Good to great: why some Business Analysts make the leap… and others don’t

Adriana Beal
Analyst’s corner
Published in
5 min readAug 18, 2020

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Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

You may have noticed that the title of this article is a play on the name of the bestseller book Good to Great : Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t.

In that book, Jim Collins went after an answer to the question, “How can good companies, mediocre companies, even bad companies achieve enduring greatness?”

For years, I’ve been asking the same question in the context of people, not businesses. What differentiates a “good” business analyst from a “great” one? Unlike Collins, I didn’t have a team of researchers working for me. Still, after almost a decade working as a business analysis consultant and 12 years coaching a substantial number of business analysts through hands-on courses, I have arrived at a few conclusions about what makes a business analyst “great”:

1) Great business analysts don’t merely “recognize business needs” or “find solutions to business problems”. They also identify and pursue important, underserved outcomes that deliver significant new value to their organization.

Business analysis is defined on many websites as “the discipline of recognizing business needs and finding solutions to various business problems”. I feel like this is a suitable definition if all you want is to be a good business analyst. It’s incomplete if your goal is to become a great BA.

Initiative-taking — the real deal, not the kind whereby an analyst waits for someone to identify a problem worth solving and then goes about solving it — is a big differentiator between good and great BAs. Star performers learn quickly to work more efficiently in their jobs in order to have time to look for systemic problems to solve. For example, identifying boring, duplicate data entries that are affecting entire teams and figuring out how to eliminate them. Or crunching the numbers to find that inactivity during the first 30 days after subscribing to an online service is a big predictor of customer churn and proposing a new onboarding approach to increase early customer engagement and retention.

Photo by Ameer Basheer on Unsplash

2) Great business analysts don’t sacrifice one dimension of performance to meet their target in another.

By the end of my 8-year journey as a business analysis consultant, I was leading a team of BAs and helping them improve their performance in key metrics such as requirements defect density, NPS (Net Promoter Score, collected via surveys with stakeholders), or on time delivery. What really struck me as a competitive advantage for some analysts was their ability to balance those different aspects of performance and still find time to innovate. With others, it was like they had to choose. Either deliver the requirements on time but with lots of gaps and omissions that later had to be corrected, or miss the deadline and deliver complete and correct requirements so late that the team felt they had no choice but to go ahead with some architectural decisions despite the risk of creating potential misalignments.

The fact that the analysts themselves had final say on how much time they needed to complete their requirements made it clear that the problem for the underperformers was not unreasonable deadlines. But those weren’t even “good BAs”; they were simply mediocre employees trying to stay afloat without putting the effort needed to quickly develop a true understanding of the needs to be met by the solution they were specifying.

Yet, even good analysts sometimes had trouble managing all aspects of their performance. Many would blame insufficient user involvement as the cause of late-breaking requirements, and in order to accelerate requirements development and avoid quality issues, they’d adopt an adversarial approach with their stakeholders. While their tactics may have worked in the short-term, they created friction and barriers for future collaboration (hence the use of NPS to gauge how well each analyst was doing in the eyes of their internal customers as a leading indicator of future success). Great analysts, on the other hand, would reject the idea that the cost of finishing work on time and with high quality was alienating stakeholders with a rigid process for gathering input, reviewing requirements, and testing prototypes.

(How did they achieve that? The answer is in reason #3 below.)

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

3) Great business analysts take responsibility for creating the change they want to see rather than making excuses about lack of cooperation.

Numerous BAs complain to me about how powerless they are to change things in their organizations. Leaders make their lives impossible by insisting on stuffing more features into an overly constrained project. Stakeholders refuse to come to their user interface design walkthroughs, only to insist on last-minute changes while refusing to renegotiate cost, resource, and schedule commitments.

While these may be “good analysts” in many aspects, they fail to perform at the level of the great BAs who know how to navigate the realities of few resources and little structural authority.

In the book How to Change Things When Change is Hard by the Heath Brothers, we learn about people who’ve created sweeping change only using their influential power. The list includes, among others, a student fresh out of college who saved an endangered species from extinction, a manager who plotted a way to get his colleague to stop acting like a jerk, and a therapist who reformed a group of child abusers.

As I wrote in Stop blaming others for your lack of influence power, “If you want your ideas and insights to be heard, you must learn how to tell the story behind those ideas and insights”. Great BAs know how to paint a picture of the group glory that will result from a successful product launch to convince stakeholders to collaborate with them as a way to accelerate that glory. Or how to stir imaginations and generate excitement about their idea to reinvent the company’s business model moving from selling infrastructure to guaranteeing results that prevent major delays and financial penalties for customers.

Conclusion

Business analysts who make the leap from “good” to “great” learn how to relentlessly shape new ideas that create superior value for their customers. They systematically seek evidence that supports their ideas and test their vision. They don’t see the risk of failing as a thread but as an opportunity to learn and progress. They explore multiple alternatives before picking and refining a particular direction. And above all, they know how critical it is to learn how to ethically persuade others to listen when they are trying to share useful information or create change.

What would happen if you you invested the energy to go from good to great?

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Adriana Beal
Analyst’s corner

Adriana helps innovation companies and startups gain business insight from their data and make better decisions. More at bealprojects.com