Why is Business Analysis So Hard?

One evening last week I collapsed onto the sofa and asked myself a question:

Why am I so tired?

I’d had a normal day at work. It had been a typical day – I’d spent the vast majority of the time sitting down, in a comfortable seat, in a modern temperature-controlled office. I had been to two or three meetings which involved walking a total of a few hundred metres. The office canteen is about 30 seconds’ walk from my desk. The only other physical exercise I’d had that day was making a few cups of tea and eating my lunch.

I have a friend who’s a postman. He gets up early and is on his feet all day – either sorting mail or delivering it door to door, come rain or shine. I have another friend who is a radio engineer. He climbs radio masts to install equipment – again, in all weather.

Compared to these guys, my day had been an absolute doddle. So why on Earth was I so exhausted?

I come home from work tired quite a lot of the time. Sometimes I have good days – maybe everything went particularly well – and I come home energised. But mostly I come home tired. It’s a problem. My kids want to play. My wife wants to tell me about her day, maybe discuss some important issues. Maybe there’s a decision to make and she wants my input. Maybe she just wants to have a conversation in which I say more than just “uh-huh?”.

The answer, of course, is that I’m not physically tired. I’m mentally tired. And the reason I’m tired is that I’ve been thinking all day. And it’s exhausting.

I’ve come to a conclusion:

Business analysis is hard.

I used to be a programmer. I loved programming, and still do. It’s an extremely creative activity – occasionally frustrating but generally very satisfying. I used to come home most days feeling like I’d done a good day’s work and would still have plenty of energy to apply myself to extra-curricular activities in the evening.

OK, so I’m a bit older these days – maybe I don’t have quite the energy I used to. And maybe I haven’t yet mastered the BA role and I’m making life hard for myself. But in my view, it’s definitely much harder than coding.

So why is business analysis so hard? I had a think about what makes a good BA. Then I had a look at BABOK 2.0 (Section 8 – Underlying Competencies), and that seemed to be saying pretty much the same things. Here’s a summary of the core competencies that I think are needed to be a good BA:

1)      Analytical thinking and problem solving

First and foremost, I need to be able to find solutions to business problems. That requires thinking both logically and creatively and also decision making. Logical thinking comes fairly naturally to me – I’ve always been good at science, maths, logic puzzles, that sort of thing. Creative thinking I find harder – making ideas appear out of nowhere has no obvious starting point. One of my favourite authors, Douglas Adams, apparently used to take a lot of baths because that was where he had all his best ideas! I have some of my best ideas when I go out running at lunchtime. Decision making I find really hard, especially when there is no clear best option, or if there isn’t enough information to make a decision. If you struggle with analytical thinking, have a look at Doug Goldberg’s excellent article on the subject.

2)      Business knowledge

I can’t even begin to understand business problems if I don’t have any business knowledge. As a freelance BA, I move around a lot, from company to company and from industry to industry. I’m currently working in retail, but previously I’ve worked in finance, healthcare, utilities and telecoms. Every time I start a new assignment, it’s like starting from scratch again. Very quickly I need to learn what the business does, how the industry works, who’s who within the business and all the terminology they use. Recently I’ve been working in retail finance. Before I started, I didn’t know what a general ledger was, let alone a ‘T’ account. Accountants are even worse than IT folk for speaking in tongues. And don’t get me started on financial reconciliation :).

Over the years I’ve got pretty good at learning fast. I often find myself bluffing my way through a meeting, way out of my comfort zone. Sometimes I have to be careful not to sound too confident, because people then assume I know what I’m talking about. Often, I don’t.

I also need to understand the business’s existing processes and IT systems, so that I know the context of the business problems and figure out what can change and what can’t.

3)      Technology knowledge

Most business change these days involves IT-based solutions. As a BA, I need to know the art of the possible. I also need to know what’s not possible, or likely to be expensive. I get the impression that some BAs rely on a technical resource for this. Of course I can’t pretend to know everything about everything – I’m always going to need to fall back on technical experts. But if I don’t have a general awareness of what IT can and can’t do, I’m not really going to add any value.

I also need to be a power user of various IT applications – word processors, presentation tools, drawing tools, and even in some cases specialist modelling tools (but actually I try to steer clear of these).

I’m in a pretty good position on this front. I come from a technical background. I’ve worked as a coder and as an architect on quite a few large projects, so I have a good understanding of IT. But of course the longer I’m away from the coalface, the rustier I get, and the more out of touch I get with the latest developments. For example, I haven’t really got fully to grips with the world of smartphones and tablets. I got my first smartphone just last week. Much to the amusement of my colleagues, the first time it rang I couldn’t work out how to answer it (yeah, yeah, I know – you have to swipe it :).

4)      Communication and interaction skills

Without communication skills, I can neither understand the business problem nor explain the proposed solution. I have to communicate both at a non-technical level, with the business community, and at a technical level, with architects, developers and testers. On the business side, I have to talk to everyday users, middle managers, senior managers and occasionally CEOs. And within these groups there is always a varying level of tech-savvy, and of course everyone always uses their own very specific business dialect that they assume I understand. On the IT side it’s a little easier – I used to be one of them after all! But let’s face it, some developers can be hard work, and they’re not always great communicators. And increasingly I am working with [very talented] off-shore resources that I never get to meet in person – that requires a different communication style altogether.

And as if that weren’t enough – I don’t just have to communicate with these people. I have to negotiate with them. I have to sell to them. I have to persuade them that my proposed solution is the best option. Even though it’s not what the business originally asked for. Even though it’s trickier to deliver technically. Half the time, the various business users don’t even agree with one another, never mind with me. So I have tofacilitate their disagreements and try to reach a consensus.

I have to coerce them into making difficult and unpleasant priority calls. Sometimes I even have to be a bit sneaky: in order to get traction and avoid analysis paralysis, I have to promise to deliver their lower priority features in “phase 2”, knowing deep down that it might never happen. That’s not something that I like to do – I’m too honest – but occasionally I do it for the greater good.

Did I mention that as well as doing all this face-to-face stuff, I also need to be pretty good at writing it all down? My documentation needs to be clear, concise, unambiguous and engaging. And in these agile days, it also needs to be “barely sufficient”.

And of course I need to be a team player. Business and IT change is unavoidably a team endeavour. And in some cases, I need to be a team leader. I’ve worked on projects that were lacking in leadership and had to step up a level. That’s been fulfilling but also challenging. It’s one thing having to deal with my own problems, it’s quite another managing other team members’ problems too!

Oh, and I have to do all this whilst also behaving in an ethical and trustworthy fashion :).

5)      Methodology understanding

As a BA, I really need to understand the project methodology that I’m working to. I need to be able to understand how my role and my activities relate to the other project roles and activities. How soon do I engage the technical team, or the testers? How and when do I agree project scope? When is it too late to instigate a change, and what are the impacts of doing so?

It doesn’t help that, as an industry, we haven’t really nailed down how to deliver business change (especially IT change). Most people agree that waterfall methods don’t work too well in most situations, but we haven’t really settled on an alternative. It’s quite likely that there isn’t a single method that fits all projects. A lot of the time I do feel like we are inventing our method on the fly. All very agile, of course, but it’s yet another complexity to throw into the already complex mix.

Business Analysis is Really Hard

When you read through the above checklist, it’s actually no surprise that business analysis is hard. On any given day I have to call upon my analytical thinking, my technical knowledge and my business knowledge, make numerous tricky decisions based on all three, and then find ways to explain and justify those decisions to all sorts of people with different perspectives on the problem, whilst all the time bearing in mind how my piece of the jigsaw fits within the project as a whole. I’m exhausted just thinking about it!

I think what makes it particularly hard is the sheer variety of skills required to do the job well. To say that geeks aren’t good communicators and that business people don’t understand technology is both a generalisation and a cliché, but there is some truth in it – hence the concept that BAs are Bridging the Gap.

When I put it like that, I’m not surprised I’m so tired at the end of the day! Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to be negative – I love my job and the challenges it throws at me. And I don’t mean to imply that being a BA is the hardest job in the world either. I can’t even imagine the emotional strength that must be needed to be a doctor, a nurse, a social worker or a soldier.

So if you’re a BA and you’ve had a hard day today, don’t beat yourself up too much about it – It’s the nature of the job.

And if you’re reading this and wondering whether a BA career is for you, be warned: business analysis is hard – really hard. But as long as you’re prepared for that, and as long as you have, or think you can learn, the above skills, then welcome aboard!

One thought on “Why is Business Analysis So Hard?

  1. Lana

    I agree with you that business analysis is hard work and very taxing mentally. I googled the words “business analysis is hard” to see what results I would get. I’ve been a BA for 6 years (having come to it from technical writing and the business side of things), and I find it a really tough slog and somewhat unappreciated by all sorts of stakeholders. (It can depend on the organization.) Along with all the things you mentioned, here are my own observations on why it’s a difficult and sometimes thankless role:

    1. The BA has to know about EVERYTHING at an appropriate level of detail. The BA is relied on as the “Know It All” person, sometimes to an unreasonable degree.
    Whereas a Project Manager is more of a coordinator, managing resources, schedules and budgets. He/she doesn’t necessarily need to know the deep details of the solution – and some PMs are not technically inclined and couldn’t care less. They just want to know the status, especially “Is it done??” 🙂

    2. Expanding on #1, a developer knows the application or piece of functionality he is developing. He doesn’t necessarily know the upstream or downstream. But the BA has to know the entire end-to-end, how data and systems interact with each other, and human and systems impacts.

    3. A BA needs to be good at SO many things in order to bridge the technical and non-technical. And ALSO have good communication skills to communicate with a really large variety of stakeholders ranging from junior to senior.

    Considering the above, it’s no wonder that the job is really difficult. How many people can you find that combine so many things into one package? In my experience so far, I think too much is expected of BAs, far more than is expected of PMs or Product Managers. That’s why it’s a really tiring job. I don’t know how long I can last at it.

    I hope the profession and recognition will evolve so that more BA resources are hired or perhaps the role will be broken down into more task groupings so that a single person doesn’t have to perform such a multitude of tasks and have so many competencies.

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