A Great BA....

Posted by Tahira Karim on 9 January 2013

As I sat in peak traffic yesterday afternoon, basking in the sun and getting a much needed tan, my mind latched onto a topic I have often pondered over, namely what makes a great BA?

What is that SOMETHING that makes a BA shine like no other and makes him stand out from the rest?

When you start out as a business analyst with the first project you are assigned to, you get the opportunity to partner with an experienced BA within the department. Normally this BA is the most popular and most successful, he is the guy who gets head hunted by the Business or the IT departments and even the Programme and Project Managers pitch to have this BA on their projects or programme of work.

As a fledgling BA you look toward this ‘man of the moment’ as a beacon of knowledge and experience. You envisage this person to inspire and take you to meteoric heights as a business analyst. You expect him to ‘teach you the ropes’ and look to learn behaviours that you may emulate, you follow in his footsteps and his direction becomes the Gospel.

You leave your project thinking ‘Gosh, I want to be like him, he's brilliant.' And so your next project comes along and you start using the techniques you have recently acquired from your first project, with great success and jubilation, it seems as if you have moved the rock of Gibraltar.

With time you get to move from project to project becoming more confident and arrogant in many respects, you have managed to develop your own style of interacting with stakeholders and the project team, you now have a reasonable set of techniques in your toolset, you have built a professional network to whom you can bounce ideas and suggestions, you know what the hottest topic in the business analysis world is and then comes along your first enterprise wide project.Suddenly you are not king of the castle, now you have a team of BA’s and your project cuts across the organisation, across business segments and business teams.

Remember that first project and the first BA who coached you? Well, he is not the best thing since cream cheese anymore. You now start to see gaps in the requirements elicitation process, you see flaws in requirements artefacts, things you have never before questioned, you gain insights into how different and diverse a BA’s view can be on the same requirement. The best thing ever though, is that you find that a weakness in your skillset is a strength is another BA’s skillset… (And I am sure that you are now thinking so whoopee for her, she is now going to say that that’s how she gets to learn more techniques and ways of doing things better)……But you are wrong, that is not what I am about to say.

The amazing part of working on projects with a bevy of other BA’s is the fact that the skillsets complement each other; you are able to differentiate your area of expertise and you learn humility rather quickly. No artefact you produce is ever yours; you have joint ownership, joint responsibility and joint accountability for delivering a quality solution that will ultimately be a reflection on the entire BA team.

By this time in your journey towards eternal glory as a BA you start to realise that there are no right or wrong answers or techniques or approaches,that every BA has his own perspective and it doesn’t really matter that you name a function on a process model without a verb or that you compile a traceability matrix on an Excel spread sheet. What matters is whether you were able to elicit ‘real requirements’ [that’s a topic for my next blog post], that your outputs were fit for purpose, that you were able meet the expectations of your stakeholders. Most important of all is that you were able to capture the needs of the business communities you are serving, into outputs that a technical team can translate from.

Very often BA’s fall into the habit of thinking of a new project in the light of previous projects, previous requirements, previous experiences, our outputs only change name if anything else, we fall into a pattern of churning the familiar and invariably we churn out the same mistakes we made and the same behaviours we displayed from previous projects. After a good many years as a BA you start to invariably team up with BA’s you have previously worked with and frequently I have come across the same specifications rebranded and repackaged.

This is what we should strive to avoid. We want every project experience to be unique and different. We are BA’s because we enjoy traversing the unknown, we enjoy the adrenalin rush we get from seeing a concept in our heads materialise into something meaningful and adding value to the lives of our end users. We are challenged by complex business domains. We are tenacious and persevering by nature and we thrive on being creative and so I ask how can any two projects ever be treated in the same manner?

I am reminded of something a very wise educationist once said, namely ‘It is not how much you know how to do but how you behave when you don’t know what to do’, yeah, you guessed, he was more brilliant than the BA I worked with on my first project!

When I look back on all the BA’s who have mentored and coached me, I have found that the most successful BA’s, the ones who are always in demand on projects were not necessarily great BA’s.

So what then is a great BA? If you have been following my article attentively, then you probably know the answer ….It’s the BA who may not know what to do but who is able to improvise and think on his feet, who is able to waddle in a sea of confusion and find structure when there exists none and the most important trait of a great BA is someone who realises that he will never know everything and is comfortable with this knowledge.

A great BA has integrity and humility and last but not least a great BA has a vision and takes his audience by their hand, guides them until they are able to see what he sees.He is really the quiet genius you need to look for and aspire to become in your career as a professional BA.

That SOMETHING that sets a great BA apart from the rest of the pack is elusive only because contrary of popular belief it is not the extraordinary but rather the ordinary, it is not the Master’s degree in Information Systems, it’s not about how knowledgeable you are on UML or BPMN or whether you know who Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland are, but rather the art of being human and making sense from chaos. This is the mark of a great Business Analyst.