Whenever I decide to watch a new season of NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice, my husband looks at me puzzled. After all, I rarely watch TV, and we both share an aversion for reality shows in general. However, while designed to entertain, ”The Apprentice” depicts business interactions and challenges that can teach business analysts valuable lessons. In the current version of the show, contestants are divided into two teams competing to win money for their chosen charities. Each episode presents the teams working on a task (create an ad for a product, produce an event, etc.).
Here are some useful lessons for BAs that can be extracted from the participants’ experiences in the elimination-style competition:
#1. Always keep the business goal in sight
In one of this season’s episodes, each team worked on creating two “living window displays” at a department store for a personal clothing and accessories line. The teams were informed that the displays would be judged on three factors: creativity, brand messaging, and overall display. They were also told that the target audience of the products was the “sophisticated, working, aspirational woman”.
At the end of the task, Donald Trump, the show’s host, let the teams know that the judges felt very strongly that the women’s team did a better job. Despite all the hard work the men’s team put into building the display boxes, the clothes chosen for the display of evening attire didn’t match the brand’s style, and their overall presentation lacked creativity.
It’s relatively common to see a similar situation happen in software projects, when the team lose sight of the end goal. While discussing the solution for a business problem, the project team starts molding the requirements based on things unrelated to the business need, such as a desire to use a particular technology or data structure. The most probable consequence is a project that may have been completed on time and on budget, but isn’t fit for purpose.
The lesson for your success? Make sure you know the answer to the most important question for your project: “why are we doing this?” Keep the focus on what matters to your stakeholders, and don’t let the myriad of tasks that must be completed during the project make you lose track of the final destination. The people who determine your success — your managers, customers, users, other stakeholders — will often tell you exactly what their success criteria are. Learn to listen carefully and deliver it.
#2. Develop good contingency plans
The next morning, the women gather to put together the windows. (…) Dayana is worried because they don’t have the photos or sketches yet that will hang in the displays. Aubrey uses paper towels as stand-ins for the photos. Debbie calls Dayana and says that they are stuck in horrible traffic and will be delayed in getting the photos and sketches. When Debbie and Dayana finally show up, with 25 minutes until the presentation, they find out that the printer only printed the sketches, none of the photos, which are the entire backdrop for one of the displays. The women start freaking out. (Source: NBC.)
Before winning the window dressing task, the women faced various issues while trying to get their design implemented. Every week the show airs situations in which the teams have to get around obstacles: a cash donation that may not arrive before the deadline, a sign that was printed with a typo, key decorative items that are missing from the location, etc. The same thing happens with BA work: jammed printers and malfunctioning projectors may get in the way of an important presentation to stakeholders; last-minute changes in the direction of a project may cut short the time available for requirements analysis and documentation; and so on.
The lesson for your success? Anticipate issues that could impact your tasks’ start, finish or deliverables, or put your project at risk, and always have fallback plans in place. Any external event over which you have little (or no) control — including stakeholder unavailability, late start of the project, etc.–presents a risk for completing your tasks, and should be addressed by risk management plans.
In one of my recent projects, a customer experience group was responsible for providing wireframes for the screen changes that were part of a system enhancement effort. The development team needed these wireframes in order to estimate their work and confirm whether the changes could be included in the next release. Because these artifacts were needed by a certain date, I made a point to create some wireframes myself, based on the information shared by the business about the design they wanted. I kept these wireframes in my computer, ready to be submitted in case the group responsible failed to provide the deliverable on time. Turns out the wireframes were indeed provided (albeit at the last moment), but I had my plan B in place. If for some reason we didn’t receive the wireframes by the expected date, I would have tried to get approval from the business to use my own wireframes as a reference for the effort estimation task, in order to help the team meet their next deadline. Always ask yourself, “what if?”, and plan accordingly.
#3 Learn how to communicate your vision
“Nobody listens to me!” is a complaint you frequently hear from participants of the show, disappointed that their peers or project manager can’t see their “vision” for the task. Often a contestant will get frustrated when, after a half-hearted attempt to communicate their thoughts, they fail to convince their peers to adopt an idea (“let’s use the celebrities amongst us in the shooting instead of professional models”) or listen to a valid concern (“the concept for this ad is a bit risqué”).
Similarly, here at Bridging the Gap, and in emails I receive from BAs asking for help with work issues, it’s common for me to see BAs express their disappointment when management doesn’t listen or teams ignore good requirements practices.
The lesson for your success? Having a valid vision is not enough. You have to be able to clearly articulate it, as well as inspire and motivate people so they can understand why going there is worth the effort. Avoid becoming the whiner on your team: every time you mention a problem, make sure you also offer a solution. When you present an idea, don’t take it personally when it’s not accepted. People are not saying no to you as a person; they’re saying no to your idea in its present form. Learn to accept useful criticism about the idea to make it better. Ask more questions, listen to feedback, and try to understand your team’s and management’s framework, so you can transform all this knowledge into a winning strategy to sell your ideas to your team.
Has a TV show taught you any valuable lessons? Do share in the comments section.