The Second Ingredient That All Successful Business Analysts Possess

I’ve always been a big proponent of relationships and relationship building as the number one factor, at least in my view, for a successful analyst. They are critical to the work we do and require a significant amount of time and attention to finesse and hone.

In my travels away from Bridging the Gap, I think that I’ve learned something new about what might be the second most important ingredient for an analyst. Analytical thinking. In reality, I combine this with critical thinking, even though they are two distinct things.

It’s been difficult for me to spot this trait in people; one cannot necessarily notice good thinking like a nice tie or bad body odor. It’s there, but just under the surface. One really has to observe people working in order to spot good thinking.

So what am I talking about? Let’s look at some definitions first.

analytical thinking

the abstract separation of a whole into its constituent parts in order to study the parts and their relations


critical thinking 
disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence

It’s almost like I’ve found some old friends in discovering these definitions. For me, these are the missing pieces that I haven’t been able to put my finger on when I’ve seen something missing in an analyst’s ability. Conversely, these are also the things that I cannot identify as distinguishing factors when I see an analyst who has “got it”. I know we have all been talking about these skills for years as a collective, but I’m bringing them up now again because I’ve seen the light.

Analytical Thinking

The “…abstract separation of a whole into its constituent parts…” Yes! What could be more clear? When analysts engage on a project, this is the step, or series of steps, that are critical to taking a problem domain and deconstructing it for analysis and reconstruction. Without this, one cannot see all the many facets of a problem or opportunity nor be able to explore it on all sides.

Why? Because without deconstruction, one can only see the four sides and the top of the box. Deconstruction allows us to pick the box up, open it, take out its “stuff” and look at all the sides of said “stuff”. This is where the questions start to get asked and where thought begins to roam and wander into the “what-if” zone. This is where we test our theories and spitball about possibilities both positive and negative. This is where we separate what is critical to a project and begin the reassembly process that results in a viable solution.

Critical Thinking

The key piece for me here in the above definition is “…informed by evidence…”  This falls right in line with a thought I often express as, “Prove it!” Without the existence of evidence, analysts who employ critical thinking will be compelled to start asking questions about the validity of what is being told or shown to them. They might not understand why they believe whatever it is that they believe, but there is a gut instinct that makes them ask questions that others might not. Something is missing that prevents satisfaction of their curiosity for the truth in whole.

Critical thinking, for me, is similar to the checks-and-balances system we learned in school about government. It is just that — a governance mechanism over analytical thinking that seeks enforcement of thorough thought. When analysis has not been performed nor resulted in the “proper” answers, then critical thinking gets triggered to ensure that the analysis is completed. For an analyst with these two capabilities, it’s almost a compulsion that kicks into place to drive answers home.

Where Can I Buy that?

You can stay up as late as you like after the cheesy movies are over and wait on the infomercials to sell you analytical thinking promos with a bonus of critical thinking, but all you’re going to come away with is a set of Ginzu knives and a SHAMWOW! moisture suckerupperthing. These two characteristics are inherent in many people, but they can be taught. Those seeking to develop these skills don’t have to live a life of misery without them, but attaining them might require learning and practicing some thought exercises that get the brain to engage in new ways. There are many, many resources available in books and on the internet, as well as seminars and courses that teach both qualities of thought.

Fortunately, this is great news for the analyst community, because once we each learn these capabilities, we are able to encounter new challenges and conquer them without as much blood, sweat and tears. So the question is really about how we learn these skills. It starts very simply, and that is the good news.

Start the practice of asking questions that you would not normally ask about things. My favorite questions is, “Why?”  That is because in order to answer it I have to think about the question in different ways, so I can answer it the best way. For instance, if I’m looking at a box on the ground in bright sunlight, I might ask myself why the shadow on one side of the cardboard is obviously darker than that on another side. Only through discovery and inquiry will I find out that the brighter side of the box is picking up reflected light of the ground. This is analytical deconstruction in which I break down the problem into smaller bits or questions.

PROVE IT!…comes next. The critical thinking part. How can I prove that my answer or hypothesis is THE ANSWER? Hmmm…what if I took some non-reflective cloth and laid it on the ground to block the light? Would the shadow still appear brighter? Again, I am asking questions about what I had previously taken for granted or assumed.

To continue your education, there are some REALLY good courses online and at local universities in critical thinking, less so in analytical thinking. However, combine a critical thinking class with some business analysis discipline, and you just might be on your way.

There are a number of blogs about critical thinking. (You can check out a list of my favorite critical thinking blogs.) Most have nothing to do with business analysis in any way, but in every way they do. Read a few posts on each one and pay attention to the line of questioning and the drivers for answers that these people bring forward. It’s the same when you apply critical thinking in another domain, just a different subject.

I wish you all well…

9 thoughts on “The Second Ingredient That All Successful Business Analysts Possess”

  1. Thanks Mike…and good to hear from you.

    Your reply spurs a related question that I’d like to open for commentary. Since we can agree that thinking is important and we wish to find out if one can think in the interviewing stage, exactly what do you do during the interview that tells you a person can or cannot think at the level desired?


  2. Strong article Doug! I couldn’t agree more with your premise. When I interview prospective BAs, fully half of my interview questions are geared toward figuring out whether or not the candidate can “think”. And these more often than not, are the deciding factor on the hiring decision.


  3. Thanks Joan and Tom

    Sometimes a simple reminder that it doesn’t need to be so hard goes a long way.

  4. Thanks Simon

    Here’s a few more links:

  5. Good article, the definitions of analytical thinking and critical thinking are enlightening.

    Could you please make the list of critical thinking blogs available in another way? I don’t have a Delicious account which you seem to need to access this list.

  6. Here are a few links for you Allison

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