The Absent Brain Problem

Ron Ross recently had an excellent article on Modern Analyst titled “The Story of Al’s Spreadsheet and Absent Brains” in which he makes several very valuable points.  Those include:

  • “Around the globe there is extensive core operational business knowledge running businesses day-to-day that is highly inaccessible. Just putting your fingers on it, much less revising it, consumes vast amounts of vital resources. We live in a service provider’s dreamscape. It makes you wonder how brittle (read not agile) many companies’ operations really are today.”
  • “To ensure the continuity of operational business knowledge, no organization should ever depend on absent brains – or even on brains that could (and eventually always will) become absent in the future. To say it differently, your operational business knowledge should be encoded explicitly in a form that workers you have never even met yet can understand.”
  • “Operational business knowledge can be either tacit or explicit (read ‘accessible’). The classic test for when knowledge is tacit is ‘lose the person, lose the knowledge’.”

The closing paragraph of his article is, “So make sure when you lose your Al, he doesn’t walk out the door with the day-to-day knowledge you need to run your business. Encode it as business rules!”

Of course, business rules are Ron’s normal answer to many problems (often validly).  But I think in this case he is drastically cutting short the type of information you need to make explicit.  It needs to be more than just business rules.  It needs to include:

  • terminology
  • business processes
  • reference and training guides
  • descriptive materials on what different units within the organization do and how they do it
  • what applications are used by the organization, for what purpose, and by whom
  • business rules
  • regulatory rules and interpretations
  • and a whole lot more

My test would be, “Can a new hire come into your organization and with nothing more than access to your knowledge repository figure out your work vocabulary, organization structure, what different units do, what tools are used, and how to do their job at a basic level?”

But having this information captured in an explicit form (preferably structured and searchable) isn’t just of value for business continuity and ensuring critical knowledge doesn’t walk out the door with departing employees; it’s of tremendous value for projects.  This information helps with scoping a project, acts as a continuously updated “current state” of the organization that can be leveraged, and allows critical subject matter experts to only have to devote project time for difficult-to-answer questions that require greater expertise.

In my experience (and yours may differ) the time spent by the project team gathering, synthesizing, and analyzing this information is among the most critical efforts of the project as well as being among the most likely to be cut short or skipped in an effort to “deliver something tangible” or “get going” or “show progress”.  Not doing this well or at all is in my experience the single greatest cause of scope creep, missed requirements, and missing stakeholders.

Unfortunately, creating and maintaining an accurate business knowledge repository requires organizational commitment and constant encouragement and support from management.  It can’t be done as a project, or an initiative, or any other temporary activity.  It has to become a constant act that is integrated into the entire organizations day-to-day activities.  It requires a commitment of time and effort from ALL employee’s.  And that is why it is so hard to do even an initial attempt, let alone keep it up.

But if you want to improve your projects; as well as your training, onboarding, and many other activities; keep Ron’s article in mind.  Just make sure you look at capturing more than just business rules. 

Agree.  Disagree.  Or have thoughts of your own to share?  Please comment!

 

© 2016 by David Olson

Recommended Reading: Painless Functional Specifications

Way back in 2000, Joel Spolsky wrote a series of articles on his ‘Joel on Software’ blog (highly recommended) that discussed Functional Specifications.  Now, given that this was written back in 2000 a lot of people will say it is out of date and no longer applicable.  But I think there are many valid points in his set of articles that any BA should think about.

Below I have provided a link to each of the four different articles in the series, along with a sample quote from each.  You may find that what Spolsky has to say resonates for you, whether you follow an ‘Agile’ or ‘Non-Agile’ process.
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‘You Suck at Excel’ video with Joel Spolsky

If you are a business analyst, you probably use Excel.  And if you use Excel, there is a REALLY good chance that you don’t use most of its capabilities and don’t know all of the ways to use it most efficiently.  I know that is true for me.  🙂

That’s why I want to recommend you watch this video.  It was private session done by Joel Spolsky to employees of Trello, Fog Creek Software, and Stack Exchange.  And if you weren’t aware of it already; besides founding or co-founding all three of those companies, Joel Spolsky used to be a program manager at Microsoft back in the early to mid-1990’s and he worked a lot on Excel.

He moves quick in this video, but there are a ton of good tips and tricks for using Excel the way most BA’s do.  That is, NOT for rigorous data analysis.  🙂

It’s only 54 minutes long and it might worth your time to watch.

Enjoy!

Recommended Reading: Why I’m not a big fan of Scrum

This blog post from July 11, 2016 was trending upward on Hacker News a few weeks ago and I thought it would be worth sharing.  The blog post is titled “Why I’m not a big fan of Scrum” and I am recommending it so that BA’s can get some insight into one engineers perspective on Scrum.  He emphasizes that his comments are directed towards ‘standard Scrum as described in the official guide’ and says:

After two extensive workshops, more than five years, and a couple hundreds of sprints working in Scrum, I have some points of criticism about it. I think it’s not naturally conducive to good software, it requires too much planing effort on the part of the developers, and it inhibits real change and improvement. In the following, I will try to put these into more detail by organizing them around more concrete topics.

I am always against dogmatic thinking of any sort, and whether you are a fan of Agile in general or Scrum in particular, I think the author here makes some interesting and valid points.  But if they are not valid from your perspective it is always a good idea to widen the horizons of your perspective.  While you may not feel this way, some engineer you are working with might and it would be good to understand their perspective.

Enjoy!

Recommended Reading: Modern Agile

An article I was recently reading that was surfaced on Hacker News included a link to this November 2015 blog post by Joshua Kerievsky titled “Modern Agile“.  In it he lays out the four disciplines he see’s that make up the core of ‘Modern Agile’ and then maps many agile practices to those disciplines.  His four disciplines are probably the best concept I have seen for taking the concept ‘Agile’ away from its technology orientation, even if most of the specific agile practices he later discusses are almost all technology and software development specific.

It’s still a great blog post that I recommend any BA read.

Recommended Reading: What Great Listeners Actually Do

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman have a good article on the Harvard Business Review site that was published originally in the July 14, 2016 issue.  The article is titled “What Great Listeners Actually Do” and presents the results of their analysis of nearly 3500 participants in a development program designed to help managers become better coaches, and what specifically those who were identified as the best listeners (top 5%) were doing and how that compared with others.

There are a number of take-aways for business analysts here, as being good listeners is something I consider critical to our job.

Enjoy!

Recommended Reading: The Problem with Requirements – Why is there still a problem?

I came across a white paper today called “The Problem with requirements: Why is there still a problem?“.  It was done by The Performance Institute and was sponsored by Robbins-Gioia and BluePrint (of BluePrint Requirements software).  I remember hearing about this when it came out in 2014 but for some reason or other didn’t read it at the time.

You may not find the results to be too surprising, but I think it is definitely worth a read if you are a business analysis.  It’s available from the Robbins Gioia web site and the link above goes directly to the report.

Happy reading.

New Wiki Page: Five Why’s

As a follow-up to the new wiki page on the Fishbone Diagram a few weeks ago, I have added another new wiki page on the Five Why’s technique.   I probably should have done them in reverse order since Five Why’s is in many ways the foundation of the Fishbone Diagram when it’s used for root cause analysis.  But what can I say, I sometimes do things in a strange order here.  🙂

As always, comments and feedback are welcome on any of the site content.

Thoughts on Leveraging OneNote Folder Structure for Searchability and Business Analysis

If it’s not obvious from my prior posts on this subject, I’m a fan of Microsoft OneNote.  I think it’s a fantastic tool for business analysts, but it definitely has its quarks and limitations.

This post will explore OneNote’s various search functions and discuss two ways you can structure your OneNote content to take advantage of its strengths while working around its limitations.  Specifically, using one notebook per project or effort; and defining a reusable folder structure that enables you to best leverage OneNote’s searching and tagging functions.

The Mystery of the Many OneNote Search Functions

The reasoning behind both of these recommendations has to do with limitations of the OneNote search and tag functions, and the fact that these functions are spread out across multiple access points within OneNote.  For example, the Search function (via the Search box) will let you limit the search results by the following criteria (in OneNote 2010 and 2013, which are the versions I have access to):

  • This page
  • This section
  • This section group
  • This notebook
  • All Notebooks

But the “Find by Author” search (which is accessed only via special button under the History tab) will only let you limit the search by:

  • This section
  • This section group
  • This notebook
  • All notebooks

Meanwhile, the “Recent Edits” function (also on the History tab) will initially let you narrow your results by all of the following options:

  • Today
  • Since Yesterday
  • Last 7 days
  • Last 14 days
  • Last 30 days
  • Last 3 months
  • Last 6 months
  • All pages sorted by date

And once you have selected a time period, the list of “Recent Edits” can be further narrowed by selecting from among the following options:

  • This section
  • This section group
  • This notebook
  • All notebooks

Lastly, there is the “Find Tags” function (discussed in the “Using OneNote Tags” article on this blog).  In that function, you can choose to limit the results by selecting from all of the following options:

  • This page group
  • This section
  • This section group
  • This notebook
  • All Notebooks
  • Today’s Notes
  • Yesterday’s Notes
  • This week’s Notes
  • Last week’s notes
  • Older notes

So depending on what type of content you are looking for, you may be limited by different search capabilities within OneNote.  And this is on top of fact that OneNote will not let you combine search times (no ‘AND’ in text or tag search) or combine search terms with other parameters (e.g. search for all instances of ‘Marketing’ in notes that have been updated in the last 7 days).

Given this current set of limitations, how can you structure your OneNote content best?
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Recommended Reading: The Breakdown Model Software Lifecycle

There is a short but interesting article in the January/Februart 2016 issue of CrossTalk magazine titled “Breakdown Model” that I thought was worth sharing on this site.  The link is to the mobile version of the article so if opened on your desktop you may need to ‘swipe’ with your mouse to flip pages.

The abstract describes the focus of the article like this:

“Here we present a variant of the Harmony process, the breakdown model which focuses on not only developing software but deleting all possible scenarios for failures in each phase of the development process.  This framework is adaptable with existing software development lifecycles.”

The article is actually quite short at about two pages.  The idea it presents is quite interesting I think even if you don’t have a dedicated team as they propose, because it presents a different way of thinking that a BA can take to all of their requirements work.

 

The Most Interesting Man Asks ‘Why?’

I am currently working on a new wiki page for the Five Why’s (or 5 Why’s) technique and came across this image that I liked so much I just had to share.  I have no idea who created it, but it apparently was posted to a “Disqus” comment thread somewhere.

I hope you enjoy this bit of humor as much as I did.

Most Interesting Man - 5 Why's

New Wiki Page: Fishbone Diagram

I’ve added a new page to the wiki that covers the Fishbone Diagram.  This diagram is most frequently used for root cause analysis but the structure and general process can also be used for:

  • A Feature Tree
  • Evaluating the risk of an event with multiple causes
  • Product cost analysis
  • Project Post-Morten analysis

The wiki page covers the root cause analysis use in detail with step-by-step instructions, a example diagram that is built out with each step, and the usual supplemental information and links to all of the sources I used.

And continuing the focus of the wiki, I tried to make the page the most comprehensive source on this subject that you can find on the web.  And also as usual, feedback and suggested improvement are always welcome.

Recommended Viewing: Agile Product Ownership in a Nutshell

A co-worker shared this video today and I thought it was so good I would share it here.  It’s not just an excellent overview of the role of the Product Owner in Agile, it also provides a good ‘business-oriented’ overview of Agile itself.

It’s only 16 minutes long so it’s well worth your time.  Or if are already familiar with the Product Owner’s role in Agile you still might want to view it to see if you want to share it prospective Product Owners on your projects that are using Agile processes.

Using OneNote Tags

This is one of a series of blog posts about Microsoft OneNote that I expect to write. To see all the ones I have currently written, click the OneNote tag.

Introduction

Tags are a feature of Microsoft OneNote that are often overlooked by users, but which can have out-sized benefits for Business Analysts, students, or others who use OneNote as a tool for gathering notes and information from a variety of sources.

So what are tags you ask?  Tags are essentially bits of metadata you can apply to anything inside a OneNote page and which you can then use to find the things you have tagged with a specialized search function.  This includes any sort of text (of any size from a single letter in a sentence to multiple paragraphs), images, drawings, and even embedded files.

Tags can also be configured to add custom styling or icons to the content that has been tagged and you can even assign more than one tag to the same bit of OneNote content.  However, one limitation is that you can’t apply them to the page, folder, or notebook structures themselves in OneNote.  Not sure what that means?  See the image below.

OneNote_No_Tags

OneNote comes with some tags predefined, and you can use one by selecting the content to be tagged and applying a tag either by selecting it from the tag drop-down list (show below) or by using a tag hot-key combination.

OneNote_Tags_Menu

In addition to the tags that come pre-configured with OneNote, you also have the ability to create your own custom tags.  This means you can create custom tags for a wide range of purposes.

But the reason why you apply the tags is that once you have content in OneNote that is assigned one or more tags you can then easily bring up a list of those things by tag, quickly hop from one to another, or even copy all of the items with one or more tags from their current location into a new page.

The rest of the article is made up of two sections where I will show you:

  1. How to customize the tag list, and
  2. How to use the Tag Summary pane for finding and summarizing tag
  3. Some thoughts on how to leverage tags as a BA

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Recommended Reading: Agile is Dead

Matthew Kern wrote an article on LinkedIn titled “Agile is Dead” that seems to be going somewhat viral among the project and development communities.  As of the time I am posting this it has almost 150,000 view and is up over 20,000 views just since this morning.

In it he says (among other things):

“All these hyped trends have a lifespan.  Management fads especially have a lifespan.  In the modern environment these waves are closer together, and closer, and closer.  The end of the curve can mean unpopularity, few sales, reduced margins i.e “death”.

“Who said Agile is dead?  The founders of Agile and its practitioners said it, not me.  Don’t go thinking I made this up.  (I claim nothing myself regarding its current death, I just report the claims of many developers.  It’s dead with or without me or my post. “

The article is full of links to supporting content and it’s definitely worth a read in my opinion.  You may not agree with him, but the article and its many links may change your views a bit.  Or not.  🙂