How to Avoid Project Land Mines: 3 Tips for Finding the Backstory

As a BA, joining a project that has been in force for some time can be challenging.  There are normally a whole host of previous decisions that have been made, and it’s likely that key members of the project team will have already formed a working relationship with each other.  You might not know the domain, the stakeholders or the business unit yet.  And on top of all of this, some projects are shrouded with secret and subversive politics – but you won’t know this when you first join.  In these cases, the project can start to feel like a minefield, and if you don’t uncover the politics quickly it can be very easy to inadvertently step on a mine!

Warning sign which reads - "Danger!! Mines!!"

It can be difficult to avoid the mines when joining a new project. Understanding the project backstory helps.

Projects are like movie characters – they have a ‘backstory’

Great BAs are able to quickly immerse themselves into projects and pick up the critical information.  One useful technique is to look for the project backstory.  You may have heard the term ‘backstory’ before – it’s often used to describe the background to a film, story, or character.  It is defined by Wikipedia as:

“..the history of characters or other elements that underlie the situation existing at the main narrative’s start.”

In fictional works, the backstory will often be exposed gradually as the main story unfolds.  The same is true of a project… the longer you work on a project, the more of the history you’ll discover.  However, you can get a significant head-start (and find out where the mines are buried) if you proactively look for the project backstory as soon as you join.

Avoid the mines by looking for the backstory

When looking for the backstory, you’re aiming to understand the significant events, attitudes and decisions that have shaped the project ever since it was conceived.  Some of the project backstory will be written down in formal documentation, but often a huge amount isn’t.  In fact, the most interesting information is likely to be ‘informal’ and only available by asking the right questions!

The following tips can help:

1. De-mystify the stakeholder landscape:  The first step to understanding the project backstory is to understand who has an interest or influence in your project.  Work out who supports and who is less-than-supportive of your project.  Good quality stakeholder identification, analysis and management can help here.  Once you have identified stakeholders, engaging them and building rapport is important.

2. Buy coffee:  One of the most powerful and often under-rated ways to find out the hidden and unofficial parts of the project backstory is to buy coffee or lunch for your co-workers. Take the opportunity to ask them questions about the project, why key decisions were being made.  Clearly, you’ll want to ask project-specific questions, however some useful generic questions are listed below:

      • What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started work on this project?
      • Tell me a bit about the project history, what are the significant events and decisions?
      • What is our biggest risk or issue?
      • Who are the key players, and who is the most important stakeholder in your view?
      • Who is our biggest supporter?
      • Who might try to block the project?
      • Is there anything contentious or controversial about this project?
      • Are the timescales realistic?
      • Is there anything else I should know?

3. Keep an ear to the ground:  Always remain vigilant and trust your gut.  Try to read other people’s body language – are some stakeholders seeming resistant?  Perhaps there’s a reason… a tactful conversation in private might uncover a vital piece of the backstory. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t.

As the project progresses you’ll find out more and more about the project backstory; however, by considering these pointers at the outset, you’ll have a head start.  Keep the backstory in your mind as the project progresses, and it’ll help you avoid those land-mines!

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Comments

  1. Obed Yeboah says

    great article am in my first year in uni studying business information technology to become a business analyst. your article is very understanding which will help me a lot. is there any way i can keep intouch with you through email am also following you on twitter

  2. Great article Adrian,

    In addition to your tips, I would add this one:

    – When you start with your 1-on-1 interviews with stakeholders, make sure you do NOT have a strict agenda for the first meeting. Just listen carefully, let the conversation go where ever it wants to go, and more often than not the stakeholder frustrations will surface by themselves.

    • Erik, glad you enjoyed the article!

      Thanks for your comment – that is so true, and a very valid point. Normally when I start with my initial fact finding interviews, I ask *very* broad, open-ended questions and see where they take me. I’m always amazed at how much I discover that way.

      Thanks again for your comment, take care,

      Adrian.

  3. Adrian
    It’s funny you aligned this issue to the movies. I’ve often felt that I was in the middle of spy drama when trying to decipher the political landscape that is part of a project’s skeleton. All the extra covertness, blame assessment (and dodging) and smoke-and-mirrors to make bad situations look like a field of flowers is exhausting. Thanks for the tips….especially about more more coffee.

    • Doug, thanks for your comment. I really like your “spy” analogy – it’s really apt. In the past I’ve felt a bit like a “double agent”, having to sneak structured analysis techniques into the business. Of course, as soon as the business see the value of analysis, my “double agent” cover is blown – but that’s a win/win situation!