Soft Skills Pay the Bills

 by Gareth Jones,
Business Analysts Pty Ltd Practice Manager


At a recent IIBA Professional Day event, a former colleague and respected business analyst and I were talking about the various topics to be presented. Some of his colleagues were only interested in the sessions that catered for the more tangible BA activities, i.e. data modelling, process elicitation and so on, whilst he was focusing more on the mindfulness and soft skill techniques. We both agreed, that whilst the tangible techniques are necessary for all BAs to learn, it is the underlying competencies that will differentiate between success and failure.

Much like the tangible BA techniques, there are a raft of underlying competencies to get our heads around. Each of which require their own individual focus and continuous improvement approach. To give each budding or even seasoned BA a bit of a leg up, I thought I would share some of the key underlying competencies, or soft skills, that I feel are necessary for all BAs to focus on.

 Analytical Thinking: OK, so a no brainer with this one… or is it. “BAs use analytical thinking by rapidly assimilating various types of information (for example diagrams, stakeholder concerns, customer feedback, schematics, user guides, and spreadsheets), and identifying which are relevant” IIBA BABVOK v3. We are presented a topic, problem, or statement (see one liner here), and from this we collaborate with a number of people to determine the most adequate solution to address a business need. Without structuring our thought, applying traceability to our analysis, and interacting with people with various perspectives, we would struggle to form any trustworthy insight. To do this effectively we must learn new concepts, think outside of the face value of the problem drawing from past experiences and our own research, consider people, process and technology impacts, trace symptoms to root causes to problem solve, and reiterate this to various stakeholder groups in a level that is relevant to their interests. Simples!

Trustworthiness: Transparency breeds trust! The aim for every BA should be to become a trusted advisor. By this I mean, those that the BA works with and supports will take the information presented by the BA with an increasing level trust, to a point where it is accepted as verbatim (trusted). This requires the BA to be extremely diligent in the analysis they do and the perspectives they consider, it is hard work. But the flip side is that it provides a great platform for the BA to display the leadership often necessary to keep projects and initiatives on the right path.

In addition to this level of trustworthiness, BAs are often in a position where they are eliciting information from stakeholders that they may not want shared or linked back to them. In these cases, the BA must develop a strong level of trust with the individual stakeholder to elicit the correct information, and then be able to present this to other stakeholders in an objective manor that enables informed business decision making without having to disclose the source.

 Adaptability: Change is a constant. It is no coincidence that the IIBA speaks of both individual adaptability and adaptive project approaches. As organisations embrace adaptive or agile delivery models, changing requirements and priorities, as well as competing initiatives, will mean the BA will often needs to pick up a new requirement and drop one which they may have applied a good deal of thought to. Additionally, as agile uncovers information in an iterative process, what we think we ‘know’ may not turn out to be what we deliver in the end. Finally, each team and each initiative are unique, so what may work for one may not work for another. All of the above adds a little extra pressure on the BA to be across the change and prepared enough to help drive it and, in some situations, comfortable with not knowing all the detail.

The requirements we specify will be open to scrutiny, regarding feasibility, level of detail and granularity etc. This is only to achieve the right outcome, and we should never personalize this. Given each of our outputs as BAs are typically another’s inputs, we need to adapt our approach to suit the team and the level of detail they need for delivery. Requirements were never owned by the BA, we were only ever a temporary custodian of them. We need to maintain that focus to ensure the best requirement is delivered for the team, not just the one that we worked on.

 Facilitation: Don’t imagine them naked, I am not sure if that has ever worked. And forget ‘Practice Makes Perfect’, perfection doesn’t exist. ‘Persistence Beats Resistance’, this is something you can apply as it works both internally and externally. Cast your minds back to school where you had to deliver a presentation to your classmates. The majority of people were so nervous, their hands were shaking, and their voice would quiver. Those that did nail it were often met with congratulations rather than jeering as regardless of whether you were cool, a dweeb, or otherwise, everyone knows how scary those presentations were.

Well, if you’re a BA or want to be, standing up in front of people and guiding discussions and teams is ‘Par for the Course’. So if internally, this scares you, the go out and do it anyway. Persist. Look at programs like Toastmasters to get comfortable with the notion of public speaking. Lead a discussion at your next BA Forum. Write a blog for industry and present the information in a public setting. You need to persist to overcome your internal resistance!

This also gives you a platform to work on your communication skills, both verbal and non-verbal. Building the comfort in standing in front of people will give you the head space to focus on voice projection, body language, and so on.

 Leadership and Influencing: We play a pivotal role in business improvement, own it! Whilst we down own the requirements, and never have, we do guide stakeholders through the analytical process to ensure they have the right level of understanding to aid in key decision making. This may involve motivating stakeholders to take ownership in their part of the initiative by ensuring they understand their role and are provided with the necessary support to fulfill it successfully. This goes from the end user right up to the C Level execs. If we take pride in the delivery of successful outcomes, then we must focus attention on the key stakeholders necessary for the delivery of said outcomes. Whether you stand at the front and direct, or at the back and guide, will be determined by the environment and situation. But if the outcomes are at risk, we must take a level of responsibility in ensuring each stakeholder is aware, have traceability in our analysis to identify this and clarify this risk objectively, and detail what can be done to address this.

Teamwork: If they can’t work with you, they won’t work with you. This does tie back to adaptability in some way as how we accept changes will impact how others will approach us in future. But it is more than putting on a smile in the face of change or ambiguity. Business, and particularly IT is the most diverse industry in the world. We work with people from all over, with varying levels of experience. And as BAs, we play a pivotal role in how productively that team works together. Working collaboratively, being open to different points of view, being considerate when providing feedback, remaining objective in our analysis and depersonalizing the requirements. All of these will assist us in working with the different stakeholders on a day to day basis. But when the pressure builds, the deadlines approach, and the change is still constant, we must remember that our reactions can have a positive or detrimental impact on the team. Although work is very important to us, it is just that, work. We are delivering business improvements. We are not in the business of saving lives; we are in the business of saving or generating money. That isn’t to diminish the importance of what we do, but we must remain objective, take challenges it in our stride, keep calm and carry on.