The First Law of Agile Business Analysis:
I love talking about the value of Business Analysis in an Agile delivery model because I love history, psychology, and politics. I am delighted to be in a role where evangelising Business Analysis pays my mortgage, not just because I enjoy it but because I know (much like my mortgage repayments) it will never be complete.
I recognise that not everyone thinks as I do. If you struggle to define or understand the role of a BA in an Agile organisation, this blog is for you.
If you have only the time or patience to read one thing this is it,
The value of Business Analysis is through the facilitation of informed decision making.
Dr. Winston W. Royce first introduced the waterfall model of software development in a paper published in 1970. He proposed that much like the cascading steps down an incremental waterfall, the software development lifecycle should follow a logical progression of stages. The waterfall model is now so unpopular in software development we might apply a variation on Godwin’s Law, “As a planning discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Waterfall approaches 1”.
In the waterfall model of software development, the Business Analyst is responsible for eliciting and documenting extensive and complete software requirements before a single line of code is written.
You may hear “Agile values working software over comprehensive documentation ergo Business Analysts have no place in Agile software development.”
Remind the speaker that the value of Business Analysis is through the facilitation of informed decision making. In a waterfall model of software development, the Business Analyst is responsible for summarising the work to be done in a format which facilitates estimation and scope definition; the information needed by those with the money to make an informed decision on whether to spend it.
You may hear, “I’ve been a [tech role] for [implausible length of time]. I’ve worked with BAs in other organisations and everywhere I go they do something different.”
Reply with confidence that although the activities may vary the value delivered has always been the same.
The Second Law of Business Analysis: Decisions enabled, not activities completed, identifies the role of Business Analysis.
Airbnb’s first hire had responsibility spanning operations and product development. Instagram hired a “community manager” to keep users happy. Uber’s first employee was hired to be a “business development and product badass.” Pinterest’s first hire was a jack-of-all-trades who could help wherever he was needed. — source
Small, quickly evolving teams need generalists; therefore startups prefer generalists.
A Startup’s first hire is never a BA.
Startups are cool.
You may hear “We didn’t need BAs to become as successful as we are so I’m confused as to why we now need BAs.”
A classic variation on this is “We’re Agile so I’m confused as to why we need BAs, we value individuals and interactions over processes and tools”.
Subtext; we’re too cool for BAs and we think BAs are tools.
As an organisation grows so does the opportunity to benefit from specialists. Specialists can take an organisation to the next level by building out strategically critical areas and further developing competitive advantages. Specialists, with their more in-depth understanding of subject matter, can better spot and seize emerging opportunities.
If your organisation has successfully scaled you have specialists.
You might think specialists may have an easier time collaborating than generalists because it’s clearer how the work should be split up.
Nope. They’re worse.
The more specialised an individual the less fluidly they communicate with members of other disciplines. There are language barriers (death by acronym) and cultural barriers (death by meme). Effective communication starts to mean different things to different groups.
The slow down in communication is of particular concern to senior leadership as the more highly trained you are the more expensive you are.
The BA maximises the time skilled decision makers spend on delivering value through their expertise by sourcing relevant information on their behalf and providing them with only the information they need when they need it.
The Third Law of Business Analysis: Business Analysis adds value only indirectly.
By extension of the third law, unless a BA activity facilitates the addition of value by a decision maker (enabling a faster or better-informed decision), it has no value.
It doesn’t matter how textbook your artefact is, if it’s late or if it doesn’t make sense to the person you put it in front of, you’ve failed. Facilitating understanding requires an appreciation of both the source and the destination.
Before we move on, let’s briefly talk about the career evolution of an Agile BA, only because the above diagram shows the operating space of a mid-level Agile BA.
The role of a mid-level BA is to promote understanding between the decision making members of an already defined team — for the sake of argument, let’s call it a Scrum team.
The role of a Senior BA is to identify and represent complex information sources (i.e. legislation documentation, software specifications, processes or the priorities of a team) as though they were an individual and to promote understanding between the “individuals” of that newly defined team.
I’m just scratching the surface on this definition here. If you are interested in reading more I wrote a blog about it.
Agile has evolved beyond the manifesto, Spotify nailed it when they said;
Rules are a good start but break them when needed, Agile principles are more important than practices.
It is important to remember however that although standards limit our flexibility they also protect us. Rules can provide security and comfort. There are few situations in life as emotive as your ability to add value professionally and financially support yourself or those about which you care.
Although it is easy to approach a roles and responsibilities conversation as a purely academic event I believe it is cruel to do so. No role exists in isolation and the transfer of responsibility is inescapably political.
Key themes like the dilution of power, influence, and opportunity to shine are the least likely to surface and the most likely to undermine efforts to implement change.