Measuring the Performance of Business Analysts – Book Review

I haven’t typically been a big fan of measurement programs

As a reviewer of early drafts of Adriana Beal’s eBook, Measuring the Performance of Business Analysts (2010), I approached the topic with a bit of trepidation. I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences and can relate to the “measurement wariness” that concerns many business analysts. Before diving into how Adriana’s book shifted my perspective, I’ll share a bit of my career background. It’s likely we have a lot in common.

I am currently an independent consultant, but my most recent full-time position was Director of Enterprise Solutions in a consolidated technology group supporting 5 independent business units. I was responsible for project management, business analysis, and quality assurance and built a 15-person team over the course of my 3 years with the organization.

But at heart I have always been and still am a business analyst.

What expectations do you set for a BA, anyway?

One of my many challenges as an inexperienced manager was setting clear expectations with my staff. It was apparent to me how to evaluate the performance of my project managers and quality assurance engineers. My best project managers kept projects moving, overcame obstacles, and helped teams meet realistic deadlines. My best QA engineers helped create higher quality products by reducing the number of defects released into a production environment and reducing risk. My best business analysts? Well, I never had a good answer to that question. It was more like how many of us think about art — I knew great business analysis when I saw it, but I didn’t have a clear explanation for what made it great. I was told that this was because BA was my passion and I was “too close” to the role. Maybe so.

Since leaving the organization I’ve continued to struggle with this concept. I have identified a collection of principles that I feel great business analysts deliver on: clarity, alignment, and order. While these are much clearer than “I know it when I see it,” they are not measurements. I continued to struggle because it just doesn’t to make sense to measure BAs based on the number of requirements they produce, and often what one person considers a “missed requirement” is another’s “poor design” and another’s “the customer would never do that!” Because the BA is primarily responsible for creating clarity around scope and reducing (but not always eliminating) ambiguity, we are nearly always starting with an unknown and our targets can be fuzzy. Starting with an unknown makes measurements impossible, right? And to top things off, we business analysts are dependent on our stakeholders and given zero control. Our stakeholders can skip our meetings, send uninformed proxies, give us bad information, or lead us astray.  Nailing down requirements is no simple feat. Maybe that means it’s not a measurable feat either.

I’m sure this sounds familiar. I expect many of you share these opinions. What I learned from Adriana’s book is that all of the above is valid and can be true, but is not a reason to side-step measuring business analyst performance.

What I also learned to accept is that it’s also not an excuse for measuring soft skills, such as stakeholder satisfaction and communication, or resorting to a list of deliverable-centric measurements that have no impact on true BA success. No, Adriana taught me that it is possible, if plain difficult, to discover and implement performance measurements that can actually help you improve BA performance.

It’s time to stop making excuses

The hardest part to realize was that I had been doing my business analysts a disservice by not creating measurements that they could use to evaluate and improve their own performance. And so are you if you bought any part of my story as an excuse for delaying your own measurement program or relying on easy measurements that are not actually driving improved performance.

Measuring the Performance of Business Analysts (2010) addresses this critical, strategic topic within the business analysis profession. The book’s stated purpose is to “help managers and business analysts increase their understanding of why measure the business analysis work, what to measure, and how to use performance data to identify problems and opportunities, improve their BA practice, and achieve performance gains.”

Adriana’s interest in the topic was piqued early in her career when her performance was measured by productivity and productivity had little to do with work quality or organizational results. Adriana definitely takes these early experiences to heart, dedicating a significant section of the book to how the wrong measurements are worse than no measurements and how to determine what measurements will actually be valuable to you and your BA team. But the booklet is not a result of just a bad experience, which many of us have had. Adriana goes beyond identifying what could go wrong, and provides a framework for building a meaningful BA performance measurements program, applying what she has learned and practiced over her 15 years of working with organizations to improve their processes and measurement systems.

How Adriana will help you

First, Adriana takes time to frame up the problem. She introduces why we can and should measure individual BA performance and ties this directly to something we should all care about – improving our delivery.

Second, Adriana takes special care to help the reader understand the types of measurements that will lead to increased BA success and result in improved delivery. She uses examples and real-world stories of measurements-gone-bad and follows them up with prescriptive ideas for how to not repeat these mistakes. She clearly explains how to put performance measures into context in order to ensure that external factors that can affect individual performance (such as process, management and stakeholder issues) are isolated and BAs are not held accountable for these uncontrollable factors.

Finally, Adriana shows you how to use performance metrics for learning and improvement. This is where your manager bells start going off like gang-busters. How many conversations have you had where the gist of the conversation was, “Well, that doesn’t seem like the best you could do” or, “I suppose that was a tough situation and I know you did your best.” There is so much ambiguity in the situation, the role, and the accountability for the individual BA that you just can’t do much better. Putting in place the right kind of performance measures shifts the conversation from the employee to the measures, the context, and how to improve. The result of this conversation might involve filling a competence gap, addressing a stakeholder or management issue, or tweaking the performance system. And when you begin to find top performance, you have the tools you need to discover its root cause and leverage it to the benefit of the entire organization, a topic she addresses in “Finding the bright spots.”

One thing Adriana doesn’t do, that will prove more helpful than it seems

What Adriana does not do, which is a core part of the book’s strength, is offer you a measurement program. There are no prescriptive or easy answers in this booklet. This might seem like a weakness at first blush, but she is actually doing you a huge service. It’s much easier to provide a straightforward program that promises (but fails) to deliver great results for your organization. It’s also easy to share the details of a system that has worked at one organization in the past. But if you implement any of these systems without due diligence, you  risk investing a lot of effort only to realize a that while your measurements have been changing, not much has really changed. Or, worse yet, your measurements are trending positive but team performance is tanking.

Adriana does what is much more difficult to do – she breaks apart the decisions that go into creating a solid program so you can build one that fits within your organizational context.  Instead of delivering a simple solution to a difficult problem, she teaches you the principles that will help you solve your own problem.

I think the author says it best:

“For far too long the efforts to improve the business analysis work have been faith-based initiatives. This ebook builds on the foundation of extensive research on what really matters to achieve top performance in organizations to provide practical guidance for business analysis groups interested in studying their performance problems in a more methodical manner in order to identify what factors affect their performance most, and use data, not opinions, to drive their improvement initiatives.”

Adriana has not only authored a valuable addition to our BA professional library, she is also donating 100% of all proceeds to Dr. Mani Children’s Heart Foundation to fund heart surgery for under-privileged children in India. Great book. Great cause.

Pick Up Your Copy of Measuring the Performance of BAs

I’d recommend this book highly to anyone in a position to oversee the work of business analysts, including BA managers, IT managers, operational managers, or project managers. It’s also a great resource for the senior business analyst looking to showcase thought leadership around BA performance measurement within their organization.

Click here to learn more about Measuring the Performance of Business Analysts.

 

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Comments

  1. Thank you, Laura, for such a thoughtful (and positive!) review of my ebook. I wanted to add here a comment I recently made in LinkedIn in the context of a question about a “standard for requirements specifications”:

    “It seems to be part of human nature the desire to have a ‘standardized approach’ for everything. I receive tons of related requests from BAs, going from ‘a universal set of metrics to measure BA performance’, to ‘a template for the perfect SRS’ or ‘the best technique to elicit requirements’.

    We’ve all heard the adage ‘Nobody gets fired for buying IBM’, and I think the same meaning helps explain this quest for the ‘ultimate standardized approach’: a desire to play it safe by going with a trusted, well-recognized approach that no one can use to question our competence.”

    It’s so important to avoid the “one-size-fits-all syndrome” in measurement that, on purpose, as you mentioned, I didn’t propose a prescriptive set of measures in this work.

    However, as a starting point for managers that don’t know where to begin, and wanted a framework that they can tailor down, as opposed to build up based on the principles of the ebook, I wrote a paper called “REPM: A Measurement Framework for the Software Requirements Process”. As Laura mentioned, only until Friday the framework is being provided for free for buyers of the ebook. (A small portion of the proceeds go to support the Bridging the Gap website, and the rest goes to a charity helping underprivileged children in India, so this may be a good opportunity for anyone involved in a measurement initiative or thinking of starting one to grab their copies.)

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