What do detectives, entrepreneurs/innovators, doctors, lawyers, and effective business analysts all have in common? Among other things, they all have to connect the dots[i] to be successful. Like detectives sorting through objects at the scene of the crime, or doctors sorting through sometimes disjointed information provided by patients, business analysts need to sort through information—lots and lots of information—in order to identify problems and uncover requirements of the solution. This process requires the ability to connect the dots.
Although the phrase “connecting the dots” has been around for a long time, it has crept into our popular culture, thanks in part to Steve Jobs. He talked about it in August, 2011 when he described what connecting the dots meant to him. He said, “You cannot connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that somehow the dots will connect in your future.”[ii]
Well, that sounds good. But what does it actually mean? How do we go about connecting the dots? Here are some prerequisites:
- Experience. We cannot look backwards if we don’t have the background or experience to make sense of the new information we’re taking in. That does not mean we need to have specific industry or project experience. But it does mean that we need to have learned from similar situations. We need to apply appropriate business analysis skills to new situations, guided by what worked and what did not work in the past.
- Understanding context. We need to understand the context of the current situation. “Context” is one of the core business analysis concepts in the BABOK® Guide v3, an important concept indeed. Understanding the context provides important information about such things as the culture of the organization and the stakeholders, values and beliefs of the organization and the stakeholders, processes followed, conditions that affect the situation like weather (think shoe prints in the snow, or clues washed away in the rain), terminology, and technology—just about anything that can affect identifying the problem and the creation of the solution.
- Ability to recognize patterns. Recognizing patterns requires an ability to take in information from a variety of different sources, to synthesize lots of disparate information and make sense of it, to rearrange it, to understand what is important, to stay focused, and not get distracted by the irrelevant. The ability to recognize patterns is what allows us to understand which “clues” are relevant, because we’ve seen them, just in different situations. It’s about the ability to see a problem and say with confidence: his particular solution will work (and this one won’t and here’s why).
- Using both the rational mind and intuition. BAs need to use both their rational minds and their intuition.[iii] Several years ago, there was a heated discussion on a social media group about which would serve the BA better—being “analytical” or being “intuitive.” Most discussion participants saw it as an either/or. Effective BAs were either more logical or more intuitive.We do need to be analytical. We need to break down information into smaller pieces and determine which pieces are needed. We need to use our analysis to uncover the root causes of a problem, which helps separate facts from hearsay, gossip, and opinion. But we also need to use our intuition if we have any hope of being able to think critically and conceptually, as well as to be able to synthesize a lot of information quickly and be able to make sense of it.[iv]
- Ability to thrive in ambiguous situations. We often hear about the need for BAs to tolerate ambiguity. I think that effective detectives and business analysts are those who not only tolerate but actually thrive in ambiguous situations. The ability to thrive in uncertain situations allows business analysts to create structure from chaos. When business analysts can synthesize all the information they have accumulated during elicitation activities, put it together in meaningful ways, and are able to create understanding and gain consensus—that’s a true thing of beauty.
Having these competencies does not necessarily mean a BA will be successful. But these skills are necessary to connect the dots and connecting the dots is necessary if we BAs are going to do our jobs of finding problems and recommending solutions that provide value to stakeholders (BABOK® Guide v3).
[i]“To draw a conclusion from disparate facts,” https://www.dictionary.com/browse/connect-the-dots?s=t. Originally a form or puzzle involving drawing lines between numbers to form a picture, as in “To draw connecting lines between a seemingly random arrangement of numbered dots so as to produce a picture or design.” https://www.thefreedictionary.com/
[iii] The term “intuition” has a variety of meanings and is used differently in different contexts. Although there are different nuances, the term basically is “direct perception of truth, fact, etc. independent of any reasoning process; immediate apprehension; a keen and quick insight.” https://www.dictionary.com/browse/intuition?s=t
[iv] Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action from The Critical Thinking Community, https://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/defining-critical-thinking/766. Conceptual thinking is to “…make sense of large amounts of detailed and potentially disparate information.” Conceptual thinking is applied “to find ways to understand how that information fits into a larger picture and what details are important, and to connect seemingly abstract information..” BABOK® Guide 3.0, 9.1.6.