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7 Habits of Highly Effective Business Analysts: as observed by Vivek Agarwal

good-habits-imageScouring the internet, you can find numerous articles about the qualities expected from a good Business Analyst (BA). Perhaps, it is more relevant to write about habits rather than qualities. Why? Qualities are largely innate, while habits are acquired. Not that you cannot acquire a particular quality but that would be like changing one’s core self. Habits, on the other hand, can be changed with practice and conscious effort. 
Let’s categorize habits into two broad sets: “Standard” and “Advanced”. A standard habit is a routine BA practice you comply with to achieve consistency and avoid regulatory problems to get your job done; whereas an advanced habit is something which goes beyond the essentials, gives you discretion in how or what you do, and leads to stakeholder satisfaction. Simply put, standard habits are what everyone should practice while advanced habits are something that differentiate a great BA from a good BA.
Let’s first explore four habits of a good BA, within the standard set.
The Standard Set Habit 1 – Make yourself heard
A BA can easily expect to find themselves straining their vocal cords for a good 4-5 hours (or more) in a typical day while trying to be heard.  The first habit comprises certain basic concepts to keep in mind to ensure effective verbal communication:
Know your Audience - One of the key responsibilities of a BA is to ‘keep everyone on the same page’. The information needs of each member of a project team are different. For example, senior management will be interested in understanding the business value and risks of a project, while a developer needs to know where to source the values for a dropdown. The BA must understand the audience’s needs and customize the communication accordingly. 
Improve Delivery – All the communication that a BA does won’t mean much if the audience is unable to follow along. Here are some ways to ensure your audience understands your delivery:
  • Speak Slowly and give pause after making a point to give an opportunity for others to respond. This is critical for phone conversations.
  • Make Eye Contact during in-person interactions.
  • Ask if the audience is clear on the message. When appropriate, ask a member of the group to summarize.
Habit 2 – Make meetings count
The second habit involves carrying out certain actions to help ensure that meetings are productive and regarded positively.
Publish an agenda – An agenda doesn’t need to be a formal document. Just a few lines in the body of a meeting invite or an email should be sufficient. The basic idea is that all participants are aware of the context and are clear about what they are expected to achieve at the end of the meeting.
Include meeting material – Good meeting material sent in advance can save valuable meeting time, which is so often lost in making sure everyone is looking at the same thing. Take time to make your material ‘print ready’. Most office material created with tools such as Word and PowerPoint (PPT) are print ready by default, but others like Excel may require you to scale your content to fit on one readable printout. You don’t want attendees rummaging through a bunch of sheets each with a few columns of a big report during a meeting.
Keep focus on the objectives – We have all seen meetings drifting away from the main topic only to realize at the end of the session that questions are unanswered and action items unclear. Remind the audience of the objectives if this happens. If a topic turns out to be sticky point, put it in the parking lot and move on to the next agenda item.
Summarize – It’s important to summarize the key points made, and this must always be done at the end of the meeting to ensure there isn’t any miscommunication. 
Call out action items – At the end of the meeting, call out the action items. Without an owner and a date, an action item has no meaning. Call out the owner and insist on an estimated time of arrival (ETA) for each item. If an owner is evasive about the date, ask them for a date by which they will provide an ETA.
Send Meeting Minutes – Minutes are most effective when they are concise; after an hour long meeting, no one wants to spend another hour going through copious notes. A few bullets containing agreements, action items (with their owners) and next steps should be enough in most cases.
Habit 3 –Keep Documents Short and Simple
Among the various channels of communication, writing is the most challenging. You are not there to explain the material, to quiz the audience’s level of understanding and, when necessary, to correct any misunderstandings. This means documentation needs to be that much more organized, concise and lucid. 
Practice some tenets of writing good documents:
Tailor for your audience – Just like verbal communication, it’s important to identify the recipient of the document. Include a description of the expected audience upfront and call out the sections that apply / do not apply to a certain audience.
Keep it Organized – Before putting in the field level details, take a moment to think through the structure of the document. In most cases it is helpful to write a line or two on the purpose of the document, the intended audience, the details that the document will cover and will not cover, and the source of information. Start with an abstract, and then progressively go into the flows, but keep supplementary information (like data mappings) for the appendix.
Be Concise – Keep the documents short.  See that it takes no more than 45 minutes to read through. You can pack a lot more information in a given real estate using pictures and tables rather than descriptive text.
Be Consistent – Consistency in style and in use of terms makes reading a document easier. 
Spelling and Grammar– Typos and grammatical mistakes give an impression of lack of attention and poor quality. Even when the document contains good analysis and is exhaustive in details, this (seemingly minor) issue may undermine the validity of the entire document. 
Habit 4 –Keep your “toolkit” updated
BAs work in a constantly changing environment, and to thrive in such an ecosystem you need to constantly evaluate skill gaps and stay updated and in tune with the needs of businesses.

Now, let’s look at the three “advanced” habits that transform a BA from good to great!  
The Advanced Set
Habit 5 –Ask Why
A large part of interviewing that a BA does as a part of elicitation involves ‘What’ and ‘How’. As in, ‘What do you need’ and ‘How do you want it to be done’. Many times BAs do not question why the client needs what they are asking for. There is an opportunity to differentiate.
By asking why users need something, you gain insight into the stakeholders’ business and are also, in a position to do more thinking on the stakeholders’ behalf. By understanding stakeholders’ true needs, you can proactively propose ideas. And, this is the kind of work that is higher up in the value chain.
Habit 6 – Keep an eye on the end objective
A good BA might be able to ‘get away’ with correct and clear requirements but a great BA also keeps an eye towards a solution that is simple to build, inexpensive to maintain and easy to extend.  To achieve this, the BA should have insight into usability and design principals.  This will position the BA (you) well in evaluating and recommending solutions that best fit the business need. 
Habit 7 – Create your support network
Chances are you will not be able to solve all problems by yourself. And that’s OK. You shouldn’t, however, if you run out of ideas on where to look when you are stuck. Having a strong network can really be a lifesaver in a tricky situation.
Connect with people in your own organization, alumni network or go to LinkedIn. Reach out and request time for a quick discussion. You’ll be surprised how many senior people are open to help and mentor.
A final word of advice…
Just as trying to learn too many skills at the same time is not easy, trying to acquire several habits at the same time is challenging. You should assess your own competencies against these habits and start with one or two you feel will have the greatest impact.