Demystifying Strategic Thinking in Business Analysis
One of my former business analysts on the team asked me this question recently; ‘I am really over being a BA. How do I move into strategy?’ I got to the realisation that she was associating ‘strategy’ with a job title which consists of certain tasks.
In my view, it appears as if for some business analysts, before becoming strategic, they have to be given a title ‘Strategic Business Analyst’. This I believe is the mystery that surrounds ‘strategy’ and ‘strategic thinking’, making it appear as a destination to reach, at some point.
The term ‘strategy’ has various connotations to various people. To some, it may represent ‘authority’, or be reserved for ‘smart people’, or linked to a ‘promotion’ of some sort, or a form of ‘recognition’ - reserved for ‘C’ level employees.
With this in mind, an argument can be made that ‘strategy’ carries both negative and positive connotations. When seen in a positive light– it energises people. However, in a negative sense, it can have a crippling and intimidating effect to the people on the other side of the fence – and be seen as a gatekeeper. This happens when it is associated with power and seen to be only for the chosen few. It's an unfortunate connotation associated with ‘strategy’, creating a false mystery around this concept.
We cannot dispute the fact that senior executives are tasked with giving strategic direction to ensure the success and sustainability of an organisation. In this case, a strategy is linked with providing a vision and should inspire employees to buy into it, and subsequently contribute towards its attainment. At this level, strategic thinking is an integral part of what the executives do. However, I do not think that strategic thinking should only be limited to senior management within an organisation. As a concept it can be seen as multi-layered, resembling an onion. It can be applied at various levels of the organisation and owned by all employees. In particular, business analysts should not feel like they need to be promoted to be ‘strategic business analysts’ to start applying strategic thinking to how they approach and perform their duties.
In its simpler form, ‘strategy’ means a plan to achieve a long-term goal. Thus, it starts by identifying a goal and then coming up with a plan for how you will accomplish that goal. It is quite simple. There is no hidden meaning.
There are no pre-requisites to be strategic in thinking, supposedly. However, the most significant barrier that we put on ourselves as business analysts, among other professionals, is the mapping of career paths designed by line management and HR departments of organisations. Such mappings imply that the more experienced or senior you get in an organisation, the more strategic you become. This thought process condones a linear view of growth. It inhibits the early onset of strategic thinking, and boxes talent into categories and phases.
Subsequently and indirectly, it creates a way of thinking that a junior and even intermediate business analysts, to a large extent, cannot be strategic in their thinking. The association of ‘strategy’ and ‘strategic’ thinking with seniority sends an unfortunate message that, until you get to a certain point in your career, you cannot be strategic. It positions ‘strategy’ as a destination that you can only get to via a promotion or a designated title. Until you reach that destination, you dare not think of strategic ways and means to solve business problems or come up with new projects or initiatives that can position your team or organisation to better service customers, or even suggests strategic process improvements in your team.
So what happens if you never reach that destination? It means you will never see yourself as a strategic thinker in your career as a business analyst. That is the most unfortunate thing that can happen to you in your job.
The linear career growth, as advocated and condoned in most organisational, personal development plans, often works against the concept of ‘thinking out of the box’, thus killing the confidence required by junior and intermediate business analysts to come up with innovative and ground-breaking ideas. It imprisons their minds and contributes towards the positioning ‘strategy’ and ‘strategic thinking’ as a gatekeeper. Incidentally, it often results in them feeling disempowered.
I believe that each business analyst regardless of the level of seniority can be strategic with regards to how they perform their business analysis function(s). The key lies in identifying the goal. Every good business analyst aspires to be regarded as a top performer by his peers and his stakeholders. However, for this goal to be achieved, there are a few basics that need to be considered. Getting these basics right does not happen by accident, it is as a result of a conscious decision to apply strategic thinking at a personal level.
Be professional. As simple as this sounds, you will be surprised how many business analysts, and colleagues in general, do not understand how key this ingredient is in the making of a top performer. A high performing individual always keeps his word, he takes pride in his work. He accepts ownership and commits to deliver on his promise. He watches what he says, where and how he says it. He carries and presents himself in a manner that is in line with a true professional – at all times. He understands that presentation is everything. He also understands that to gain confidence from his peers and stakeholders, he needs to display confidence in himself first. This confidence can only be gained through being prepared - all the time. He knows that there is a line between himself and his stakeholders or customers. Even though this line is not visible, it does exist.
Therefore, he does not take advantage of the friendliness of his stakeholders, and compromise on the quality of his work. He understands that his stakeholders are his customers, and they need to be treated as such, always.
Be flexible. Rigidity is the number one recipe for becoming irrelevant. A business analyst, with a strategic mindset, does not stay fixated on a particular way of doing things to a point where he is blind to see a change that surrounds him. Being non-receptive to change, including the requirements of his stakeholders, can quickly be picked up from his body language. He knows the importance of remaining level-headed and open-minded and willing to try different approaches. He always remains aware that the needs of his stakeholders and customers are ever evolving. As the customers change, he realises that he needs to change with them; otherwise, he is going to be left behind. To achieve the goal of being a top performer, a business analyst who is strategic in his thinking knows that he needs to embrace change. He is continually looking for better ways of doing things – through innovation, process optimisation and the creation of efficiencies.
Upskill continuously. This business analyst knows that the only way of growing is to continually empower himself and learn new skills, new technologies, new business models, and new customer insights drawn from the explosion of data at our disposal. He knows that to remain relevant, he needs to stay on top of his game. And, in his strategic thinking, he realises that he cannot achieve this by holding on to the notion that ‘We used to do things like this for the past five years, and that has been working well’. He is fully aware that such a mindset leads to stagnation, and annihilates any chances of being considered as the top performing business analyst.
He knows that he needs to show hunger to better himself continually, and by so doing, stands a better chance of adding value to the lives of his business stakeholders and help them come up with novel ideas of servicing their customers.
Stay Focused. This point cannot be over-emphasised. Being focused is not a gift or a talent. It is a conscious decision made by a business analyst who thinks strategically about building and sustaining his brand. To do this successfully, he acknowledges that he needs to de-clutter his mind and identify and get rid of time wasters and distractors. These can even include the company he keeps in the office, a bad habit of procrastination, starting too many things, and finishing nothing, failure to plan, or bringing personal matters into his workspace. He knows that he needs to be careful about these, as they can quickly shift his focus away from getting things done. When overwhelmed, he is not too proud to ask for help. The goal is to be a top performer, and his strategic thinking to achieve this goal guides him all the way.
Show passion. This is the fuel that drives a business analyst’s engine when the going gets tough, and fatigue or laziness kicks in. He knows the importance of ensuring that he is passionate about business analysis as a discipline because if not, he is probably in the wrong profession.
Self-introspection is crucial at this point. At all costs, he should avoid negativity. He is smart enough to know that negative people create negative energy around them, and this will eventually tarnish his image, and generate a repellant around him. He cannot be seen as a top performer if he carries negative energy around him. Negative energy can also not be hidden, as his body language is most likely to give him away. He is aware that this is not a great strategy to achieve the top performer status.
Build relationships. Again, this is something that is often talked about but not correctly practised. Authenticity should be a guiding factor in relationship building. A smart business analyst, whose goal is to be a top performer, respects the fact that stakeholders and peers are intelligent enough to pick up when he is being superficial and shows lack of genuine intent. The importance of good relationships is that it creates an environment of trust – and makes it possible for good and bad news to be communicated as early as possible, without any fear of reprisals or threat of punitive actions. Honesty is the foundation leading to trust.
As a business analyst whose strategy it is to be viewed as the top performer, he connects with his stakeholders and shows that he genuinely cares about their business challenges – without being pretentious. His strategic focus is simple - once his stakeholders trust him, they will start to trust his judgement, and he will be in a better position to act as their advisor in business related initiatives. What a better way to be in their good books as their go-to business analyst. It is all about strategic thinking leading to strategic positioning.
Master the art of influence. A business analyst cannot be a trusted advisor if he has not positioned himself as influential. However, he cannot achieve this just by being a nice guy, with excellent relationship building skills. While this is a good start, it will only buy him a limited ‘pre-paid’ airtime, which will eventually run out. A lot of hard work is required to grow, sustain and widen his sphere of influence. He needs to show understanding of the underlying concepts of the business he is servicing.
Further to this, the understanding of his business product(s) and service(s) outside of the IT system(s) is critical in earning him the respect to be listened to when he offers business advice. This business analyst is genuinely system agnostic and ensures that he develops and sustains transferable business analysis skills. The type of skills I usually refer to as ‘plug and play’.
He strives to keep his attitude in check, at all times. He does not hesitate to empower others by sharing the knowledge he has acquired to date. Hoarders of knowledge show lack of the ‘big picture thinking’, and often show traits of insecurity about being replaced by someone after they have shared all the knowledge they have. He understands that the more he shares knowledge, the more he becomes a subject matter expert in his field. He is on a mission to be a top performer, and his strategic thinking will not be deterred.
Last, but not least, he ensures that his strategic thinking at a personal level regarding his career growth is aligned with organisational strategy, which in turn is aimed towards maximising shareholder value. Once these two are no longer aligned, he is mature enough to consider moving on to another environment or organisation, rather than staying on and damaging his brand by being toxic to himself and his peers.
If you apply this strategic thinking to how you practice business analysis, you are bound to add immeasurable value to your current environment, without feeling like you need a promotion to be a ‘strategic business analyst’. Start where you make a difference in your thinking. It is inevitable that your superiors will spot you and start assigning you to strategic projects because they would have seen how you run your career.
About Edward Ngubane
Edward has been in the IT industry for almost 17 years. During this time he has worked as a systems developer, systems analyst, business analyst, business analyst manager, Head of PMO, Practice Lead (Business Analysis and Architecture) and Head of Business Analysis. He has setup and ran BA CoP’s, developed and mentored a number of business analysts and published papers on the discipline. He holds five degrees, two of which are at the Masters level - the M.Ed (Maths Education) and the MBA (Cum Laude) - both from the University of the Witwatersrand. Over the years he has received numerous awards, and is passionate about the business analysis domain.
This article was published exclusively for Modern Analyst on 12 November 2018.
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