The Mythic Business Analyst: The Next Evolution of the BA Role

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I have been interested in myths and legends for as long as I can remember, thrilling to the adventures of the heroes and heroines that battled the forces of darkness, discord and evil. Star Wars in 1977 and that initial sequence of the Star Destroyer passing overhead changed a ten year old’s life forever, then followed the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, the works of Guy Gavriel Kay, David Gemmell and Terry Pratchett continuing a trend which dwindled somewhat with the onset of (early) middle-age. However when I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2010 at the age of forty-three (apparently at a ‘young’ age for this ailment) my interest in epic stories was re-kindled as a means of escape from the symptoms of my condition and also because I began to appreciate the significance of the story in guiding people through change. I realised that stories have power and I began to tell my story in the hope that it would make a difference; and the more I told my story the more people shared theirs…..

David Beckham, Senior Business Analyst, Aviva
David will be presenting a keynote on “The Power of Change – A Personal Journey” at IRM UK’s Innovation, Business Change and Technology Forum Europe 2017, 21-22 March, London 


People like stories; our different societies and cultures resonate with tales of adventure, myth and legend, where heroic types survive a perilous ordeal and gain some secret treasure. The culturally diverse adventures and quests usually take a similar line; the hero (who is yet to understand they are the hero) is called, they undertake a journey on which they are challenged and where at some point a transformation occurs in their understanding. Finally they return to their everyday society with a new knowledge, skill or technology to introduce. This model is generally described as the Hero’s Journey and has been detailed with great effect by Joseph Campbell, who before his death was widely regarded as the world’s leading expert on comparative mythology. In corporate communications today we see lots of words that have epic inferences, such as ‘transformation’, ‘cultural shift’, ‘disruption’, ‘new paradigm of experience’, ‘customer journey’ etc. CEOs use aspirational visions to inspire both staff and customers and yet, and yet………… who tells the story at the place where the vision meets corporate reality? Who carries the metaphorical torch of change and ultimately ensures it endures? Who is at the centre of the change, ensuring it benefits the greater good? I’ll give you a clue; it should be the Business Analyst.

You will note I said it should be the Business Analyst. After all, who is better equipped to do so? Existing between the customer and the providers of change, talking the language of two tribes – business and IT –armed with the skills and techniques that allow them to create a new reality, surely the BA should regard themselves as the change makers? And yet…. And yet……. Too often the BA is regarded as the person who ‘does requirements stuff’. Let me explain why I believe the BA should be, in point of fact has to be, much more than that.

When change comes a-knockin’ who you gonna call…?

In the olden days of yore, societies had specific individuals and roles that they turned to for leadership or guidance in times of hardship or change. These usually fell into certain archetypal characters:

The Village Elder – normally a wise person of advancing years who lived in the village

The Old Man/Woman of the Woods/Mountains – normally a wise person of advancing years who didn’t live in the village

The Wandering Expert – normally someone with different talents, skills and perspectives who turns up in the village at an opportune moment

The Keeper/Teller of stories – normally someone who had access to extraordinary information who lived right on the edge of the village

The Transformative Leader – someone who lived in the village and by undergoing a transformative event became the right person at the right time

The Supernatural Guide – someone who not only didn’t live in the village but didn’t live in the same dimensional plane

Nowadays, society turns to a different set of archetypes, namely politicians, business leaders, the media or God forbid, the’ Strictly Come Dancing’ judges. Corporate culture turns to Consultancy companies who provide extraordinary wisdom and insight, (NB ‘extraordinary’ in this context means ‘not currently known/understood by the customer paying the fee, but may be known by the customer’s staff’) whilst individuals turn to counsellors, therapists, personal trainers, celebrities or Twitter. All these disparate entities have one common feature; they are all perceived to have wisdom to assist with coping with change. Which leads me to a key realisation………

Forget requirements; let’s talk change

I work in an organisational BA Practice that contains roughly 70 people located across the UK and we’ve recently been doing a lot of thinking around the Practice identity, primarily as a response to some of the agile contentions that are widely promulgated about the BA role not being formally recognised within feature teams etc. As part of that survey we asked BA Practice members to choose from a list of words or phrases those that most matched their thoughts on the BA role. Here was the result in order of preference

  1. Analyse options/propose solutions
  2. Facilitate/Present
  3. Challenge and Provoke Change
  4. Clarify/Define/Investigate Queries
  5. Gather Requirements
  6. Collate/Document Requirements

As you can see “Challenge and Provoke Change” came in third place after “Facilitate/Present” in second and “Analyse options/propose solutions” in first. In fact “Challenge and Provoke Change” only just nudged the tape ahead of “Clarify/Define/Investigate Queries”, “Gather Requirements” and “Collate/Document Requirements”. Why is this so? Well, in my opinion four of the selections above are for the most part passive activities, which rarely lead to any edgy conflict. Even the word clarify is slightly deferential in tone, whereas challenge and provoke are definitely active and confrontational. “Whoa Dave…” I hear you ask “What’s the big problem Dude? Challenge and Provoke were in the top three…”  to which I would respond that they should be the top by a country mile!

Safety is Dangerous

So therein lies the rub; as a professional body have Business Analysts perhaps got cosy with the concept that they passively gather a list of requirements, clarify them a bit and then offer them up as a finished product? If we were to apply this to the archetypes of ancient yore above, this would just about put us here:

The Village Artisan – someone who lives in the village that takes orders from villagers and makes them into something

To put it another way, it’s the equivalent of NASA saying they want to put men on Mars but describing the actual process of doing so as playing about with some screwdrivers and circuit boards. And yet we BAs do it all the time, just take a look how many books are written about BA methods and tools. Don’t get me wrong, they are all incredibly useful and vital whilst learning the craft but they are not the be all and end all of the job. The moment we reach our full potential in my opinion is when we realise that we are all about creating/encouraging and introducing change by challenging the way the world is today and allowing different visions to emerge or evolve. By embracing that concept we allow our role to become the singer of songs not the recorder of words. We become the Bard not the Scribe. We allow ourselves to become the agents of change rather than the taker of notes and begin to tell the cultural or corporate story of change rather than just trying to jot it down for someone else to read. We become the reasons why corporate and cultural change succeeds. We become archetypal; we become part of the corporate myth.

So why is this important?

Now, some of you are probably thinking such things as “What the heck has this got to do with process models and user stories” or “Yup, Dave has definitely lost it this time…” So why is this important? Well in my opinion there are a number of reasons we should look to become myth-tellers and they are, in no particular order:

At a delivery level, if we understand the real reason for what is being asked we are more likely to deliver something that will be useful and long lasting rather than a short-sighted temporary fix, effectively we concentrate on people’s needs rather than system/software utilisation

By understanding and advocating the reason for change then matching it to the corporate vision we become perceived as leaders not followers

In addition, by guiding people through the change process we use our BA experience and skills in a more mature and complete way, thus reinforcing our usefulness to our organisation

By performing ‘above and beyond’ the scribe behaviours we allow our profession to evolve into something bigger and dare I say it, more worthy than just project requirement shepherds

We boost the morale of our team and colleagues by being able to describe the value of every requirement in ways people understand and that highlight the value being added. By doing this we allow a higher purpose to emerge from what initially may appear to be a relatively banal or obtuse technical request as shown in the table below

Requirement Value story Customer story Corporate story
Use new SOA services for all customer information requests Information requests perform faster via the internet Customer can access important information for themselves We make life easier for customers
Record it Value it Understand it Embed it

By being able to do this we can keep our teams energised and aware that they are adding significant value, rather than tinkering with technical matters.

By understanding and telling the story (and possibly re-writing it as a result) we incidentally have a richer and more motivating (dare I say ‘fun’?) experience, which can’t be a bad thing, can it?

We become a key part of the story and we know how everyone loves a good story.

The Story-telling Leader

There is another aspect of story telling that the BA can be fundamental to and that is becoming the story-teller for your peer group itself. On most assignments I am introducing new ways of working in terms of systems, roles and processes etc but how often do I facilitate changes in ways of behaving? Take the example of working in a requirements/project/feature team for a significant amount of time; do you just develop more detailed levels of user requirements or do you develop the team members themselves? Do you find yourself asking “So what happens to the customer letter now?” or saying things like “Don’t worry guys, it’s ok to be arguing at this point; it’s what new teams do….” I’d hazard in a lot of cases it’s the former and with good reason, after all a BA is there to improve the organisation but this isn’t always done with new IT kit or a revised process model; sometimes you actually change the people along the way. An example of this would be guiding the evolution of group dynamics by understanding and communicating the insights from Tuckman’s model of team development.

This is a very useful model to describe how teams behave as they evolve. Note that it doesn’t in any way refer to any delivery, products etc, it just deals with the dynamic that all teams will experience as they get used to working with each other. A Business Analyst is more exposed to this dynamic as they will have been on many different assignments in their career and will have got used to many different teams and been through the (potentially) tempestuous process numerous times. They are therefore best suited to help the team get through it as well, explaining that conflict is quite normal in the early stages and that it will all calm down as the team gets used to the way they work together. Team members will sometimes be unaware that they are in fact going through a process at all, so being told “it’s all OK” can be very helpful for their well being and also efficiency

And it’s not just confined to the process of team building…. It also can be about understanding the end to end process of change for which there are many models, the most well known of which is shown below:

This is a model that anyone who is experiencing change will go through, not necessarily at the same time or at the same speed or even in that order! All these factors can vary but by being able to clearly communicate and explain the process of change the BA can once again add great value to their colleagues and organisation. As a Profession we’re not specifically trained in this aspect, in fact it tends to fall into the domain of consultancy or life-coaching but why should that be the case? By guiding people through change we are naturally building our skills in this domain and with experience and appropriate learning it can add an entirely new chunk of value to our role, impact and importance.

So there you have it; that’s my story about story-telling and how it can change the way we all work. It won’t appeal to all (like any story) but if it resonates with you and makes you think deeper about what you want to achieve in your career then I have done as much as I can; the rest of the tale is up to you. As a quick check of where you are you might like to take the following simple test and ask yourself which column of the following table do you prefer? The words themselves are deliberately provocative and may cause you to examine your motivations in more detail, but that’s ok, no-one else need know!

Leader Follower
Bard Scribe
Challenging Accepting
Communicating Talking
Hard Comfortable
Risky Safe
Evolving Cruising
Listening Hearing
Wide Narrow
Vision Detail
Driver Passenger
Seeing Looking
Achievement Activity
Giving Expecting
Guide Text book

Please note there are no right answers, so be honest and see where you are in the grand story of things!

David Beckham has spent his career working at Aviva and has been a Business Analyst in different guises since the mid-1990’s. He was a founder member of the Business Analysis Practice when it was formed within Aviva IT and has had two terms as the Practice Lead. He has worked on numerous large change programmes and has been heavily involved in building the capability of Business Analysis within his organisation over the last few years. He has presented at the European Business Analysis Conference on a regular basis and has had several articles on Business Analysis topics published through various media. Despite being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2010 at the age of 43 David continues to relish his role as a Business Analyst.  He is a passionate advocate of the profession and the benefits it gives to organisations everywhere, and regularly speaks on the positive power of change both on a professional and personal basis.

Copyright, David Beckham, Senior Business Analyst, Aviva

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