Doctor BA and Making Decisions as a Business Analyst

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Apr 01, 2018
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I ran into Doctor BA at the elevator bank of a sky scraper in New York recently. He seemed to be confused and although that is a normal expression for him he kept walking back and forth in front of the elevator cars. 

“I’m not certain which car I should take."

“That’s quite a decision to make,” I replied. “Are you often this indecisive?”

“I get like this every once in a while. Fortunately it doesn’t last long. When you have been a business analyst as long as I have been, you kind of get out of the habit of making decisions. After all, you don’t have authority to do so.”

“Who makes the decisions, then?” I asked ushering him into car number three and pressing the button for floor twelve.

“The project manager makes all the decisions about the project, business management decides the product issues and upper level management decides everything else.”

“I see. Not much left.” I responded. We got off on floor twelve. I escorted him to the office and then to the coffee machine where suddenly his decisiveness returned and he quickly selected the coffee flavor and fixings without hesitation. After we settled back into the office, Doctor BA asked why I sought him out this time.

I told him that I had received some questions about decision making and the business analyst.

“Of course when you are talking about decisions you have to get into alternate universes. Quantum physics, you know. As John Gribbon tells us, if two particles go through two separate holes, in other words, a decision is made about which hole to go through and each decides on a different hole. Each particle is then in a different universe and in each universe there is an observer who sees that particle go through that one hole. Thus there are two universes created based on what is decided. You are right now in another universe where you decided not to come to ask me these questions.” 

Sensing my confusion and disinterest, he poured himself another cup of coffee, took a long swig and fortified with caffeine he invited me to proceed.

My first question came from RMS in Wakefield, MA, USA.

"I understand that the business analyst does not have the authority to make decisions about the project or the product, but the business analyst does make decisions. What are the decisions that a business analyst has to make throughout the solution life cycle?"

Doctor BA started off by standing and walking to the white board behind me. He said as he walked, 

“When there is a problem there are many decisions to be made at various different times in the solution life cycle:”

He then, as was his wont, wrote the following on the white board:

“Do we want to solve this problem?
Do we want to solve it for this much money and investment?
Which resources are we going to put on it?
What solution are we going to use (continuous decision)?
Are we done yet?
Is this good enough?
Is the problem solved?”

I slid my cell phone out of my pocket and surreptitiously took a picture of the white board. Doctor BA filled his coffee cup as he returned to his chair and continued.

“However, the business analyst doesn’t make a decision except about his own process and activities. The business analyst facilitates decision making in others. Basically this happens twice: once to bring the alternatives of the issue to the attention of someone in authority who can make the decision, and then a second time to assist the decision maker in making an actual decision. “

He paused to drink his coffee and turn to stare out the window. I decided to ask the next question on my list. This one from JB at the University of San Francisco.

"Sometimes the person who needs to make a decision does not seem to want to make the decision or takes a lot of time in doing so. What do you do about a decision that is not forthcoming?"

"That’s not an easy question to answer, Steve. There are a lot of factors in someone not wanting to make a decision or not making the decision in a time frame to suit your needs or expectations. You can apply your business analysis acumen to resolve your predicament."

“First determine why the decision maker (s) are hesitant or procrastinate in making the decision.“

And at this point went back to the white board to create another list. I got my camera ready again. This is what he wrote in blue on the board:

“Reasons for not making a decision:

Don’t have enough information
Don’t trust the information they have (goes against instinct or is counter-intuitive)
Low level priority and can be put off
Assume decision is already made because it is obvious or because it appears that the project isproceeding without the decision
Assume it is someone else’s decision
Afraid to make decision (need to find out source of fear)
Politics (waiting for a trade-off with someone, or wanting to ensure political coup before making decision)”

I quickly took another picture of the white board. Stopping for another cup of coffee, Doctor BA returned to his seat and continued.

“What I usually do in a case like that is ask the decision maker “what do you need to make the decision?”

“If they need more information that is not immediately available or has not been provided, then as the business analyst I get that information so they can make the decision. Or maybe provide a tool or technique to the decision maker (s) to help them come to a decision."

“If their answer is ‘nothing” or something like that, then they are procrastinating the decision or are simply an indecisive sort of person. Not much you can do in this case except wait until all options time out but one and that must be the choice"

“Be aware that sometimes the decision maker simply needs a rationale for the decision that reduces his own culpability in the process, for example, saying “the numbers from research (or from some external authority) indicate we should do …” rather than saying, “it’s my decision”. Sometimes the decision maker simply needs to have solid evidence even if there is evidence to support two potential solutions equally. In cases like that you may simply have to provide enough information for the decision maker to feel comfortable making the decision. Then look for another job because if the decision does not turn out to be what the decision maker deems optimum, that kind of decision maker will blame the information provider, namely you.”

I made an executive decision to ask just one more question, one that I have heard from a great many business analysts around the world:

"How do you know you are making the right decision?"

“You don’t.

Doctor, BA turned away as though that was all of an answer that was required. He looked out the window and then back at me. I guess I must have looked confused and he took pity on me and filling his coffee cup one more time he elaborated.

“You can never know whether a decision is the right one until after the decision is made and usually quite a while after that. If you make a decision that you believe should generate significantly more revenue for the company, you may not know whether the decision is right for months, perhaps years, until you can distinguish a new revenue stream. If you decide which gift to give your spouse for birthday or Christmas, you won’t know if you decided right until after the gift is opened and you see the reaction. Sometimes you may not know then. After all, most people react to a gift positively so as to not hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s only a month or so later when you see the sweater still in the box on the shelf under a bunch of other clothes that are never worn that you realize your decision was perhaps wrong."

Anticipating my next question “What can you do about it?” he continued.

“The approach you should use, that which has been used since Alexander [while he probably knew Alexander Graham Bell, I believe Doctor BA was referring to Alexander the Great, and I am not sure of his acquaintance with the Emporer.].

Don’t focus on making the right decision, focus instead on making the decision right. In other words, since you can’t guarantee your decision is going to be the right one before you make it, just make the decision based on the available information and then do what is necessary to make the results match your expectations of what a right decision should be. You can’t be held responsible for the decision if new information comes in after the decision is made. That would be hindsight bias. Make the decision a living thing responsive to new information and the results of action made on the decision.

“You decide to see a specific movie on Friday, but when you get to the theater you find the movies changed on Thursday. You change your decision and see a different movie, or decide not to go. Your original decision was still the right one…at the time. The new decision is also the right one. And even if the movie is still playing, but you had a bad day and are not feeling like seeing that intense psychological drama you can decide to see something else and both decisions are still right…at the time…with the information you had at the time.”

I noticed that the coffee pot was empty and decided that was a signal that it was time to end the conversation. I bid Doctor BA farewell, securing a promise that we could talk again and went out into the reception area and found I couldn’t decide whether to take the elevator or the stairs back down to the building lobby.


Author: Steve Blais, PMP, PMI-PBA

Steve Blais, PMP, PMI-PBA, is an author, consultant, teacher and coach who has nearly 50 years’ experience in Information Technologies working as a programmer, project manager, business analyst, system analyst, general manager, and tester. He has also been in an executive position for several start-up companies. He develops business analysis and agile processes and trains business analysts, project managers, and executive for organizations around the world. He is the author of Business Analysis: Best Practices for Success (John Wiley, 2011) and co-author of Business Analysis for Practitioners: a Practice Guide (PMI, 2014) and a contributor to the Business Analyst Body of Knowledge, V3 (IIBA, 2015).

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