How Can I Add Value On Projects If I’m Not a Specialist?

Author: Adriana Beal

A reader asks:

I was hired 6 months ago as a BA for a financial company. The other BAs on the team are all specialists of this company/business and changed from specialist role to the BA role. They know how the business works. I do not know any details yet… How can I nevertheless add value in projects? How can I “score points”?

Do you have experience with business analysis? Planning the requirements process, gathering information, analyzing requirements into existence?

If the answer is yes, you are in luck! If not, read on for tips on how to get there.

In my 10+ years of experience as a business analysis consultant, I can’t recall one single instance of starting a new project with solid knowledge of the related business processes. You finish a project with significant knowledge of how the business works, but it’s perfectly fine to start with very little knowledge in this area. In some of my assignments, after I took the job, I was told by the hiring managers that at the end of the interview process they had to choose between me and someone with a lot of experience in the business domain. The managers selected me because of my business analysis skills, and they told me they never regretted choosing BA skills over business knowledge (which is also confirmed by the fact that I was later invited to come back to lead the requirements process for other projects, in different business areas that were again unknown to me).

A skilled business analyst does not need to have in-depth business knowledge to do a great job. She only needs access to the right business stakeholders: functional managers, executives, end-users, representatives from other areas impacted by the solution you are going to build. Being an SME  (subject matter expert) is not required for performing business analysis well. A BA may also be an SME, but it’s not necessary (and sometimes, even detrimental) to combine the two roles. This is because it’s easier for a specialist to become victim of confirmation bias, while a BA with little knowledge of the business domain will be more open to asking questions that may lead to better, innovative solutions.

As David Wright explains in his book, Cascade, most IT job descriptions include a requirement or preference for candidates with previous domain experience. However, while starting with more than zero knowledge can get things going faster and sooner, this advantage is relatively small when factored over large or multiple projects. It’s common to see projects in which people’s previous experience actually constrains or limits the solutions they recommend to the business. As Wright points out,

The cliché that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” applies here. If IT people know too much about the current business, they maybe unconsciously constrained when devising new IT solutions by “the way things have always been done here”. In extreme cases, this can lead to an IT staffer having the delusional belief that they know more about the business than the systems users and their management.

A business analyst with solid understanding of how to identify and document process flows, business rules, system and process interdependencies, business and functional requirements, quickly becomes an invaluable member of any project team. While the SMEs contribute with extensive knowledge of the whys, whats and hows of the business, the analyst provides guidance and leadership in getting to unambiguous goals and objectives, eliciting information needed to define the business problem or opportunity, and producing accurate, unambiguous, complete, valuable requirements in a fraction of the time it would take for an untrained SME.

If, however, you were hired as a BA without much experience and knowledge in business analysis techniques, reaching a point where you are able to add significant value to your project will require more effort on your part. I’d recommend finding help in the form of an experienced BA mentor from the same organization, studying requirements samples from the best authors (such as Karl Wiegers), and taking classes that focus on hands-on practice of requirements documentation, such as the one I offer in the My Business Analysis Career platform, Crafting Better Requirements.

In either case, you should keep in mind that your job is to help your team define a winning solution for the business problem or opportunity that is being addressed by your project.  Regardless of the amount of business knowledge you start from, with the right techniques, and access to the right people to confirm the requirements with those who are affected by the changes in their processes, you should be well-positioned to play a key role maximizing the value delivered by your project to the organization.

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  1. You are very welcome, David! And thanks for leaving your wise words for our readers.

    Any new and aspiring BA reading this thread: David’s book, Cascade (link in the article) is a great resource to help you better understand how IT can facilitate business change and optimize software project delivery.

  2. Thanks for the shout out!

    So I will re-emphasize the points by noting that if your title is Business Analyst, “Analyst” is the noun and “Business” is the supporting adjective. Being an Analyst is what you are hired for overall; get on a project for a brand new aspect of the business (like a new line of business, or incorporating an acquisition) and you will know as much as anyone else (i.e. nothing to start off) and use your analyst skills to shine….

  3. @Kirk: That’s always a good approach, to review the existing documentation. You can both learn about the business processes and help update the parts that have become outdated. It may be difficult for someone without much knowledge of the business domain to spot areas that seem incomplete or incorrect, but it’s a good exercise to try.

    I’d be careful though not to flood people with too many questions too soon (or you risk annoying SMEs instead of building a relationship with them). It’s OK to slowly develop knowledge of the business side, and focus on adding value by being a good facilitator, asking good questions, and helping the team identify and implement the changes that are needed to address a problem or opportunity.

  4. One option is to select some process and begin reviewing the existing documentation. It’s unlikely the documentation is 100% complete or correct, or that you understand all that’s been documented. When you run into areas that don’t make sense, don’t seem correct or complete, use that as an opportunity to do some investigating. That research has as one of its main objectives your development of relationships with the people involved–the business SMEs on the one hand, and the IT people on the other. Another important objective is to discover where non-value added time is spent in the process, and why.

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