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How to Be an Agile Business Analyst

December 04, 2008

By: Craig Brown 
www.modernanalyst.com

A question was asked in the Modern Analyst forums. I paraphrase:


"How does a BA do their work in an Agile project? Can you give some practical examples?"


I've thought quite a bit about this topic and have experience with BAs on agile developments as a project manager and business analyst.

 

As a project manager I get frustrated by (but understand) the analyst’s need to move through the sensible steps of understanding the problem domain, documenting it, socialising it and then briefing the solutions team. Many BAs struggle with breaking away from that paradigm, but to work in an agile style you have to get comfortable with the concept of 'just good enough.'

 

 As an analyst practitioner I took it upon myself to act as a proxy for the product owner – which in a corporate environment came with the challenges of multiple stakeholders, the fact that you are not the product owner and thus don't really have the final say, and a number of other challenges that typically stump people trying to move to agile.

 

My circumstances were unique in some ways. I had worked in the organisation for some time and had established good relationships with all the key stakeholders. They really did trust me with their requirements because, over time, I had learnt (and shown I had earned) their business.

 

I also maintained high bandwidth communications with the stakeholders throughout the project and kept them informed of what was happening and how the system was shaping up in the context of their business needs. And expectations were managed.

 

And, lastly, at the end of the development phase of the project we kicked back into formal gated style UAT and release management.

 

I think the things I articulated there are useful guidelines for any BA or Project Manager on any project, but these dimensions enabled an agile approach in a waterfall type environment. I put myself forward as the product owner and acted as a proxy for the business stakeholders.

 

Will it work for you?

It depends on where you are working and your relationship with your client groups. A while ago I put this question of the readers of my blog: "Can the BA act as a proxy for the client?" I got a resounding no from people that I respect and so I'll re-state that my circumstances above are probably the exception to the rule.

 

What I have learnt is that the BA can be a very useful person, and even play a crucial role, on an agile project.

 

Before I go on to speak about that I need to qualify what an agile project is: Originally when people talked about agile software development they were talking about precisely that: software development. The project community has always had a problem separating out the project lifecycle from the software development cycle. If you don't know the difference between these two concepts you need to go find out.

 

So anyway, projects run many software development activities and naturally the processes and methods bleed into one another. And agile development was soon mixed into the concept of agile projects. And that's fine, but it presents a set of challenges for organisations wanting to transition from one way of doing things to another.

 

Have you ever learnt to juggle? I did. Hours of practicing in front of my bed so I didn't have to bend down to pick up the balls all the time. But I practiced with three balls and if I try to juggle four or five it's just too hard. I could set aside the time and practice until I get it right, but really, I am satisfied with three. It works for me, so why sweat the effort?

 

Same goes for shifting project methods. Sure your project office is sick of spending months and millions of dollars on wasted projects, but the various other participants in the project aren't feeling the same pain.

 

And smart, talented business analysts are one of those groups that aren't feeling the pain. Really, in my experience, excellent business analysts are often enough of a catalyst to break the cycle of project failures. Good requirements management, stakeholder engagement and change management really will get you there, even in the most formal waterfall environments. So why do they have to shift their whole way of doing things? They have achieved mastery of their profession, and now you want them to throw all that away and start again?

 

Well, yes. An agile approach in an agile environment is so much easier for everyone on the project.

 

Unfortunately an agile approach in a non agile environment struggles. And that environment is basically the stakeholders, the project team and the organisation's bureaucracy. So you end up using hybrid methods like agile in the developer space but more structured at the top end of the project.

 

The antipathy business analysts often feel towards agile methods isn't helped by the caustic tone of the agile gurus who advocate direct interface between the customer and the development team. Several of them publicly disparage business analysts and actively promote their removal from the process. I think the key to getting master business analysts to work on agile projects effectively is helping them find a pain point they want to address, and finding a valuable place in the project for them.

 

The first point probably comes with either maturity – it's not all about them – or with a series of failed projects (naturally not their fault.). The second point – the BA's role – that was your original question, and it doesn't have anything to do with choices of models. I think the role of the BA on an agile project is two-fold. Your number one role and priority is to facilitate clear requirements. It isn't to document them and it isn't to elicit them. It's to facilitate their clear transmission to the development team.

 

In some cases this simply means scheduling and booking meeting rooms, while in other cases it requires the BA's professional questioning and modelling skills to draw out an idea and ensure it is elaborated sufficiently for the developers to understand the full dimensions and context of the requirement.

 

Developers should, ideally, be in the workshops where requirements are teased out, so documentation is a secondary aspect to this work. It is about facilitating communication.

 

It's also about making sure the client is fully considering other stakeholders. Enterprise scale projects often have many stakeholders, and in less mature organisations the product owner or project sponsor isn't always considering the needs of his or her peers. The BA can help with that.

 

So, you see my idea of the role of a BA on an agile project is quite different from the traditional and industry view of what a BA does. It becomes much more people focused and much more about understanding the drivers, values and context of the business requirements than the details of the requirements themselves.

 

I believe these are key success factors that all excellent BAs apply in their job no matter what the project methodology.

 

Craig Brown

www.modernanalyst.com

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