Conversation #17 — David Beckham, Senior Business Analyst, Aviva

I met David at the IRM Innovation, Business Change & Transformation Conference Europe this year and was intrigued by his unique combination of experience — not only is he a veteran of a great many corporate change programmes, but he also has first hand experience of having great personal change thrust upon him. And any speaker that says ‘Whoever came up with the concept of the ‘burning platform’ should be put on one’ gets my vote 😄.


So David, obviously your name must get you a lot of initial attention, but I gather you had it first.

Yes, I suppose I’ve got twenty odd years on him, but it’s good for a person who likes presenting and speaking because it gives me an immediate opening line. I can walk up there and say, ‘sorry for the sense of disappointment you must all be feeling.’

It was a pain when he was very famous though, because you get some stock questions. At one point, I thought if I ever write my biography it’ll be called ‘No, Not The Footballer.’ The other question you get a lot is, ‘I bet you wish you had his money,’ which is normally answered with, ‘well, duh!’

At the end of the day, it helps me be remembered, so that’s quite helpful. And he’s probably fed up with being asked, ‘Are you that senior business analyst from Aviva?’ It must be hell for him as well, I would imagine.

So now we’re sure you’re not the footballer, can you kick us off with a potted history of who you actually are and what you do?

Well, I joined what was then called Norwich Union and is now called Aviva way back in 1986, and I’m still there. I’m not sure whether that’s down to a devastating lack of ambition or fanatical loyalty! It was a family business, because my father worked there for 39 years and met my mum here. She did 7 or 8 years before they got married and I came along — I almost literally owe my soul to the company store, to quote from the song.

You’re an Aviva baby.

To be honest it’s worked out pretty well. I never particularly thought about a career here, but after I left sixth form I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I ended up gravitating here after a year in various fields working in archaeology, of all strange things. Dad got me an interview and I ended up being in Pensions Administration. I had no idea what that was, but I did about 8 or 9 years in Pensions Admin across a range of products and then got chucked out because I kept asking awkward questions, like ‘why are we doing it that way?’ and ‘surely there must be a better way of doing this,’ or ‘this seems silly to me’.

I was transferred to what we then called the Vision Business Unit, in a separate building in Norwich, and I went into Change Projects in ’95. It was the best thing that ever happened because I went from an in-tray/out-tray environment to ‘this is what we need to do, we don’t care how you do it, but we need results by x date’. The first big project I worked on was to reorganise and build a call management system for a call centre. This was in the days when the call centres were really kicking off, and it was a huge project.

I worked with a great bunch of people, probably because we were all a bit maverick and we’d all been thrown out of similar admin departments. It was like a sort of creative gulag, and that’s where I was introduced to something called Business Process Re-engineering, and I’ve had an enduring love of post-it notes ever since.

We re-mapped the entire call centre process, built a system around it, did the training, did the presentations — I was lucky enough to be selected to do the presentations to the senior Aviva board members and the press, which is where my presentation career kicked off. So that was a hugely positive accident. Then, in the early 2000s, perhaps a little bit earlier than that, we implemented a major change and transformation programme called Catalyst which involved IBM, so we adopted the IBM professional practice structure.

That meant we had project managers, business analysts, and solution designers, and I naturally gravitated towards business analysis. Up until that time I’d been called a project consultant, so I was actually one of the founder members of our business analyst practice. I did two terms as practice lead, trying to drive the agenda of the practice in terms of its development and direction. And then I started presenting at conferences, which kicked off a different aspect of my career. But I suppose the big milestone for me was being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2010 when I was 43. I had a choice then of either dealing with it or not dealing with it, and I dealt with it by talking about it.

I believe helping people through change isn’t just about processes and IT and job titles, it’s an emotional and also intellectual experience.

I realised we all go through change and it’s easy to work in change and think you’re good at it until something comes and slaps you in the face. I learned a lot about how people react to and deal with change as a result of my diagnosis. I believe helping people through change isn’t just about processes and IT and job titles, it’s an emotional and also intellectual experience. Aviva has been great: they’ve allowed me to take on a full time learning and mentoring role within our practice community (about 120 people) and that’s what I do now. I mentor and write development material, write training material, help people develop their skills but also help people go through change.

So it’s been a bit busy, the last 30 years.

Yes, you’ve packed a lot in! I find it fascinating that you have this dual experience of change in that initially you were, for want a better word, inflicting change on people and then having gone through a big personal change, you’re now more interested in how change feels. As a Comms person, I’m often in the position of trying to persuade people that change is a good idea or trying to get people to move through that process of accepting change. Could you tell me what your experiences have been of trying to get people to change in a large organisation like Aviva?

I love the term inflicting change: in the nicest possible way, that’s what you’re doing. You’re imposing change on people and it’s very easy to assume that everybody will get on board with that. But there’s often a visceral reaction to change which people can’t help. It changes them from one state where they’re very comfortable, to a new state where they’re less comfortable, and that kind of transition always involves some sort of feeling of threat. Because of the way our brains are hardwired, threat will always trigger a fear response, so you tend to get one of the subconscious 3 Fs: Flight, Fight or Freeze. You can see them in people’s reactions to change, for some they’ll fight it: “No, this will never work, this isn’t good enough for what we want it for”. Then there’s the flight reaction, where people won’t attend meetings, they’ll avoid being drawn into the conversation. And then there’s the freeze reaction: people might attend but they won’t participate, so it’s like they’re hiding with their hands over their eyes going, ‘if I hide, the change won’t see me.’

I can see those kind of primal reactions in the way people deal with change, but they also trigger off other reactions such as rumour-mongering. This is because the brain, when threatened, is so hungry for information on how to avoid the threat that it will take on board anything that seems reasonable. As a business analyst I used to think it was a case of saying ‘here’s a process model, here’s a user case or user story, this is your change, off you go.’ But it’s a much more a human and emotive process.

Do you get involved in engaging people early in the process of planning or deciding what the change should look like? Have you had experience of that?

Yes, it’s a bit of both in our role here. We can be involved in scoping and planning the change but we tend to be primarily involved in defining it, and then we also have an advisory role in implementing it. I know BAs who get involved in writing training material or who may be present within teams when changes are being implemented. I think there’s often an idea that the BA just does the IT requirements for a project and that’s a challenge for the profession to address, because BAs potentially do a lot more than that. They help define the scope and breadth of the change and, if they’re trained or knowledgeable enough, they can also help people adapt to the change.

A lot of change fails because it’s not communicated in a particularly effective or inspiring way at the start.

We have various official models. There’s the Change Curve, otherwise known as the SARAH Model, about how people go through change. There’s Tuckman’s Team development model and if you’re aware of that, you know it’s okay for teams to argue at certain points. But people in that team may feel very uncomfortable during that stage. I suppose I see myself more in the pastoral role in the sense that you’re guiding people. I have a belief that BAs need to be very good storytellers, and that probably resonates with your communications experience because if a story is told well and authentically, people will take it on board. A lot of change fails because it’s not communicated in a particularly effective or inspiring way at the start. People then don’t understand why they should bother going on the journey, and people who work in change need to think more about the story they’re telling to people, rather than ‘here’s the new button you have to push on the system’.

Absolutely — the change that comes to mind specifically for me was working for a big organisation moving offices from a really cramped, fairly nasty 1960s office block to a brand new, purpose built gorgeous environmentally friendly building in the centre of town, but there was a failure to communicate the joy and the vision and the positives about it. Which meant that everyone hunkered down and said, ‘we want to stay in our 1960s office block please!’

Amazing. It only takes one miscommunication or lack of communication to really thwart any good that change is looking to do, and it makes my teeth hurt when I see poor communication. If there’s an important message with a typo in it, people will predominantly remember the typo rather than the message. Little things like vetting and proofreading make all the difference.

You have a piece on your blog on how you measure the value of what a BA does. I was really interested in something you said about acting as a moral and ethical conscience of a project. Do you think the BA role has evolved since it first came along, and is that in response to the way the world has changed?

I think the BA role is evolving more now - in the last three or four years - than it ever has before, because it’s now recognised as a profession. We have a government sponsored apprenticeship scheme and I am now teaching and mentoring people who chose to be a business analyst. I kind of wandered into it and a lot of people at my point in their career probably had the same experience, because it wasn’t a job when we got involved in projects.

Yes, the IRM conference last year was my first experience of meeting people who describe themselves as business analysts. And I had that reaction: ‘so what’s that then?’

That’s the other thing, it’s a profession that’s incredibly difficult to describe. A lot of people say, ‘oh, you just do requirements’ or ‘you run meetings’ — er, no. It’s very difficult to quantify what we do: we lead from the middle and we’re looking to get the best outcome for the organisation. That might not be the same outcome that the project sponsors are looking for. There’s a movement away from what I call the requirements shepherd, e.g. the person who stands at the flip-chart and just captures stuff. Now there’s much more awareness that we are there to look at the impact, look at the benefits case, make sure the benefits are being realised, make sure that the best thing is occurring for the company at enterprise level rather than the specific project you’re on. Because one can jeopardise the other, so it’s a wider remit in terms of the requirements process.

Going back to your point about the moral and ethical aspect, I think the world is changing so fast now that anyone performing this role has now got to know so much more about the questions they have to ask and think about. Systems thinking teaches us that poor measurement drives poor behaviour, and I’m lucky, I’ve never had to work on a project where I have had to ask if what we’re doing is ethically ok. But somebody designs cold-calling processes, somebody designs measures that drive the wrong behaviours and somebody has to think about whether this is the right thing to do. We used to just worry about whether the process model is in vertical or horizontal swim lanes, and is the user case model specified correctly and is the data right.

There are all sorts of different questions BAs now have to ask. Security is huge, the cloud generates problems of its own, we have artificial intelligence and robotic processes coming in. These are all things that I have to know in an academic capacity but on top of that you then have the ethical considerations. Is this the right thing to do? How is this going to play out on Twitter? That’s one of things we talk about here now: if this was to be implemented, how could it play out on social media? Because the way the world reacts now to things is so different than it was when I first started in the age of steam.

There’s an awful word they use in politics — ‘optics’ — which is about how something will look, not necessarily what it will do but how it will look to the general public. And it’s a new consideration.

One of the basic tenets I reinforce when I train is that a BA is only as good as the questions they know they have to ask. There are so many more questions that I believe we have to ask now to implement change effectively that I think the profession is going to have to change quite dramatically in the next five years. We’re at a point where people of a certain generation want to hold onto or obscure their data and yet you have a younger generation who seem fine with sharing virtually everything. How does that play into a world where you have data protection regulations? The ways that people use and share information are changing so fast, and we introduce change so quickly that it’s almost impossible to decide whether something is a good idea.

Do you think there will come a time where there will be specialisms within the role — BAs who specialise in AI, for example? Or do you think the role itself is asking the difficult questions but not necessarily being the person to provide the answers?

I think there’s part of both in the answer. There could be specialisms within the business analysis profession, you may get BAs who are more comfortable working in data type programs or cloud type programs or bringing robotic processes or artificial intelligence into organisations. But one of my catchphrases is ‘the only specialism we have is generalism,’ — we know a little about a lot. We’re not tall, thin people, we’re shorter, wider people, but I think BAs will have to know a little about a whole lot more.

At the conference last year I found myself thinking I’d quite like to be a BA, because I think Comms people have a similar quality of knowing a little about a lot, and not being deep specialists. What do you think makes a good BA?

The kind of person who, when they were young, had taken all their Christmas presents apart and put them back together again by tea time, before the Christmas episode of Doctor Who. People who have sat in traffic and analysed which set of traffic lights they should go through to make their journey home quicker. Being a BA is sometimes like having an itch in your head, because you look at something and think ‘this could be done so much better’. Don’t get me started on automated check-in processes, because that can be a pain for people who just go through it normally but when you have a physiological condition like I do and I’m off my meds, trying to check-in, get your wallet out, get your passport out, do your paperwork while still holding onto your luggage is a nightmare. I think as a BA you want to know how the world works and you have a great deal of fun helping other people figure it out.

We have a broad spectrum of recruits at Aviva at the moment: we have people being recruited internally, we have people coming through universities and we’ve now got an apprenticeship scheme as well. The ones who have come in from an academic background are used to having their work marked, so they’ve got this drive to produce the best they can. But the great thing about being a BA is if you put a diagram up on a whiteboard with two circles and an arrow between it and say this is what I think the problem is, and then people rip that apart for an hour, you can just sit there and smile because you’re doing your job. You’ve provoked the debate. People coming from an academic background sometimes struggle to get that, because they want their context diagram to be 100% right. Actually what you want is the conversation, that gives a lot of the detail.

Once you become comfortable with the BA role, you realise a lot of it is letting go.

People coming internally often have a fear of going onto a project that doesn’t involve a familiar product or process, but it doesn’t matter, because they are there to get to an outcome, not to provide input or output. Once you become comfortable with the BA role, you realise a lot of it is letting go: letting go of your opinion and just getting people to where they need to be at the end of the meeting you’re in, the phone call you’re on, the project you’re working on, or the change program. If you can get into the mindset of it being about the outcome rather than the output, that can really help.

It feels like what you’re describing is someone who can bring an external perspective.

I think the worst thing a BA can become is an expert in the project. Change programmes sometimes make the mistake of thinking they’re going to be eternal, but then the change team moves onto a different initiative or a different project, and the business then realises it has to own it. If you become an expert, you run the risk of that intellectual capital not being embedded where it should be, which is in the actual business teams that are the recipients of the change.

If you get too attached to it, you also lose the ability to challenge it, and sometimes you have to go in there and say, ‘excuse me, but this just doesn’t seem to work.’ Sometimes the best result of getting a BA involved is that the project is stopped because it’s just not doing anything worthwhile. Normally, they tend to be projects where the solution is written into the project title, as if somebody has already made their mind up that they need that solution.

Does working as an in-house BA makes it more likely that you’re going to get over-involved? Or is Aviva so big that every project is something you’ve never come across before?

My wife once asked me ‘how come you’ve done the same job for the last 20 years?’ I haven’t, I’ve had the same job title for the last 20 years but every assignment I’ve been on has been different. Different group of people, different personalities, different problem, different product area, different marketing group. But you should analyse your own behaviour as much as you do the new processes you’re bringing in, because if you’re using the same people, the same questions, the same methods to get the change done, the chances are you’re getting stagnant, and you may well miss something.

There is probably more pressure on BAs employed in large companies to conform, you don’t want to be too much of a maverick. There’s been a lot of talk in the industry about disruption and disrupters and sometimes disruption is taken as a negative. If you apply disruption to the train service, for instance, you’re not going to immediately see it as a positive experience. But I do think that the BA is there to challenge and if you’re not challenging, you’re not doing the job. You should be asking if you really want to do it that way or is there a better way, or have other companies tried this and has it worked, and are we aware of any regulations that are coming in two years’ time that would make us reverse our thinking, or how many ways can this go wrong?

I once had feedback from a colleague who said, ‘you’re quite cynical, aren’t you?’ and I said, ‘No! I’m actually one of the more positive people you’ll ever meet. But I want to make sure we haven’t missed anything that’s going to cause us a lot of pain.’ So, I might ask a lot of questions that seem to be cynical, but they’re actually done in a very positive way.

In a large organisation like Aviva, where do changes come from — who instigates the change?

There’s a huge amount of innovation in Aviva, probably in ways that I don’t understand or haven’t even heard about. You obviously have market driven innovation, in the sense that the market is changing and our products need to fit the market better. You have regulatory change coming in such as data protection issues, particularly in the insurance industry, which is highly regulated. Then there’s people within the company who come up with ideas, or we might run workshops. The digital arm of Aviva sometimes runs workshops with external people running their own software companies who have an idea. Or we might have a day where they pitch ideas to use, a bit like Dragon’s Den. And then sometimes there’s just organisational change, the organisation might need to change the way it does business. In the last five to six years the organisation has become much more open to innovation and change.

At the moment everyone is talking about Agile, lean start-up, design thinking, so I wondered what you thought about the current set of tools, methods and processes?

My personal view, which doesn’t necessarily always match the corporate view or even the industry view, is that it’s like a golfer and a golf bag. People confuse the golf bag with the golfer and think if they can do Agile, they can do any form of change. Agile, for me, is one of the golf clubs, as is Waterfall, as is whatever technique is trending at the moment. I think a lot of companies and organisations are running something that we describe as Watergile, or ‘pure hybrid’. I am the first to put my hand up and say, you do realise that’s an oxymoron, don’t you? There’s a lot of evangelism about techniques, and sometimes if you’re not in the club, you’re looked at as a bit of a maverick.

Introducing change is about good sense, about thinking. You’ve got to have a brain involved and that’s the most important part, rather than the method of delivery.

Agile is a very good method of delivering things because previously some projects would be 18 months old before they delivered anything. You did the requirements, you did the design, you did the testing, you made it live, then you realised you’d forgotten to ask about something and you went back again. It was huge, and it took ages to get things delivered. When we started bringing Agile in and getting it to work well, we would do a two week iteration and you’d have something on some desktops, which was a huge revelatory moment for me. But we need to get away from worrying about the method to worrying about why we’re doing it and getting the outcome right.

Can we go back to something you said that particularly resonated with me, which was about telling a compelling story of change? How would you advise your mentee BAs about how to do that?

One of the models that’s come to mean a lot to me in terms of change is the Hero’s Journey model — Joseph Campbell’s model that George Lucas copied when he wrote Star Wars. But you’ve got to remember that the hero of the story, the person who’s being affected by the story, is moving out of their comfort zone. They will need help and guidance on the way, there will be a moment for them when they have this moment of revelation and realise they need to change, whether they need to use a new screen on their much beloved system or they need to push a different button or they need to change their job. Then they have a period where they become more comfortable with that and then they return back to the normal state, but it’s the new normal state. Any kind of change programme has to have communications that show people why they would need to change, and what the compelling reason is to change.

You need to keep reinforcing that as you go through, people need guidance and quite often the message is ‘this is going to be like this on Monday morning, get used to it.’ Well, that’s not good enough. It needs to be a compelling story, people need to feel involved, they need to feel like they’re being guided and looked after, and then they will process the change for themselves get the benefit out of it for themselves. And this may be completely different to what the company thought it would be, the person experiencing the change may actually feel better about themselves rather than registering that it takes them 10 minutes less to do a job. You just don’t know what people assimilate. It’s all about that journey that makes change meaningful for people.

One of the things I always talk to my clients about is the fact that there will be a period when people are very unhappy, but they have to be unhappy in order to then decide to change. They have to feel that the status quo has become uncomfortable in order to move towards the new normal.

Exactly. It has to be ‘why wouldn’t I want to do that?’ rather than ‘why would I do that?’ Companies and employers need to realise that everyone will go through that at their own pace and it’s okay. They’re not being rebellious, they’re not being saboteurs, they’re just going through a natural process and if you allow people to do that for themselves, but continue to tell a compelling story that guides them, that’s a much more powerful way of doing it rather than saying, ‘you will change because I’ve got a certificate that says you will.’

It’s amazing how much power people have got to scupper a change programme, isn’t it? If they choose not to engage, inertia is a very powerful force.

DAVID: Oh God, yes.


Sadly we had to leave it there, but if you’re interested in hearing more from David then do check out his blog The Samurai Business Analyst. It’s well worth reading.

Photo by Yousef Al Nasser on Unsplash