Equinox IT Blog

Business analysis interview with Rich and Elizabeth Larson of Watermark Learning

Business Analysis Interview with Rich and Elizabeth Larson of Watermark LearningA couple of weeks ago Equinox hosted Richard and Elizabeth Larson of US-based Watermark Learning in New Zealand to deliver training and presentations on business analysis and influencing skills. Richard and Elizabeth are the authors of the popular CBAP Certification Study Guide. During their visit I was lucky to spend a good amount of time with them, and took the opportunity to interview them about their thoughts on business analysis and the BA career.


Brendon: If you were starting your careers again, what would you do?
Elizabeth: I'd become a doctor. I'm interested in the medical field and I am much less squeamish than I used to be. But the idea of solving problems and doing the analysis just appeals to me and it uses a lot of the skills that I already have. Business analysis skills, taking in a lot of information, synthesising it, and coming up with the underlying problem appeals to me. Aside from that, I love what I do, and although what I have been through has been painful sometimes, I had to go through that pain in order be doing what I do now.
Rich: You can add to Elizabeth's list therapist or psychiatrist. For me the quick answer is I can't imagine doing anything different. When I was younger my parents really thought I should become a lawyer - they were urging me like crazy and I think I rebelled against that. I much prefer the colleagues that I interact with in this field. Training has helped me use a lot of my skill sets and I think I am a natural business analyst. I've tried lots of things including programming and project management. A lot of those things did not appeal to me as much as this field - it just feels right. I don't know any kids who grow up wanting to become a business analyst; nobody grows up wanting to be a trainer either.

: What sets the best BAs apart from average BAs?
Elizabeth: The best BAs that I have worked with are the ones who do such a good job of creating structure from chaos. So there is a period of time when you are doing your business analysis, where it is very chaotic, there are a tonne of business issues and they somehow take all of that and synthesise a lot of information, they put structure around it and they come up with solutions. 
Rich: A philosophy underlying a lot of our training is for people to operate as internal management consultants. What makes the best BAs is not just taking a solution and running with it, but respectfully questioning people. They do it in a respectful way and do what is right for their organisation. They focus on the vision and strategy and keep that in mind, keeping their head above the water and looking through the organisation - they focus on the organisation rather than just on the project.
Elizabeth: As a project manager I was very impatient, get it done on time and within budget, and the best BAs could explain to me and influence me in a way to take the time to get the requirements right. Having the patience, the fortitude, the ability to influence to get it right for the business. To be able to influence not just the business stakeholders but also the project manager. I came to rely on that a lot and would have made poor decisions many times as a project manager without it.

Brendon: What is the best way to learn the skills that make the best BAs?
Rich: The skills that make the best BAs are often not the technical skills but the soft skills. Often these are attributes rather than skills. We have two courses, one is called 'Consulting Skills to Solve Business Problems' and the other 'Influencing without Authority'. We also run elicitation and facilitation training. By developing these soft skills it builds confidence. We like to say it takes courage to be influential because you know what the organisation needs to do, you can build up trust, and recommend the right thing. Let's say an executive VP is in your requirements session and causing trouble and trying to force their requirements down a certain path, the best BA would have the courage to be able to stand up and enforce the ground rules, while always being respectful at the same time.
Elizabeth: In addition to training courses, when you are new to the field you are going to make a lot of mistakes. I don't know any other way to get some of these skills other than having been through it.

Brendon: How important is it to have consistent frameworks, templates, ways of working and tools to the success of business analysis teams?
Elizabeth: I think it's huge, because no matter what we do we have different mental models when we hear something. Even a term like 'work breakdown structure', that could mean 10 different things to 10 different people, their mental models would be different. To all have the same understanding relating to some of the terminology used in business analysis, I just think it (frameworks, templates, and tools) makes it easier for everyone - the teams and the business stakeholders.
Rich: The framework is huge, having that as a common vocabulary. I think templates guide people, as long as you're not a template zombie and feel like you've got to fill out every last bit of it, they are good on the job aids and touch points to remind yourself of what are the important areas to do. They are especially useful if you are a generalist business analyst. If you do nothing but data modelling then you hardly need a template to do an ERD or data dictionary. But if you only do that once every few months or years and then you don't touch a data model again because your projects don't need it, then templates are indispensable.
Elizabeth: I think having a flexible structure is really important, because the one size fits all heavy duty requirements document for every single project does not work. And I have come full circle on that because there was a time when I thought that was a great thing.

Brendon: What is your recommended approach for BA managers and team leads to establish these frameworks and templates in their teams?
Elizabeth: It is really hard if you don't have some type of centre of excellence or community of practice. It is hard to get that consistency. If there is nothing at the organisation level, then you come up with your own and it's not ideal.
Rich: And if you have each project team coming in with their own there is chaos. You need some common understanding across project teams. The BABOK also has a lot to offer organisations to help them manage. I've had people who told me that they view the BABOK as an on-going job reference and they keep it on their desk.



Recorded webinar: achieving clarity - your core business analyst competency

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