkedIn! To say that it’s good to have this behind me is an understatement but in hindsight the experience was not as bad as it could have been and this has got a huge amount to do with the marvellous people of the NHS who go about their business with calm, compassionate humanity. It made my stay in hospital a lot easier, although I wouldn’t do it again for a while!

So I am now part man/ Part machine and awaiting my switch on date which will be the moment of truth in terms of how successful the procedure has been but at the moment the omens are good as I have had greatly reduced symptoms since the operation, although this could just be the after-effects of the stimulation of my brain during the process. Either way, it’s been a very pleasant relief for both myself and my wife, who has borne the brunt of my condition over the last few months. It’s amazing when you realise that your hands have not been drumming away on the chair arm incessantly and it’s actually been quiet and relaxing!

So the next big question to answer is quite a big one; what’s next? Well hopefully this will give me the chance to do more of my life. To actually be present in it rather than trapped in it. It is rare that you get a refund in terms of life but maybe I’ve been given one in terms of time and if so you won’t see me wasting it!

Knowledge is Power

“Anxiety is a simple misuse of imagination”

Anon

In five days time I will be undergoing brain-surgery to help reduce some of my significant Parkinson’s Disease symptoms. This is quite a daunting process but one thing I have learnt in the last few few years is that to reduce fear you need to acquire information and support because fear thrives on isolation. As I have mentioned before sometimes you need to shine a light on the change monster hiding under the bed, or in the wardrobe as once you actually perceive it your attitude it changes.

There is saying that goes something like this… “When the Angel of Death approaches it is horrific; when he reaches you it is bliss…..”. Now I don’t want to get overly pretentious about this, after all, this is primarily a blog about business analysis but on the other hand what is business analysis if not delivering change? And what is change if not the death of something that you hold dear, value or otherwise emotionally invest in? This thing and it’s death could be as simple as having to work different hours again or take on a new role. Or it could be as significant as a major diagnosis where you have to bid farewell to major life plans, either way it is still challenging and you can reduce the challenge by finding out more about the situation.

Let’s look at the Change Curve model below.

We can see that as an individual encounters change a lot of the emotions are negative and that during this period it is important that the individual is communicated with and receives support; then once the change has been accepted the provision of knowledge and direction becomes paramount. My own journey regarding my impending surgery illustrates this. Despite my devil-may-care image* I have been quite apprehensive about the experience and needed to come to terms with it. How I did this could be a post in itself but I will summarise it thusly…

“Do you hear that Mr Anderson…? That’s the sound of inevitability….”

Agent Smith, ‘The Matrix’

I came to realise that change of some kind was indeed inevitable for me; my condition was going to get worse (Parkinson’s is progressive and degenerative with no current cure in sight so there is no getting around that one) but the operation would improve my quality of life a lot. So it became ironically a no-brainer to go for it. The only way out was through…… Once I’d come to that conclusion I could then begin to accumulate information about it as until then the information wouldn’t have been absorbed because of the anxiety getting in the way.

So this morning I had a pre-operation conversation with the Parkinson’s Nurse at Addenbrookes Hospital during which I was able to ask all the questions from my mind-map** and as a consequence have a lot more information about how the overall two days will go. As a result I now feel a lot less apprehensive about it; still a bit nervous but that’s to be expected (and forgiven).

So how do we apply this to our role of Business Analyst? I have not got all the answers to this but here are a few suggestions:

  • At the start of the journey through change people may need emotional support. Some may not dream to ask for it but there’s no harm in offering is there?
  • As the change journey continues there may well be a shift to the need for information and guidance so have some prepared and ready to go.
  • Never discount people’s feelings
  • Paint a positive picture wherever possible but don’t hide difficult facts
  • don’t be afraid to apply all these principles to yourself
  • allow time within your plan for these activities otherwise they will not get done

So, I might not be posting for a while but I’ll let you know how I get on!! I may well be part-man/part-machine by the time I next type something!***

*this may in fact be a misuse of imagination on my part

**OF COURSE I made a mind-map……

***So my typing may be a lot quicker :0)

Is it me?

Question found in troubleshooting section on website of popular white goods supplier; specifically the fridge freezer FEP section (Frequently Encountered Problems)…. “Light remains on when door is closed”.

Hmmmmmmmmm………..

Outcome Focus vs. Wishful Thinking – Part 2

Myself and Dave Harper recently gave a presentation at IRM UKs Business Change and Transformation Conference in which we chatted about two major mindsets which exist in the world of transformation projects, namely outcome focus (which represents the management style that concentrates on getting to the desired outcome sometime soon) compared to the almost wishful thinking style of the Business Analyst which pose questions that are a bit more wide ranging and time consuming. This can cause tension between the two mindset groups but is actually vital in order to get the right outcome at the right time.

In one of those serendipitous moments I happened across a Sky Sports programme replaying a game between the British and Irish Lions and the New Zealand All Blacks which to me illustrates the issue both metaphorically and creatively. So bear with me and excuse the dodgy screenshots but Inspiration grabbed me unexpectedly…

Picture 1

So, I’m afraid I can’t explain all the rules of rugby for the uninitiated so just go with me if you’re unfamiliar; it’s the principles that are important. Right; we start in picture 1 above with the All Blacks having just kicked the ball ahead in order to put the Lions under pressure, particularly the Full Back Liam Williams (red arrow). Things to note are; firstly all the Lions are running back towards their own try line in scramble defence mode. Secondly the All Black Captain Kieran Read (Black arrow) is homing in on Wiliams with total focus on one outcome; absolutely flattening him.

Picture 2

In picture 2 Read’s focus is still obvious as Williams receives the ball. At this point you could forgive Williams if he focused on the outcome of “kick the ball upfield before I get hammered” but no, Williams is in “wishful thinking” mode. He is thinking “What if….?” At this point he’s probably the only one of his team doing so as his team-mates are probably thinking “Kick it Liam! Kick it!!” Instead Williams tries something audacious…

Picture 3

Picture 3: He drops his shoulder … faking right.. Read takes the bait and shifts to his left

Picture 4

Picture 4: Williams then sharply steps off to his left… and Read is committed….

Picture 5

Picture 5 – Williams leaving Read for dead. He was too focused! If you watch the game replays you can see the expression on Read’s face, I think he knew that Williams was going to score…..

Pic 6

Williams is now truly in ‘what if’ mode in picture 6. He still has a long way to go to get himself out of trouble as if he is tackled now the All Blacks will probably turn the ball over and go on to score. But Williams has seen the All Black 12 looming in front of him and has the All Black 9 chasing him down. What if they could be induced to run into each other…..?

Picture 7

Picture 7 A sharp right turn and a straight arm fend to the chest of the All Black 9 and…..

Picture 8

Picture 8 – CRASH!! He’s through and round the end of the All Black line. It’s important to note what’s going on here. Now the Lions have all turned or are turning up field in support; they are switching to ‘”what if” mode as well…! It’s vital that teams are able to do this; or at least have individuals within them who can switch between the two modes of thought when they sense an opportunity….

Picture 9

Now the tables have turned and it is the All Blacks who are having to scramble….

Picture 10

Eventually Williams is tackled but offloads the balls to his support player……. who are pouring forward in numbers

picture 11

The Lions surge further up field in picture 11

Picture 12

Another interchange which flat-foots the All Black full back

Picture 13

In Pic 13, despite some desperate defence the Lions off-load the ball once more….

Picture 14

And the Lions score one of the greatest tries in the history of the team.

This all happened because Liam Williams was brave enough to question the established wisdom; many players would have kicked the ball away in order to gain some breathing space, although that would have most likely have been short-lived. When he took the opportunity his team mates were quick to support him; they didn’t stop running and mock him, they fell in behind and waited to see where he would lead them. I also believe Keiran Read knew he’d just been beaten by a genius, in the sense of the creative aspect of the word. Liam Williams reacted in a logical calculated way, taking some risk for a great reward. By asking ‘what if’ he greatly changed the outcome of that particular passage of play.

I Hope you enjoyed seeing how we can learn better behaviours from other walks of life, sports, history etc. I certainly enjoyed writing this one as it was one of those posts that came completely out of nowhere. BOOM!! Here’s an idea… .

AND THUS IT BEGINS…..

Final note: in a lot of ways I may be assuming some of the thought processes involved; I’ve not seen any interviews concerning the specific passage of play but at the end of the day….it’s all about telling a good story. If you want to see the play unfold watch it here on YouTube. It WILL get your pulse racing…..

Ciao!

Warning: This Post Contains Bad Language

Well now that I have lured you in with the promise of profanity I can reveal that this is in fact a brief post about communication skills. To be honest it may sound like a mini-rant but it’s because I care deeply that the art of communication does not perish; or at least if it does, it does not go quietly into this good night.

I have three topics to share; two examples of the curse of communication and one general question. So let’s kick off with….

Please practice your answer…

An absolute facepalm of a sentence uttered by a Govt. Scientist. “It is possible that June 21st will have to be delayed” Er no, I don’t think so…

Someone get the minister a dictionary..

The Health Minister offered this cutting observation on a variant of the coronavirus. “The link between transmission and hospitalization has been severed but not broken.” What the Fleurgin?? I think you should have checked your thesaurus first Minister… thanks for the clarity…

Gardeners Words

Can someone tell me why TV Gardeners use the Latin names for plants but the simpler popular names for vegetables? If it is a convention then why and who came up with it? A trivial question perhaps but it’s a BA brain thing!

Sometimes the Universe Provides…

Anyone who has seen my keynote speech “The Power of Change” will know of my belief that we should all strive to leave a legacy after we’re gone and I’m chuffed to bits to announce that I have recently been blessed by good fortune in that I was asked to be part of the team to update the Third Edition of BA Tools and Techniques originally authored by the legendary trio of Dr Debra Paul, James Cadle and Paul Turner; three people I have tremendous professional respect for. It was an honour to be asked to contribute, particularly when you see who else was also involved in the new edition so I would like to thank all concerned for allowing my participation and being incredibly helpful to the ‘Newbie ‘. Being part of this has built my belief in writing my own book (or two) so that’s what I shall aim for!