What makes a good BA?
I’ve been a BA now for a few years and I’ve just realised that I’ve never really thought about what makes a good BA. That isn’t really a comfortable thing to admit. Don’t get me wrong I’ve had days where I thought I was doing OK and I’ve matched up to the vague silhouette of what I imagined a good BA was in my head. I’ve also had many more days when I’ve been certain that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing and I’d struggle to even spell BA. I’d never really sat down and thought about what good looked like.
Lately I’ve started to get involved in the mentoring program, looking at coaching and becoming a line manager. This is taking me out of my comfort zone, knowing what makes a good BA no longer just affects me, my thoughts and decisions now affect other people. So, it’s become apparent that this is something that I should be thinking about and it’s slightly galling that this has only just occurred to me. How would I ever know if I was a good BA without ever thinking about what that meant.
I’m lucky, I’m part of a great BA community that values it’s members and wants them to progress and actively encourages self-improvement. As part of this we have a progression matrix that tells us what skills we should be developing as we move along our BA career. I open this up, what does this tell me about being a good BA. The first thing it talks about are the technical skills a BA should have. This is true, we do need technical skills, it is part of our remit to be able to run workshops, interview stakeholders and write user stories. But does being able to do these make you a good BA. I don’t think so, it’s a small part of what a good BA is. If you couldn’t do them then you might be a bad BA but that on its own is not enough.
Now it is getting a bit more interesting, we look for people to improve in other areas – knowledge sharing is a skill that we want people to develop.
This is important for us at AO . We like people to learn new skills and knowledge but then share it out with other people in the business. But that isn’t a BA specific skill and early in your career when you are still building confidence you aren’t a bad BA just because you don’t do that. I don’t think I’m getting the information I want from this. This progression framework is useful to help me know what skills to develop as I move through my career but being a junior BA without the skills of a senior BA doesn’t mean I’m not a good BA
Soft skills are also valued and are an important part of being a BA. We call out collaboration, self-development and relationship building as skills we want you to develop. Fair enough. All those things are important to grow to being good. Is that enough though, it doesn’t feel it. There should be more to it than that. Have I identified a gap and now what do I do about.
Obviously what I do about it is go on the internet, what does the world wide web have to say on the subject. It turns out it says quite a lot about it. Different sites have different opinions but there are some common themes on there
A BA needs to be able to communicate well. We have to communicate in different forms and with different people. I don’t want to say levels of people as that insinuates some are better or more important than others. We have to be able to communicate in the written form and verbally and more so than ever through technology. We communicate in reports, meetings, interviews, user stories and emails, to name a few. We have to explain, sometimes difficult, processes to people with no concept of the business reality and we have to explain, mostly always complicated, technical information to the business. It is a delicate balancing act of getting enough information across without too much information that might overwhelm or distract them. It’s also having the judgement of what that balance is. So how do we do this? I believe we do this by learning the language. That is learning the language the business uses in their daily lives and learning the language the technical team learns in theirs. Then we translate between them. We need to learn to write concisely and remove ambiguity. We need to stop writing from our position of knowledge and write from the position of the audience, this is important also when we’re talking to people but if we get it wrong when talking we can see the impact immediately and adjust accordingly
This is our job right, to understand the problem and then solve it. This is a difficult one for me as I don’t think I’m a very good problem solver. But look at job requirements and this does come up as an essential BA skill. If you’re good at solving problems then that’s great and I’m very jealous of all the BA’s I work with who are good at this. What have I done to be able to get away with this, apparently massive, flaw in my BA skill set. Answer, I surround myself with other people who are very good at solving problems. No BA is an island, we have lots of people we work with who also have problem solving skills so let’s use them. Talking about problems with a good range of people – from the business, technical team, maybe even someone fresh to the area – and let them bounce ideas off each other. One person’s mediocre idea might be refined by the input of someone else in the team. One thing that does work for me is to take myself away from the problem, put myself in a position where my mind is allowed to wander where it wants. For me that is going for a walk or a run, for you it might be taking a bath or just sitting in the sunshine. Just giving your mind that bit of space can free it up to meander it’s way to a solution. We often forget this and don’t give ourselves that space.
Attention to detail
I think this skill is actually multi-faceted. At one level it’s around thinking about all the text on the page, all the buttons the user has to press and what colour that button should be. At another level it’s around making sure you ask all the questions and think about all the scenarios and consider all the stakeholders. But it is also about not taking the easy way. That first understanding of the problem and that first option as a solution. It’s about digging beyond that and thinking deeper and wider about the implications of that long term, it’s about thinking about scaling the solution, it’s about thinking about other people that use that product, it’s about thinking about how that affects other payment methods or other countries. It’s about considering usability and accessibility. It’s about being that annoying person in the meeting who just doesn’t let something go and just keeps digging that bit more when everyone else is ready for lunch. This also links nicely with another skill, that of critical thinking. What is the flaw in this solution, what could go wrong. I think these are skills that are so much easier to master when you give yourself the space to do so. Rushing from one problem to another, from one call to another, from one question to another trying to please everyone prevents you from being able to do that. Once you feel you have covered the basics on one thing you move over to the next and miss out the detail and the critical thinking
This exercise, looking at the skills we value at AO and what the internet tells us, got me thinking about what I thought made a good BA. I agreed with what I’d read but I thought there were maybe a few more skills I would throw into the mix.
We talk to, and build relationships with, a lot of people. We need to get them to open up and to trust us. They need to trust us so that they feel comfortable telling us things but also so that when we tell them something they believe it. We don’t always have good news, maybe something they are struggling with is something that we can’t help them with. Maybe they are under a lot of stress, they are frustrated that their problem is never being prioritised and they are having to explain themselves again and again. Having empathy with that person and their situation will go a long way to building up that trust and cementing that relationship. Being their advocate when they aren’t available is an easy step to take when you have empathy with them. Is empathy a teachable skill or is it something that is innate. I’m sure there are empathy coaches out there that would tell you it is teachable and another quick internet search confirms this. Just being open to other people’s opinions and emotions is a good place to start. Taking a moment to stop and not immediately judge based on your preconceptions about a person or their situation is definitely something you can work on and get better at.
This isn’t necessarily one of my strong points but I do still think it is a valuable skill. Having patience is a key skill for anyone who deals with other people! A lot of the time you need to slow down, get all the information you need, not just what the person thinks you need. I believe this links to the attention to detail trait but this is about ensuring you are mentally prepared to take that care and take that time in order to get that detail. If you’re not patient it would be easier to rush through and accept less than you should.
I’d put listening up as an essential skill for a good BA. Obviously I hear you cry! I’m not talking about listening like you do to your partner while you’re watching the TV. I’m talking about proper listening, active listening. Stopping the whirring of your mind thinking about a shopping list or working out what you’re going to say next or trying to make a note of something that has just occurred to you and you want to remember to talk about before you part. I’m talking about just listening and absorbing what the person is saying. As a forgetful person this is actually quite a scary thought, but if I don’t think about what I’m going to say next I might forget what that is. Then I did an exercise in active listening. Get you and one other person together. One of you speak about something for 2 minutes. The other person has to actively listen. Then at the end tell the first person what they have just told you. Both as the listening and the speaker it is quite an uncomfortable situation. What I found though was that I could remember that conversation for months afterwards. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with my memory, maybe I have a problem with attention!
This one hadn’t really occurred to me, I’d filed this under being nosy and didn’t rate it as a skill, possibly more of a character flaw that was just being utilised in a more ethical manner. But then I read some articles and listened to some talks and heard it described as being curious. Being that child that takes the toy apart to see how it works, being that child repeatedly asking why. Taking that into adulthood and enjoying taking an interest in people and being that adult repeatedly asking why.
Now I’ve decided what I think makes a good BA what am I going to do with that information. I am going to put them into a coaching wheel and rate myself against the different traits. Then I’m going to try and improve on my weaknesses, but also try to improve my strengths. Once I’ve created my coaching wheel and rated myself I can track how I think I’m progressing in these different areas. Finally, a thought on whether it matters whether you think you’re a good BA or not. Everyone enjoys feeling like they know what they are doing and that they are being effective as a BA. However, this feeling of doubt, of wondering whether you’re doing a good job does have its plus points. Without it what would drive you to improve? Without it what would motivate you to learn new skills. Without it why would you ask for help and feedback. Equally we do have our own strengths and what might be a strength for one person as a BA may be different to someone else. We should celebrate these differences and be grateful that we all bring something different to the table