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Wearing your Business Analyst Hat on Any Project

Do you ever feel like your job as a Business Analyst is pulling you in too many directions? Do you have too many skills to perfect or too many hats to wear? 

The BABOK lists seven underlying competencies and skills that support effective performance of a business analyst:

  • Analytical thinking
  • Problem solving
  • Communication skills
  • Behavioral characteristics
  • Business knowledge
  • Interaction skills
  • Software applications

If you type 'Business Analyst Skills' in a search engine, you will see hundreds of skills that you must master to become a great Business Analyst.

Well, luckily, we aren't going to talk about all of these skills that we "must" master. Instead, let's just look at three:

  • Thinking critically
  • Communicating clearly
  • Asking good questions

Oh, and if you're not a Business Analyst by trade and are a Project Manager, Developer, Tester, Nurse, Teacher, Sales Associate, don't stop reading this article. This blog post will be helpful for you too! The three skills we will cover will help you succeed not only as a BA, but also on any project, and in any role.

Now, let's dive in a little deeper.

Thinking Critically

Thinking critically is the ability to consider an issue from various perspectives, challenge assumptions and explore alternatives. It requires you to be flexible, creative and original. You are essentially thinking about thinking as you attempt to locate the approximate route to a goal.

Sounds easy enough, right? So, what goes wrong? Often, we don't go beyond the given information. For example, you receive this requirement: 'The task must be completed in a timely manner.' Now, let's practice going beyond the given information. It's easy to accept it at face value and use it as a requirement. Well, ask this: what is the task? Is it a page refresh? A calculation? What is considered timely? One second? One minute?

Have you heard of naïve realism? In a nutshell, this is when we don't consider that there might be differences between what you experience or perceive and what really is. We each have different life experiences and information that lead us to a particular opinion or perception. We should take that into account in order to think more critically about a situation.

What do you see in the image below? An eye? A drain? We need to go beyond naïve realism and get to the facts.

So, how do we overcome not going beyond the information given or naïve realism? We practice. Practice, in fact, makes improvement (not perfect!). Another way is to read up on theory. Sounds fascinating, right? Gaining a deeper understanding of the Laws of Logic and the methods of scientific reasoning will help you become a better critical thinker.

Motivation and a positive attitude may take you just as far, if not further. You must be willing to put in the effort. Practice these behaviors:

  • Engage in debate.
  • Ask questions.
  • Make mistakes.
  • Break old habits.

It will take time, but the effort will pay off.

Want to test your current critical thinking skills? Take this quiz and see how well you can answer the questions. Fair warning – it is harder than it may seem!

Communicating Clearly

Communicating clearly is the ability to be clear and articulate, actively listen, ask good questions, and verify the information you receive in written, oral, and nonverbal communications. Like with critical thinking, communicating clearly can be very difficult at times. Communication comes in three forms:

  1. Written communication can often be problematic when you do not keep the reader in mind, when the text is not written to be scanned or read quickly, when there are too many topics in one document, or when important information is buried in verbiage.
  2. Oral communication can be difficult if there is an absence of planning, over busyness, inattention, presence of extreme emotion, or a lack of evaluation. For example, when we don't spend enough time thinking about what we are going to say before we say it.  Inattention can come into play right after lunch, or at 4:30 p.m. Knowing which behaviors factor into communication will help. It is not realistic to think that you'll work in an environment where no emotion is shown. Also, a workplace with an absence of emotion would be a pretty boring place to work. We need to watch out for situations where emotions get in the way, for example, yelling at a coworker.
  3. Nonverbal communication cues are often ambiguous. They can also be multichannel, making it difficult to interpret. You can give nonverbal cues through your facial expression, body movement, voice, eye contact, etc. – all at the same time. Nonverbal cues can also contradict what was said verbally. 

How can we improve our communication? Again, practice makes improvement.  Posting business related material to LinkedIn, writing a blog, and sending tweets are all good ways to practice written communication. Twitter is a great way for you to sharpen your writing and improve writing headlines. To improve your oral communication skills, attend a public speaking workshop, sign up to speak at an event, or find someone you know who speaks eloquently and ask for their help.

Read the following email. As you read it, think about what you would do to improve the content.

To: molly@communication.com

Subject: Requirements Discussion

Hi, Molly.

I would appreciate talking with you about a concern I have with Requirement 324.

Thanks.

Emma

 

Here are some things you may have noticed. This message would require multiple emails to be sent back and forth. In addition, it might be nice for Molly to have a link to the document. If your message requires the recipient's action, say so; preferably with the first word of the subject line. And if the action associated with your message includes a date or deadline, do include it in the email subject.

 

To: molly@communication.com

Subject: Action: Requirements Concern

Hi, Molly.

Do you have half an hour on Monday at 2 PM to talk about a concern I have with Requirement 324? My concern involves determining whether or not all appropriate stakeholders were involved in the elicitation.

Can I call you at (614)555-5555?

Emma Schoen

 

Asking Good Questions

The ability to ask good questions means you can gather knowledge to define what you want to know. You can do this well by making sure you’re on-topic, specific, relevant and open-minded

Sometimes, it's not as easy as one would think to ask good questions. One problem is that we use metaphors (i.e. "think outside the box," "buy in," or "less is more") all the time in our daily language. These metaphors can cause confusion and often have an assumed meeting. If there is a lack of critical thinking in the follow-up questions, the answers may only tell part of the story.

There are techniques that can be used to ask better questions.  The first is called Clean Language. This technique requires you to listen, question, and then listen again. A major component of this technique is to use the answerer’s own words in order to increase rapport. 

Assume your client says, "I need a new computer system." Your response should be, "what kind of computer system?" and not, "what kind of hardware/software?"

Another example is if your customer says, "I want a new computer system to be like a shop." Your response should be something along the lines of "what kind of shop?"

Below is a list of types of Clean Language Questions you can use:

 

Developing Questions Sequence and Source Questions Intention Questions
"(And) what kind of X (is that X)?"

"(And) is there anything else about X?"

"(And) where is X? or (And) whereabouts is X?"

"(And) that's X like what?"

"(And) is there a relationship between X and Y?"
"(And) then what happens? or (And) what happens next?"

"(And) what happens just before X?"

"(And) where could X come from?"
"(And) what would X like to have happen?"

"(And) what needs to happen for X?"

"(And) can X (happen)?"

 

Bloom's Taxonomy is another tool you can use to help yourself ask better questions. Bloom's Taxonomy was created to promote higher forms of learning in education, but can be applied to our work as Business Analysts and how we ask questions. We should try to incorporate a number these types of questions as we meet with others to gather information.  

The chart below provides examples of each type of question and gives you different scenarios where these types of questions may be best used.

Thinking Skill Questions Use this type of question...
Remembering What is X?
Where is Y?
To find where a particular data element resides in a database.
Understanding How would you classify the type of X?
How would you compare X? contrast Y?
To make sure the people in the discussion have the same understanding of a problem.
Applying How would you use X?
What examples can you find to X?
When observing a user interacting with the current system.
Analyzing What are the parts or features of X?
How is X related to Y?
To gain an understanding of a process' relationships and dependencies.
Evaluating What is your opinion of X?
Can you assess the value or importance of X?
To determine the impact to business caused by adding/removing a system funcionality.
Creating What changes would you make to solve X?
How would you improve X?
To ensure all alternate and exception paths are accounted for in a use case.


If you practice Thinking Critically, Communicating Clearly, and Asking Good Questions, you’ll see yourself improving your technical skills. If you think critically, there is a better chance that you’ve explored many scenarios and have put time and energy into creating requirements with very few gaps. Asking the right questions off the bat will require you to spend less time in re-work down the road. Additionally, being able to better communicate the requirements (both oral and written), gives the business a better idea of what they will be getting and the developer will have a better idea of what they need to do to please the end-customer. Finally, when you practice these skills your acceptance and evaluation criteria will be more complete, interviews will become more productive, and eliciting and communicating requirements will be much more thorough.

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About The Author

Business Analyst
Emma is a consultant in Cardinal Solution's Project Services Practice. Her experience as a Business Analyst and Project Coordinator includes data governance, data analysis, and quality assurance.