Avoiding Elitism in Your Business Analysis Templates and Techniques

Hand of cardsA few weeks ago, I was travelling home from London on a rush hour train.  The train journey was scheduled to last a good couple of hours, so I took my seat, booted up my laptop and prepared to use the time productively.

I was getting into “the zone” and was really making progress when suddenly I was distracted from my rather mundane Word document by a strange and intriguing sound.  I could hear the sound of playing cards being constantly dealt, shuffled and dealt again.  For a rush-hour train, that is highly unusual.  Plus, this was no ordinary shuffle – I could hear it was a professional “riffle” shuffle that typifies two types of people: serious card players and serious magicians.  My curiosity got the better of me; I had to investigate.

I looked around the carriage, and found the person sitting across the aisle from me was the culprit.  Judging by his demeanour (and his attire) I guessed that he must be a magician.  For a few minutes, I was fixated, watching as he professionally dealt and shuffled the cards.

Clearly he was aware that I was watching him, as he asked me if I wanted to see a trick.  He then proceeded to perform a range of impressive card tricks, attracting the attention of most of the people in the carriage.  He was able to predict what card I would pick, he made cards appear and disappear and appear to “jump”.  For a normally mundane train journey this was quite a spectacle.

After he’d finished his mini-performance, I got talking to him.  I explained how impressed I was with his performance, and his shoulders lowered and he let out a hearty sigh.  I asked him what was troubling him and he responded a curious phase, “Bicycle playing cards and Sharpie pens”.  I looked back at him quizzically.

He proceeded to explain to me that, whilst audiences love his magic, other magicians view it as “kid’s stuff”.  He explained that the techniques he uses are simple—but they take perfection over many years to be performed seamlessly—and there is a certain element of “magic snobbery” over such tricks.  He explained, for example, that Professional Magicians are always expected to use Bicycle branded playing cards and Sharpie branded pens.  The audience won’t notice the difference, but if you perform in front of other magicians, they’ll pick this up.  Magicians are always looking for new ways to perform slight-of-hand, even though the audience wouldn’t care how the trick is actually performed.

I found this fascinating.  How could such a clearly talented magician be shunned by his peers?  Surely it’s the audience’s reaction that matters.

When I reached my home station, I was thinking a lot about this on my walk home.  I found it fascinating that there is Magic for Magicians.  This made me think – within the analysis community – it’s really important that we don’t indulge in Analysis for Analysts.  It’s important that we don’t focus on the toolset at the cost of forgetting the consumer. 

Drawing a parallel with the magician’s world, we need to keep the needs of our audience in mind.  So who are our audience?  They are the people who we interact with, who we elicit ideas from, and who read our reports, documents and attend our workshops.

The reality is that a business SME probably won’t care whether we use BPMN or a UML Activity Diagram – to them a flowchart is a flowchart—and frankly, some boxes and lines on a flip chart would do the same job for them.  A technical SME, on the other hand, may well need to understand the subtle differences that can be expressed by the semantics of a formal notation.  The art is to choose the right set of tools, techniques, notations and templates for the project and business context that we’re working in—as well as the right level of formality.

In magic, the art is in the performance and the aim is to wow the audience.  In analysis, the art is in the execution and the aim is to deliver successful change.  In both cases, tools and techniques are merely methods of achieving the outcome.

Choose wisely, and don’t be blind-sided by Bicycle Playing cards and Sharpie pens!

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  1. Santhosh Sushil says

    I have 4 years experience in Business Development. I want to switch to Business Analysis.Any suggestions transitioning

  2. Helen Westlake says

    I love this example. Reminds me of another BA who wrote about applying the YAGNI principal when it comes to documentation. YAGNI (in agile programming) stands for “You Aren’t Gonna Need It” – in other words, don’t produce documents that you (or the customer) won’t use. Just because I’m can produce a lovely 500 page document, if no-one is going to read it, why go through the trouble? Know your audience, and give them what they want!

  3. At my current client, they have a standard document template with all the right logos on the front and about 5 pages of boilerplate before you get anywhere near the content. Recently, I’ve been going off-process by producing mini functional design documents with a third of a page of boilerplace (document title, version and date, version history and one paragraph of document purpose) and then straight into the content. There is no table of contents, no section numbers, not even any font styles (I use bold for headings and that’s it). Because the functional scope of each document is small, each mini design is only two or three pages long, and the lack of structure doesn’t matter.

    The stakeholders love it! They like the way it gets straight to the point. The quality police, of course, hate it. But then who’s the audience?

  4. Card tricks are cool. Their simplicity is actually a highlight, because most people can tell that it is ‘simple’, but just can’t figure it out. Maybe a bit like many analysis techniques – they’re ‘obvious’ (“common sense”), right?

    You say that, “In magic, the art is in the performance and the aim is to wow the audience. In analysis, the art is in the execution and the aim is to deliver successful change.”

    The analysis part is the same for magic tricks – the art is in the execution (including the performance), and the aim is to deliver “successful change” (which wows the audience). If you don’t transform something, or do a bad job, there is no ‘wow’.

    I’m a fan of minimalism, so find that something slick and simple is impressive. That is what appeals to me in card tricks (and close-up magic in general). I try to apply minimalism to web design projects, and have quickly adapted to a career in technical writing, in part because being “concise” (minimal) is part of the ‘art’.

    Keeping things simple is effective. It could be considered ‘elitist’ in a sense too, because I see so much ineffective waffle in technical writing… I am sure BA documents are the same… clear, concise, and accurate presentation of information (writing or diagrams). ‘Smart’ stakeholders will not be duped by fluffy, elaborate documents that are the proverbial “smoke and mirrors”.

    Another thing to consider, the flashy magic performances on TV are quite often ‘fake’ (not really ‘magic’ in the traditional sense). They are beyond the ‘smoke and mirrors’, and use trick photography and stooges to “verify” that the trick is real. Street magicians cannot get away with that. They have to rely on their skilled execution (misdirection, slight of hand, etc). It is the effective execution of techniques that makes the simple into the magical, and I suggest that the same can be said for technical and analytical fields too. Smart stakeholders will be impressed by clarity and simplicity – the fact that they genuinely ‘get it’, and that it actually adds value to their business requirements.

    IMO – Bicycle playing cards are commonly used, but there are many other back-of-the-card designs which are suitable for tricks… most tricks can be done with any deck of cards, although a nicely coated surface makes handling easier. 🙂

  5. Thank you for this article Adrian. I enjoyed reading it, especially the last para. “In magic, the art is in the performance and the aim is to wow the audience. In analysis, the art is in the execution and the aim is to deliver successful change”.

    I’ve often come across complex requirements management tools that we also make our business SME’s use. These tools can get so complex that they end up being nothing more than a requirements repository rather than it being used as a requirements suite to manage requirements and change.

    I think the idea to be successful in the field of Business Analysis is to not have any pre-conceived notions and assumptions about the industry that we would be working in. Very often we come across analysts who consider themselves as being experts in a particular industry, which is very true. But these analysts are so deeply immersed in the methods and techniques of business analysis, some of their solutions tend to be complex and difficult to understand. The solution therefore is to take a step back and ascend to a level where the analyst gets a bird’s eye view of the processes and descend back again to a get a better idea of business at a granular level. This is nothing but the “dive- in” approach that was already shared earlier on this site.

    Also, while I was in sales a few years ago, I remember my Sales Manager telling me, “I don’t care how you achieve your targets, whether you go all guns blazing via cold calling or fix up appointments, or meet the customer for lunch. As long as I was ethical in my practices, at the end of the quarter, we’re going to see the number of units that were sold”.

  6. Hi Adrian,
    I think this article is great. Business analysts all too often seem to forget the ‘business’ component of their title and focus on their nifty analysis tools and templates, rather than what the business actually needs from them. I think that this often comes from unclear business goals and a lack of understanding about how a project traces back to what the business wants to achieve. Without strong business goals uniting an organisation it is very easy for business analysts (and everyone else within an organisation) to revert back to chasing their professional goals rather than organisational success.

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