The Art of Meaningful Analysis

By M. Duvernet

Creating meaningful analysis is an art. Just like the artist that sketches an outline before painting a picture, the analyst benefits from seeing the big-picture in order to frame up all the small details that will be meaningful to the project sponsors, and ultimately the consumers. However, when it comes to analyzing all those big-picture details – a project; big or small – can sometimes lead an analyst to get buried in the details causing project delays or scope creep to effect project deadlines. Project progress can suffer when an analyst gets “lost in the weeds of analysis paralysis.”  So, what are some ways to combat “analysis paralysis” to pave a practical project path toward more meaningful analysis?

Meaning can be a very subjective thing. Just like “beauty” is in the eye of the beholder, “meaning” is in the mind of the “thinker.” The objective is to get those meaningful thoughts documented. Most projects have plenty of meaning buried deep in the details, the key is to identify those aspects early on in order to make the most meaning later.

Plenty of project ideas begin with process improvement, and these ideas can come from anywhere within an organization. Every organization is a bit different when it comes to providing specific products and services. It is the main objective of every business to sell a product, or a service. Achieving customer satisfaction is also a key ingredient to an organization’s success. However, when it comes to thoughtful analysis and providing the best end-results to “Prove the Value” there are six basic concepts to keep in mind for realizing the success of a project.

The six steps toward realizing meaningful analysis and ultimate project success are:

1.)    Vision of the big-picture

2.)    Utilizing the project life cycle

3.)    Understanding terminology

4.)    Uncovering the pain to reveal the pain

5.)    Uncovering the hidden truths to define possibilities

6.)    Decisions-making to lay the foundation for the future

When a project starts there is often a lot of ambiguity, not everything is clear right away. The Enterprise leaders and management have a strategy, and they see the potential for improving effectiveness or efficiencies, or increasing productivity to sell more products or services. Understanding how a project fits into the big-picture of the organization can help to clarify these strategic expectations. If the project deals with financial advice, it is a good idea to become familiar with all the organization’s financial offerings. The next step  is to work with the Project Manager to set project expectations – not only around time, scope, and budget – but also around the five milestones of the project life cycle; Analyze, Design/Develop, Build/Implement, Test, and Launch.

By understanding the project life cycle, along with the overarching organizational methodology, both the analyst and the Project Manager can determine a practical approach toward the creation of the key deliverables. Depending on the size of the project, the number of deliverables can vary. However, a good rule to follow is to “keep it simple,” as well as, ensure that everyone knows their role in conjunction with what is expected of them. For the merging of roles within a project team can cause endless frustration, anxiety, and waste valuable time.

Step 3 is all about getting a handle on the terminology; learn to talk the talk. This will lead toward more concise dialogues with the subject matter experts and more comprehensive documentation. For instance, if the word “interface” comes up, it is a good idea to understand if they mean a system interface; such as an ETL (Extract, Transform, and Load) event, or a GUI (Graphic User Interface) in reference to a user screen, or a workflow process that is part of an online application. Plus, the terms used can begin to form the list of data attributes that can later be mapped to cultivate more meaning.

Since having a requirements document is often one of the first things to be defined in a project life cycle, it is important to understand the business “pain” in order to realize what needs to be “gained,” this is step 4 in the list above. When the subject matter experts share their pains, they are sharing the struggles they are having with the current processes. Everybody who has a story to tell, needs a listener, who will listen well. All analysts know the importance of listening carefully to these stories. As often they reveal what systems are being used, what data they believe to be a “source of truth,” and ideally, what the business really needs in order to become more successful.

Step 5 is all about uncovering the hidden truths, truths which can come up in random conversations at any moment. These “truths” are often a key to defining what is possible. If a large financial organization has a Customer Service department with three different databases that have similar customer data, how does an analyst determine which database is going to provide the best data for the project? This is a conversation with management and the subject matter experts who have some knowledge about how to glean what’s needed from the data. Plus, if there is some sort of a calculation, or a formula, or a business rule that derives the values that appear on a report, those details need to also become part of the “What” that is captured in the requirements.

Creating meaningful analysis can be a bit like solving a big mystery. Having an idea of the big-picture vision along with the expectations from the Project Manager regarding the definition of project life cycle can ease the stress of having to know all the answers right away. Thoughtful analysis means thinking before doing; capturing the “What,“ to build the “How” in order to achieve and prove the “Value.”

Being a Business Analyst is a challenging profession, as often the job of the analyst is to look where no one else is looking.  When there is too much to look at, it is easy to lose focus and wallow in the weeds. An expert analyst will figure out a way to filter the information and get to the truths that will provide that precious “Value.” Once an analyst has seen a project through the entire project life cycle they have a whole new perspective about their role. It is so exciting when that “Ah-ha” light bulb goes on and the magic happens!

To an analyst, the various kinds of analysis techniques are like the selection of brushes and a paint palette used by the artist. If one technique does not gain the traction that you need to bring clarity to the project, perhaps it is time to try another technique. But, first it is important for management to weigh in on the approach, as management can also put pressure on the parties that are not being cooperative, or reach out to those who might be resisting change.

Like all artists, there is nothing more inspiring than to see how your hard work can positively affect others. The ability to make sense out of senselessness is what the analyst does, and it is a profession that takes practice, just like any dedicated artist practices to become more proficient at their craft. Art is all around us, in paintings, in literature, in film, and in music – it touches us every day, everywhere.  Just as the artist struggles to create something that will leave an memorable impression, the analyst works to uncover the “Value” in the quest to manifest a meaningful future for every business. The bottom-line is; it takes practice to become an expert at analysis.

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