The Road from What to Why

Posted | Category: Business Relationship Management Research | Contributed

JM Headshotby Jeannine McConnell

If you are a business analyst and a student of “traditional” requirements management, you may remember the three levels of good requirements capture: the “why,” the “what,” and the “how.”

You may also believe that the bulk of the requirements you receive are “implementation details,” i.e. “Here is how I want you to fix my problem and how I want you to deliver the solution.” You have probably worked very hard to rise above these implementation details to get to use cases, in order to truly discern what the user is trying to accomplish. Often, that can be a challenging responsibility, and the more tech-oriented your business partner is, the more likely they will be telling you how they want their problem fixed rather than what their actual needs are!

You have also probably struggled trying to elevate the conversation to the true business drivers, the real “why.” All too frequently, the role of Business Analyst is relegated to that of a transcriber of “how,” and does not actually receive access to the correct resources to really understand the “why.” In other cases, the BA does not feel empowered to really get to the heart of the matter in their role as part of a development team or a PMO, and therefore struggles to create strategic convergence and spark a larger discussion about the overarching goals, expectations, and enterprise-level initiatives that are driving the conversations.

If your professional journey has taken you to a place where you are frustrated with initiatives that deliver sub-optimum results, just miss the mark, or worst case scenario….deliver what the business partner asked for but not at all what they need—take heart! You are in good company, and in fact may possibly be ready to join the ranks of business analysts (and others) who are looking to elevate their visibility in their organization and up their game as a professional.

An important next step for a professional business analyst to consider is moving into the role of Business Relationship Manager. This role may not have this formal title in some organizations—or it may go by a variety of names!—but rest assured that every organization is performing this critical role (at least, they are if they want to survive and compete effectively in the “digital age”).

Are you considering how to make that move, how to be seen as a strategic business partner, and how to elevate your game? Let’s look at some of the key skills and attributes of a great business analyst and shift them to the foundations of a great BRM.

Examples of these key skills include:

  • Being a communicator/connector between business needs and technical fulfillment
  • Serving as a translator of complex user goals into equally complex requirements
  • Developing helicopter thinking
  • Working as a trusted advisor and advocate
  • Establishing the role of an innovator

Being a communicator/connector

This skill set takes on even more relevance when moving up the proverbial ladder to becoming more than a connector of project teams and a communicator of technical requirements. The communication skills you honed during your time as a business analyst will pay huge dividends in the migration to Business Relationship Manager.

Here’s how:

  • Asking probing questions – These questions turn into strategic convergence, quantification of anticipated benefits (both quantified and qualified), and a strong understanding of political, organizational, and often unstated expectations and needs
  • Active listening – In an effort to move into the role of trusted advisor and advocate as a BRM, nothing could be more important than active listening. Active listening involves providing immediate feedback, restating and articulating what you’ve heard for confirmation, and giving your business partner your complete and undivided attention (a rare commodity indeed in this day and age!).
  • Facilitation – Your ability to manage, facilitate, and add business value to project-level meetings must now translate into strategic meetings, where many of your key attendees are highly distracted, incredibly busy, and difficult to corral (particularly the senior leaders of your organization). Facilitate with ROTI (Return on Time Invested) in mind. Make sure you enter every engagement you facilitate with the ROTI of those at the table (or around the world) in mind. On that note, brush up on your skills leading and facilitating virtual meetings, if you are not already comfortable doing so. This will be critical as your sphere of influence increases.
  • Tailoring your message to the audience – This is a key growth challenge for many moving up the ranks. It is critical to study and learn more about tailoring communications for a more senior audience. It is often said that “brevity is the soul of wit”—brevity is also critical for communicating with your business partners. Find the right medium, the right voice, and the right format for your audience.

Your ability to connect the right stakeholders and connect the dots will be of increased importance here as well. Your past purview and scope as a business analyst multiplies and magnifies as a BRM, taking you from reviewing project requirements both inside and between projects, to having the entire enterprise portfolio in your periphery. Working with portfolio managers, other BRMs, and other leadership heightens your ability to extrapolate common needs, connect the dots, and connect the stakeholders, which shows how the BRM adds business value to the organization. Value is added by rationalizing the amount of influx into your provider organization, connecting common stakeholders across the enterprise to find common solutions, and connecting with vendors and organizations outside your organization to look for innovative and proactive solutions to business partner needs.

Serving as a Translator

The business analyst has the sometimes-unenviable need to be bilingual (or even trilingual, etc.). This means that you must eloquently and fluently speak the language of your business partner(s) and that of the provider organization. In this day and age of ever-changing and incredibly complex technological capabilities, the ability to translate at the functional requirements level keeps a business analyst on their “A” game, ensuring that there is no loss of credibility with either party. The game becomes more complex when you shift to the role of BRM. The ability to translate must now operate at the strategic level, which now means, “How do I help my business partner translate strategic goals and objectives cascaded down to them into actionable initiatives? Furthermore, how do I help my business partners translate those actionable initiatives into real benefits?”

In order to do this, take heed of everything you have learned that made you a strong business analyst, and raise the bar. Where you once thought, “How do we provide this feature set?” you must now raise the question to be, “How do we align with this goal or stated need and supply real value?” Additionally, translation also means partnering with your business constituents to truly hear their needs and understand when a particular type of solution is the answer to meeting the stated need, whether it is a technology or a process solution. The most critical piece of translation is ensuring that the stated need is clearly articulated back to the business partner in a quantifiable, value-focused, and actionable manner—just to make sure nothing was “lost in translation” (ha, ha).

Developing Helicopter Thinking

I’ve often said that one of the single most important skills you can have in any collaborative role is that of a ‘helicopter’ thinker. I know ‘helicopter parenting’ has gotten a bad name in recent years, so rest assured that is not what we are advocating as a BRM! Our type of helicopter thinking means having the ability to see the big picture (let’s call it a 10,000 foot view) while never losing the ability to quickly swoop down to sea-level to understand what the boots on the ground are doing and how the big picture impacts the real work.

As a business analyst, you undoubtedly did this countless times a day—zooming up to make sure the big picture needs of a project were still being met and the goal was kept in sight, then plummeting quickly to the work-in-progress to focus on granular individual requirements. That same ability will be critical in your new role, but (like the other aforementioned skills) it will be amplified. Now, your helicoptering will be focused at the greater goal of the enterprise—your business partners’ expectations—and will involve zooming down to the contents of the portfolios, constantly looking for confirmation of convergence, continued value realization, and that confirmation of “Yes, we are still on track and doing the right things.”

Working as a Trusted Advisor and Advocate

Hopefully at some point during your tenure as a business analyst, you were lucky enough to engage with projects and stakeholders that allowed you to do your job (and do it well!) while letting your true value as a BA shine through. During those golden moments when you successfully tied technology to needs and translated those abstract ideas into actionable requirements, you hopefully began to feel the value you provided to your business partners and project stakeholders. Your attendance at meetings became mandatory due to your value added and your stock as a trusted advisor was high. You developed that challenging skillset of advocating not only for the business, but also for your provider organization, while working to find real and workable solutions.

In keeping with that trend, let’s once again lift that aspiration. Now, being a trusted advisor means shifting your role beyond that of feature/function and project success. Instead, “trusted advisor” means being privy to the needs, risks, fears, and goals of the business partner, and becoming crucial to their very ability to succeed. It means being the first call made when a new need arises, and rising to that occasion again and again. Additionally, advocacy also takes on a loftier perch now. You will now be called upon to advocate for your business partners as part of the evaluation, prioritization, and accomplishment of work from your provider organization, who must serve many masters. This is where the helicopter thinking comes in handy—the ability to see high, low, and wide. Advocacy sometimes means rerouting the provider’s time to other initiatives. The delivery of that message—without losing trusted advisor status—requires the ability to paint the bigger picture in quantifiable terms that make sense to all parties.

Establishing the Role of an Innovator

This may be an emerging skillset depending on the type of work you were allowed to participate in as a business analyst. Innovation may have even meant simply figuring out how to accomplish stated needs with the limited resources at hand (make-do innovation!). However, your new role as a strategic Business Relationship Manager will require that you stay ahead of the curve and drive innovation to your business partners. This means staying current on technology and process and compliance issues that are important to your constituency, while driving ahead with innovative solutions before they may even know they need them. For years, IT as a provider organization has longed for a seat at the table and the ability to lead businesses in technology innovation. The role of the BRM is critical to supporting IT leadership with that innate understanding of business needs, as well as industry trends and leading technology solutions. This positions the role of BRM as not only an innovator to the business units, but as a high-value, innovative thought leader to IT, and that is a great place to be.

If your journey to becoming a BRM started by working as a business analyst, then you are well-positioned to have a successful career. Your new role will benefit from the hours you have devoted to reading the political tea leaves, refining your communication and collaboration skills, and most importantly gaining the big picture perspective that is so necessary to your success. Just as you did when you were a fledgling business analyst, I advise you to never stop learning and adding to your toolkit. Every day is a new day with fresh opportunities to sharpen your skills and grow professionally.


One Response

  1. Rattan Muradia says:

    Excellent article summarizing the skills required to be successful as a BRM. I’d like to connect and share similar experiences.
    Ottawa, Canada

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