The First Principles Business Analyst

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Nov 21, 2021
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Show a prisoner the world and all he sees are the bars on the window~ M. Bison

In the 2009 volume of Street Fighter- the Legend of Chun Li, self-imposed dictator and megalomaniac Major Bison chats with his prisoner, who was captive in a fancy basement. He hands the prisoner a flash drive and then remarks on his dull choice of windows scenery. The captive replies cynically, "A prison is a prison."

With disdain spread across his face, Bison contends this view, uttering, "Show a prisoner the world and all he sees are the bars on the window."

Although expressed disparagingly, I discovered some gems in those words. As someone who loved gaming as a kid and whose favourite game in the early nineties was Street Fighter, it is no surprise that one of my favourite quotes comes from a Street Fighter movie. While the general critic ratings were poor, this quote from the movie was engraved in my mind and informed my problem-solving lens to date.

As a result, I wonder how often we submit to being prisoners of a circumstance and limit our thinking to the bars on our window. In our world today, bars on the window come in various forms: status quo, job descriptions, job titles, frameworks, theories, techniques, methods, etc. However, do we focus on the confines instead of looking out the window for a solution when facing a challenge? As a philosopher, I occasionally study biographies on vanguards of our time. I have found that a common thread across these minds is providing solutions through first principles thinking. First principles are the fundamental building blocks of an idea. They are the most indivisible part that we know to be true and are used to build more complex thoughts.

This is not a novel concept, as it has been ancient philosophers and scientists' predominant mode of thinking. Early empiricist Aristotle believed that everything could be divided into categories and sub-categories, and the smallest category in a sub-domain is referred to as first principles. He further submitted that most ideas are nested inside or outside one another, and it is the job of a first principles thinker to map out how these ideas are linked. Becoming a first principles thinker is simple - yet exhausting.

Some recent trendsetters to have applied first principles include Steve Jobs of Apple in reinventing personal computing and consumer electronics; Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore in developing a country from third-world to first-world; and South African born-American entrepreneur, Elon Musk, in creating global innovations in three sectors within a decade.

This article will reference the conception of one of Musk's products in first principles thinking. But first, let's explain this concept.

To unpack the concept of the first principles, let's consider our knowledge of a tree. We could look at a mango tree and consider it a thing that produces mangoes and call it a day. This concept of the tree is shallow but not false. However, an unconventional individual who thinks from first principles will seek to understand the tree's lifecycle, from the seed to the fruit. They would hold a fundamental truth that there are established laws of causation that govern the tree's existence and that while we do not create these laws, we can pursue knowledge of the laws.

Consequently, the first principles thinker will observe, experience, apply, and repeat to comprehend the phenomenon entirely. Upon observation, they would learn that the mango is connected to a branch, and every branch is a subset of a greater whole called a stem. Further, it all begins with a seed, and that the root is the most vital part of the tree as it produces the fruit. Overall, the first principles thinker would have identified different tree pieces through observation and organised the information. The sequential facts can then be chronicled to provide evidence-based thinking in first principles.

Now, let us switch gears and bring it closer to home as I turn attention to Elon Musk. Although Aristotle may be credited as an early thinker to apply first principles, it took Musk's application to bring a contemporary lens of first principles to business analysis. Recent times are yet to witness an individual who embodies first principles thinking better than Musk. As a firm advocate of first principles thinking, Musk argues that a popular approach to reasoning is an analogy because it is less arduous. However, this is problematic as analogies confine references to past events and limit vision for prospects. Musk rather embodies first principles thinking where you boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, "Okay, what are we sure is true?"… and then reason up from there."

In reasoning up, let us meander and make this train of thought more practical. I presume that we are all familiar with electric vehicle and clean energy company, Tesla, which Musk created. In an interview, Musk gives a mesmerising example about creating battery packs through first principles. Before Musk's playing in the battery space, the general notion was that battery packs, which typically cost about 600 US Dollars (ZAR 8,265), are expensive, and that is just the way it is. Musk sees beyond the bars on the window and calls that logic 'pretty dumb'. He says that if you apply that logic to anything new, we will cease to innovate.

With a first principles mindset, he poses boiled down questions, such as:

  • What are the material constituents of the battery? Cobalt, nickel, aluminium, carbon, polymers for separation, and a steel can
  • What is the spot market value of the material constituents? US $80 (ZAR 1,102).

Boiling down the battery composition to its fundamental truth helped Musk cleverly propose batteries that are ridiculously cheaper than conventional thinkers could have imagined.

Now, let us look at what this means for the business analyst (BA). We are fundamentally problem solvers, and we are faced with complex and sometimes unique issues. These issues could include people, tasks, structure, technology, etc. In these situations, it is natural to focus on the bars on the window by utilising conventional ways and methods to solve problems, as we can always refer to past events. However, where traditional logic fails, it should not be an end.

We must overcome despair and submit to first principles thinking, a conscious way to break out of the herd mentality or the bars on the window. It would enable us to see a situation for its worth, think outside the box, and innovate completely novel solutions to extant problems.

Mindful of this, let us apply first principles thinking to a BA's 'information' elicitation process. I choose to label the elicitation process as 'information elicitation' and not 'requirement elicitation' because that is what the process should cover. These days we work in agile environments, with agile methods, and a common information-gathering technique is a user story. This tool captures the user- the who, function- the what, business value- the why, and acceptance criteria- the sign-off. As BA's with a first principles mindset, our application of this lens may not be clear-cut as a seed to the fruit but our fundamental truth about the issue faced is nested in the who, what, and why. While all three components are salient and would inform the requirement birthing, a first principle's lens would focus more on the why over the what and who. The why helps us determine the business value of a particular feature and the reason a certain feature is being requested. By explaining the why, we can develop different ways to achieve the same objective that can be easier or faster to create. Ultimately, the absence of the why hampers an overall understanding of the underlying issues and the possibility of generating ideas for better alternatives. Our job requires that we gather information and not requirements from the relevant stakeholders and then analyse the information to birth requirements. Despite a client's suggestion of what they assume they may want, our role is to take the client's suggestions and examine them to determine the extent of truth to the request. We are ultimately responsible for analysing the client's needs and finding the solution within the greater whole of a business.

Summary

In summary, as BA's our fundamental job is to understand the business problems proactively, determine the consequences of not solving them, and then define a solution that eliminates or alleviates the problem. When given our directives:

(i) a problem exists- define it

(ii) provide a solution to that problem- describe it

(iii) a change is required in the business to solve the problem- realise it.

We must have effective tools in our arsenal, and a sure way to see beyond the bars on the window is to understand the fundamental truth of the situation and reason up from there. A first principles mindset could be that dominant tool to understand the seed to reap the fruits, enabling us to be the change agents that improve business processes and add value.


Author: Olam Osah

Olam Osah is a Senior Business Analyst at DVT with experience spanning a decade in the private and public sectors. He holds a PhD in Information Systems (IS) from the University of Cape Town and master's and honours degrees in IS from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

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