The Danger in Being an Expert

One of the biggest problems in the business analyst profession is that people expect us to be the experts. Over time, as we grow in a role within one organization, we build more domain knowledge and expertise and our area of focus can become increasingly narrow. Our managers come to expect us to become experts and in the process of being experts, we become more efficient.

As a BA consultant/contractor, I’ve been hip-hopping organizations so frequently, that I’ve rarely faced the “problem” of application expertise. When you are new, you are simply not the expert. And I have been lucky to find myself in completely new domains, facing new challenges, and new areas of knowledge to explore.

All of a Sudden I Had a Little Expertise to Offer

Then I was assigned a small enhancement project to help our marketing team scope a change they needed within Google Analytics for some reporting. Even though I use Google Analytics weekly to track the stats on this blog, I didn’t get the sense that I was being assigned as an expert, just that they wanted some more detail before they put the usual IT expert on the chase.

OK. No problem. I read the background information, come up with about 4-5 elicitation questions and get on the call for the meeting. But then through the course of the discussion, I realize that I know exactly how to solve the problem. A short discussion to validate that my solution would work in their environment and “ta da”, problem solved. No one from IT needs to get involved. I feel pretty darn good about myself.

I share this story because I would guess that many of us really like to be the experts. And when you are not hip-hopping from one contract to another, you’re not in the situation, like I am, where you can force yourself not to be the expert.

It’s Fun to Use Your Expertise and Solve a Problem

It also is very evident that you’ve added value to your organization. When I left that 45-minute meeting, there was no doubt in my mind that I had just earned my “billable time”. I knew I had. Not only had I given marketing the solution to their challenge, but I had saved at least a couple hours of management and development time coordinating the resources and investigating the problem. I had potentially saved countless hours of building a custom solution to the problem if the team had lacked expertise in the tool and the solution I happened to know about had not been discovered.

The Danger: Getting Stuck in an Area of Expertise

But where does this take my BA career? In my situation, I’m relatively safe for awhile. There are so many projects that this wee bit of application expertise I’ve been able to muster will not be pigeonholing me into a certain set of projects. Of course, I’m sure I’ll be the first one to get the next Google Analytics question and this could turn up a nasty project on my plate at some point, but it’s probably not going to cause a lot of headaches. It’s not going to limit my experience on this contract. But what if, like many of you, I was the expert on or SAP or a company’s proprietary system that a host of people use every day to do their jobs? If there were enough projects and small requests to keep me busy within my area of expertise, I’d probably be stuck for awhile.

And I think that’s where many of you find yourselves at this current point in time.

My point? Well, as we look at the world of business analysis and see a host of jobs that require industry and domain expertise and ask whether or not this is right for the profession, I want to challenge you to also look at yourselves.

There is a certain lure of being the expert.

It’s not that it’s wrong.

But it is limiting.

If you want to grow in the business analyst profession, you will not always be the expert. You will bring expertise in the ways of business analysis: elicitation, analysis, specification, and validation. You will be an expert communicator and problem solver. But you might not always be the expert or be able to solve the problem on the spot.

And actually, there’s more value in being able to facilitate a smart group of people solving a problem than to jump in and solve it yourself. You can solve much bigger problems this way.  But first, you’ve got to let go of your expectations that you can be (and should be) the expert.

A good question to ask yourself is: “Are my strengths grounded in my domain or technical expertise or my business analyst competencies?

10 thoughts on “The Danger in Being an Expert”

  1. Hi Laura, when I took your elicitation class in December, you made a comment to me about being cautious not to rely on interface analysis or application knowledge as the best or only route for analysis. This suggestion ran through my mind a few times since then. It was like I was chewing on it and trying to figure out how to use this piece of advice. And now, voila! I read this article and I understand.

    If I were to draw a pyramid to represent my skils, I would put my soft skills at the bottom as the supporting base. But, what a challenge to draw yourself away from domain knowledge if that is what is required. What I gather from this article is it’s good for the job, but may not apply completely to the career.

    This is definitely something I will think about when I look for ways to improve my analysis skills. Thank you for another great article!

    1. Felicia,
      I think it’s wonderful that you held onto that comment and chewed on it. Sometimes it takes awhile for new ideas to sink in. I’m proud of you. Expertise definitely has it’s place and can definitely be valuable in certain contexts. But any BA will do well to broaden their skill set and gain confidence in working in situations where they are not the expert as well.

  2. I view application expertise as a bit of a millstone around your neck.

    Every system that you gain “expert” status means the millstone gets bigger and bigger. Users come to you directly because you’re the person who can get things done. IT staff come to you directly because, despite your best efforts, the knowledge transfer didn’t take.

    And with every project that stone around your neck drags you farther and farther down.

    As Laura writes, it’s very easy – and it’s also very self-actualizing – to become the expert when working with users on a project. Digging yourself out of expert status is very hard, particularly if you don’t have management support. Often the only solution is the most final: time for a new job, in a new organization.

    I’m currently project manager for a new 3rd party barcoding solution, and I’m avoid “expert” status by not even knowing how to log into the systems I’m working with. We’ll see how long this lasts.

  3. Thanks Laura. I just recently went through this as I was trying to transition to another group at my current company. I have 8+ years BA skills and knowledge, (at various companies) and because I am not a SME in the respective area, I wasn’t seen as a strong candidate. Your advice helps me frame my talking points so I can still show how I am valuable without being a SME.

  4. @deemart, Excellent, excellent points. Your “soft” skills are uber-important and uber-valuable. Many, many managers will recognize that once they see the end-results of those skills in action.

    Let me hazard a bit of advice on the manager perspective when it comes to expertise. Often a manager will prefer a candidate or an employee with subject matter expertise because it can be much more efficient for them to get the job done. Positioning yourself to build that expertise quickly in new environments can help you help your manager meet their short-term objectives while also helping you achieve your longer-term career goals.

    To put it another way, it’s not that developing expertise is a bad thing. In the vast majority of cases, it benefits the BA to develop short-term expertise in the context of project assignments. But relying on expertise for job success tends to get a BA in a deep rut that can be hard to dig out of.

  5. This is something that I struggle with constantly. I want to bring more to the table, feel like I’m providing value, but I thought I needed to do that with becoming more of a SME. This has really helped me to realize that my “soft skills” of communication, relationship building, and facilitation are really what I’m bringing to the table. I wish more managers saw it that way.

  6. Thanks, David. I think that’s great advice for managers. In order to help your BAs develop professionally, it’s necessary to help them focus on projects outside of their immediate domain. It helps hone our BA skills and make us stronger contributors.

  7. Well said.

    As part of implementing requirements processes at clients, I always suggest that BAs do projects outside the domain they are in now, to allow focus on the requirements without trying to be the expert.

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