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A Question of Degrees

By Sinikka Waugh

There are plenty of competent business analysts, but very few who are great. What makes a standout business analyst? The answer is simple: it's a question of degree.

No, I'm not talking about the certification, and we aren't talking about academic titles, which may indicate little more than a person's ability to take tests, follow rules, and play the game. The B.S., M.S., or Ph.D. after a person's name is never a measure of their greatness.

What matters is how far a business analyst is willing to go to excel in each assignment. The difference good business analysts and great ones is, quite simply, the extent to which they deliver more than they promise.

Are you a great analyst? How do you answer these questions?

Understanding the Need: How well do you understand the business, and what it is trying to accomplish?

Good business analysts learn about the business, identify its objectives and needs, ferret out the sources of problems or gaps, and consider alternatives.

Great business analysts delve into the inner workings of the business for the details of what makes it tick. They work hard to understand the context of the business's place within the industry and vis- à-vis its competitors, now and throughout its history. They apply their experience and expertise to help the business identify trends, reach conclusions, and apply familiar lessons in new spaces. They draw on others' expertise for solution alternatives. They weigh every penny, but never overstate benefits or underestimate costs.

Creating the plan: How well do you prepare?

Good business analysts consider who, what, where, when, and how. They plan, organize, and get ready for the challenges ahead.

Great business analysts approach planning with infectious energy and enthusiasm. They invest time in getting to know their stakeholders as people, customers, and allies. They plan for the unknown. They hold themselves to the highest standards. And they actively measure results, so that they can adapt and improve.

Eliciting and managing the details: How well do you carry through on what you plan?

Good business analysts apply proven techniques to gather and organize the details of a project.

Great business analysts adapt their techniques to the needs of every situation. They apply their considerable store of knowledge creatively, to make the discovery of facts, data, and requirements as pain-free and complete as possible. They are diligent, methodical, and meticulous in discovering, organizing, and managing the requirements. They are passionate about presenting their work to the right eyes for review. They respond quickly to changes, but stand resolute when changes aren't necessary.

Analyzing the solution: How well do you evaluate solution options?

Good business analysts measure solutions against the requirements. They find out, up front, what will be acceptable. They evaluate how a solution will impact the organization, and they help manage the transition to the new state.

Great business analysts embrace the requirements as their own. They place business value at the center of every decision. They weigh acceptability against value. They examine each angle of impact. And they seek others' advice and reference past learnings to generate ideas. They are sensitive to the spirit of the business, and anticipate how it will be affected by the solution. They are adept at leading organizations through change and transition, as champions of "what's best."

Transferring the knowledge: How well do you tell the story?

Good business analysts choose the right tools for the job. They ensure that everyone understands the requirements, and they retain the requirements for re-use.

Great business analysts let the content define and refine the form. Where the "right tool" doesn't exist, they're quite willing to create it and offer it to all who could benefit from it. They are sensitive to the stakeholders' personalities and responsibilities. They adjust their walkthroughs to the needs of each participant. They apply what they've learned in the past to help the entire organization improve its approach to the requirements.

There's nothing wrong with the good business analyst's approach. Great business analysts simply take it to the next level, in large measure through their passion and energy. Their enthusiasm inspires their stakeholders, project teams, and peers to enjoy attacking the tasks at hand, and to enjoy working with them. Good business analysts are assigned to projects—like spare parts of equal value. Great business analysts are requested by name.

Which kind of business analyst will you be?

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