Using Strategic Thinking in a Business Analyst Role
10 November 2021
We typically see business analysts as a tactical resource - eliciting requirements, analysing solution alternatives, determining the best approach for testing and implementing a solution, defining non-functional requirements, etc.
This largely comes down to how we as a profession have marketed ourselves.
The more valuable business analyst operates strategically and thinks strategically.
I am not talking about strategic business analysis; I am talking about being strategic. Even if you are a junior business analyst.
What does it mean to be a strategic thinker in business analysis?
We can define strategy as “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim,” - Oxford Dictionary
We define thinking as “the process of considering or reasoning about something…..using thought or rational judgement; intelligent,” - Oxford Dictionary
We define Business Analysis as “Business Analysis is a disciplined approach for introducing and managingchange to organisations, whether they are for-profit businesses, governments, or non-profits.” - IIBA
At the intersection of these three, I believe we find the purpose of strategic thinking in business analysis.
A strategic business analyst “introduces change to an organisation through consideration of organisational problems and opportunities identified, applying intelligent reasoning and rational judgement to the information available, analysing different factors or variables, to help the organisation not only identify the change but also manage the change, through a plan of action to achieve a future aim.”
Why is strategic thinking important?
Strategic thinking helps us focus on finding and developing unique opportunities to create value.
Good strategic thinking enables us to understand the fundamental drivers of change and challenge assumptions and conventional thinking about them.
Strategic thinking helps us have an awareness of what has not yet happened, where we are at, and have the foresight to look forward to what the future could be like.
Strategic thinking is about thinking about the future, while considering the now. Finding the bridge between the two and helping organisations plan and manage the actions taken to enable change for a future aim.
As a business analyst, if you want to move out of the tactical view to the strategic level, then consider your approach to your work and look at it through a strategic thinking lens.
The following outlines 7 thinking habits you could use to engage and develop strategic thinking.
7 Habits of a strategic thinking business analyst
1.You think beyond the organisation and/or your project.
You look for products or solutions used in similar situations and ask questions like:
What was similar there that you could learn from?
Was there a similar problem that was solved?
What can you learn from their failures to help you overcome the problem you are trying to solve?
Ask yourself who the company's competitors are and what differentiates them from your organisation.
What gaps can your organisation bridge that your competitors are battling with?
What can you do with greater efficiency with the resources your organisation has?
Who are the new entrants to the market and what makes them different?
What is changing that presents an opportunity or threat to your organisation?
Look at other industries and what is happening there that has relevance to your industry?
2.Ask lots of questions.
You don’t always accept the first answer you get, but probe a bit more to test the answer and find the hidden truths. You could be asking questions like…
“Are there any situations when this answer does not hold true?”
“Why would this happen in this situation?” - something like the 5 why’s here.
“How could we solve this in another way?” - asking yourself to look at alternatives
It’s not enough for you to wonder ’what if’. You are always investigating how it would work, and what steps would be needed to achieve the 'what if'.
Some brilliant questions strategic thinkers ask include:
Why do I/we need to care about this?
What event or fact prompted the need for this decision to be made?
Are there alternative facts/information I/we should consider?
What is the impact if I/we don’t decide on this issue?
What are we trying to achieve by doing……?
What are my/our biases, prejudices, interests or values that might hinder my view?
Who is affected by this outcome?
What are the positive and negative consequences of this decision?
What is the worst result this decision could bring?
If the worst-case scenario happens, can we live with it?
What are forces for or against this decision? Do I/we care? Why or why not?
What other options, choices, alternatives could we consider?
What is on your reading list right now? What are you watching?
Constant learning and self-improvement develop strategic thinking skills because at the base of thinking skills is knowledge and information that feeds our thinking.
Whether it’s learning from your own experiences, the experiences of others, books, presentations, networks, conferences or colleagues, strategic thinkers, don’t dismiss any potential sources of education and knowledge building.
Include a few trusted YouTube, meetups, and industry webinar leaders into your knowledge pack each week.
Join various networks and engage with employees from all areas of the organisation.
4.Think several steps ahead.
When we were preparing to emigrate to New Zealand, we had all our steps laid out month by month. One month we got all the certificates, next month medicals and so on.
We knew exactly what to expect; we knew the various options we had, and we knew how we might adjust when certain events came along.
We thought through the ‘What ifs’ and what steps might flow from that to achieve our ultimate aim.
It doesn’t mean everything went according to plan, but we had a strategy that we could baseline our decisions off and adjust.
Tip: Decision trees and matrices are super helpful to see the full impact of decision making and building what if scenarios. They also drive the research you do for any answer.
5.Ask, what else does this mean.
This question is about being able to consider the not-so obvious answers.
Develop the habit of considering every aspect of the system you work in and asking what this opportunity or problem means for each part of the system.
We define a system as the software, people, processes, resources and any other element that takes part in the operating of a system. It goes beyond technology, e.g. your department could be considered as a system.
We can consider your organisation a system. It has functions, processes, technology, people and more that work together to deliver a service or a product.
For example, if the government passed a law that limits people’s movement because of COVID. What would this mean?
Staff (front office and back office)
Processes that need to run and need people to run them
People needed to access systems from a place other than work
Customers needing access to services and products
…..and you can go on.
6. Be Proactive.
Strategic thinking is about being prepared for the future.
Going back to my emigration example. We prepared for the future. We gained knowledge - reading, listening, speaking to people, attending workshops and more.
How are you finding opportunities for your organisation to be proactive rather than reactive?
What are the threats coming up that you can help your organisation overcome - at an organisational level and a project level?
What opportunities are there that your organisation might capitalise on before the rest of the market does?
Think beyond your desk and your project.
7.Consider and welcome counter arguments.
A person who thinks their ideas are always right is probably not a strategic thinker.
A person who considers counter arguments and appreciates opposing ideas, opinions, and arguments will enrich their strategic viewpoint by getting opposing angles to their thoughts.