Making Sense of the Chaos: Useful Skills for Business Analysts, Written by Jeffery Stempien, M.B.A., PMP

How has project performance changed as project management techniques have matured?

The Standish Group Chaos report has been the bellwether for the health of IT projects for the last decade. Its much-awaited reports reveal whether the industry is improving on the dismal record the first reports revealed in 1994. At that time, 31% of all IT projects surveyed were classified as failures, only 16% were considered successful, and the majority were challenged. A challenged project is defined as having serious cost overruns and schedule delays. Based on this research, The Standish Group estimates that in 1995 American companies and government agencies spent $81 billion for canceled software projects. These same organizations paid an additional $59 billion for software projects that were completed but exceeded their original time estimates.  The industry is doing better today. Yet, we still have a long way to go.

 Definitions:

  • Successful: Project was completed on time, on budget, and according to specification (features and functionality).
  • Challenged: Project was completed and operational, but was over budget, late, and/or did not meet all original specifications (features and functionality).
  • Failed: Project was canceled before completion or was never implemented

 What are the causes for projects to be underperforming?

More revealing than the numbers themselves are the underlying causes for failures and the contributors to the successes. Consistently on the list we find that poor requirements management as a major cause of failure and the opposite, good requirements management, as a contributor to successful projects.

The Standish report is just one of many that have been published over the years. All include requirements management as a prime factor in the success or failure scenarios.  One has to wonder why organizations have not mobilized a process improvement drive to eliminate this deadly virus of poor requirements management. If you ask any seasoned Business Analyst (BA) or Project Manager you will find an overwhelming agreement that;

  1. Requirements Management is not easy.
  2. Never discount the human element, no matter what Management says.

Requirements can be decomposed, which allows the BA to capture all of the needs of the systems. These then become the baseline for the total project and eventually the critical success factors that will be used to measure success. Requirements elicitation involves the following processes:

  1. Collecting, documenting, and confirming the specifications and data.
  2. Interfacing with stakeholders to identify their explicit and implied needs, issues, and desires.

Neither of these processes is easy and both involve significant involvement of the stakeholder community.

Organizations should address to these two challenges by:

1.      Improving the BA skills of the organization through increased training. Enhancing a BA’s capability to use the best tools, techniques, methodologies, and systems. Increase the understanding of best practice requirement management tasks, and how to utilize them. This is accomplished through training and application along with operational frameworks that support the everyday use of these best practices.

2.      An understanding and emphasis of the interpersonal or soft skills that are also needed for requirements management. Interpersonal or soft skills are skills used by a person to properly interact with others. In the business world, the term generally refers to an employee’s ability to get along with others while getting the job done. Interpersonal skills include everything from communication and listening skills to attitude and deportment.

The technical skills needed for good requirements management can help to ensure that the technical aspects of the requirements are completed. The application of good interpersonal skills will insure that people aspects are addressed.

What are some of the people challenges that BA’s normally face as they conduct the requirements elicitations tasks?

Human Bias

People in all organizations will have some bias. Bias is also referred to as “mind views” or “paradigms.” People are biased towards information, processes, systems, results, quality, compliance, usage, and each other. Bias in itself is neither good nor bad. However, if we fail to understand our biases and how they might affect our decisions, or the information we share, it could lead to negative results. On the Wikipedia Web site 74 distinct types of biases are listed that are being studied to determine how they might affect decision making in business and scientific research.

Here are a few of the types of biases I have encountered over my 25 years of experience:

  • Bias blind spot – the tendency to see oneself as less biased than other people
  • Choice-supportive bias – the tendency to remember one’s choices as better than they actually were
  • Confirmation bias – the tendency to search for, or interpret, information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions
  • Empathy gap – the tendency to underestimate the influence or strength of feelings, in either oneself or others
  • Illusion of control – the tendency to overestimate one’s degree of influence over other external events
  • Irrational escalation – the phenomenon where people justify increased investment in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment, despite new evidence suggesting that the decision was probably wrong
  • Negativity bias – the tendency to pay more attention and give more weight to negative than positive experiences or other kinds of information
  • Reactance – the urge to do the opposite of what someone wants you to do out of a need to resist a perceived attempt to constrain your freedom of choice
  • Status quo bias – the tendency to like things to stay relatively the same
  • Wishful thinking – the formation of beliefs and the making of decisions according to what is pleasing to imagine instead of by appeal to evidence or rationality

Do not forget the biases that result from the different use of technologies, genders, age, culture and tenure in the organization.  For example, you ask a power user of an existing system why they never use a certain part of the system’s functions; they reply “That’s just for the young people.”

These biases can have a profound effect on the elicitation data we collect, document, and use to make decisions.

Change

As a Business Analyst, our work is closely associated with change. The results of our work could be the decision to remain as is, but this is seldom the case. Business Analysts are often assigned to understand the impact of already identified changes, or to change a system or process that is broken. This close association with the changes that occur in organizations means that the BA is viewed by the stakeholder community as a “change agent”.  When this is the case you, as the change agent, must deal in some measure with the “change targets.”  Change management is another vast and complex subject in itself. We know that effective change is greatly dependent on the “change agent” (YOU), preparing the “change target,” (YOUR Stakeholders) to embrace and affect the change.

What skills should a BA develop to help overcome these challenges?

In today’s large global organization, effective communications become increasingly more difficult to accomplish. The growing use of virtual teams over vast distances and many time zones challenges our traditional communication models. Team members seldom, if ever, meet face to face. Our normal methods of developing relationships are at the mercy of the technology we use.

Even in instances where the BA and their stakeholders are co-located geographically together, our multi-tasking schedules drive us to use email and teleconferencing as our primary methods of communication. These narrow bandwidth methods make it more difficult to enhance relationships and built trust.

Today’s BA’s are asked to use various types of communications skills such as:

  • Public Speaking: presenting findings or reports in front of a variety of audiences. These could range from a 10-15 minute briefing for 3-5 stakeholders, to a long standup presentation to senior decision makers.
  • Active Listening: a communication technique that requires the listener to understand, interpret, and evaluate what they hear. The ability to listen actively can improve personal relationships through reducing conflicts, strengthening cooperation, and fostering understanding.
  • Feedback: we are continually receiving and giving feedback. Whether explicit through oral or written language, or implicit in gestures or tone of voice, feedback conveys information and offers an evaluation of the quality of that information
  • Influencing: a skill that is extremely important in today’s matrix managed organizations. BA’s are required to lead various teams in decision making activities with limited or no authority over the stakeholders. Influencing is a skill of sharing power and relying on interpersonal skill to get others to cooperate towards a common goal. BA’s can accomplish this by:
    • Leading by example, and following through with commitments
    • Being clear and transparent in how decisions are made
    • Using a flexible interpersonal style and adjusting it to the situation
    • Using judgment when leveraging authority or power over stakeholders (considering long term relationships)

Political and Cultural Awareness: politics are inevitable in organizations, no matter what the size, due to diversity in the norms, backgrounds and expectations of the people involved with the BA work. Ignoring or avoiding politics can lead to difficulties in dealing with your stakeholders. By understanding and capitalizing on this difference you are more likely to create an atmosphere of mutual trust and collaboration.

Conclusion

I believe that Business Analysis is both a science and an art. The science is found in the processes, tools, techniques, methodologies, systems and governance that we use. The art is dealing with the people that populate and surround our BA activities and project.

Although dealing with people is far from scientific we can still sharpen the interpersonal skills that can make us more effective and successful. Just as an artist goes to art schools to sharpen their craft, BA’s can also be better people managers by taking an inventory of the interpersonal skill strengths and weaknesses. The results of this can then be used to set future personal development objectives that will lead to more successful results.

Research

  1. Hass, Kathleen B. Unearthing Business Requirements: Elicitation Tools and Techniques. Management Concepts, Inc. 2007.
  2. Hass, Kathleen B; Wessels, Don; Brenna, Kevin.  Getting it Right: Business Requirement Analysis Tools and Techniques. Management Concepts, Inc. 2007.
  3. Jonasson, Hans.  Determining Project Requirements. Auerbach Publications. 2007.