Whether or not you have ever been a Business Analyst yourself, if you work with enough Business Analysts over time you learn what sort of characteristics make a BA successful. Regardless of the Business Analyst’s skills, experience, domain knowledge or certifications, there are inherent traits that will more often than not help a person succeed in accomplishing business analysis tasks.
Over the years I’ve come to recognize most, if not all, of these traits in individuals whom I and many others have recognized as great Business Analysts. These traits are valuable because they help one thrive in a role that often comes with no authority (but lots of responsibility), can have constantly shifting demands and priorities, a lot of environmental ambiguity, and yet is one that plays a key role in the success or failure of projects, initiatives, and even overall organizational performance.
These traits are not meant to determine whether a person is a competent Business Analyst. Competency in business analysis tasks is something that typically is tied to the ability for an individual to perform BA tasks at a certain level of complexity and autonomy. Usually Business Analysts improve their competency over time with experience and ongoing professional learning. That said I find these traits can partially predict a person’s inherent ability to rapidly improve their competency in business analysis through on-the-job and classroom training and experience.
The neat thing about these traits is that you can structure interview questions and scenarios to actually try and bring these traits to the surface. If you look for these traits while you’re interviewing you will definitely have a leg up in determining if the candidate will be able to work well as a BA in your organization. While you will still want to assess the BA based on their skills, experience, etc., I would highly recommend looking into setting up scenarios during your hiring process that will help you establish whether these traits are inherent in the individual or not. I’ve put some suggestions on how to search for these traits during interviews below.
1. They are engaging
Business Analysts need to do something that is inherently tricky; convince people to commit their time and effort to working on activities that often aren’t their top priority. Rarely does a BA have the project with stakeholders who can commit their full time to requirement elicitation and validation, or have an unlimited amount of time to follow the schedules and priorities of their stakeholders and have requirements gathered when it suits them. Business Analysts often learn how to cajole, coerce, beg and otherwise convince stakeholders to help them accomplish their tasks, but the process is a whole lot easier if the Business Analyst is engaging. A great Business Analyst makes you want to work with them, even if you’re the Director of Sales and they need you to help define performance metrics for the CRM database upgrade.
A Business Analyst that can communicate the value of a project with passion and dedication will inherently pull people in without needing to list off the million reasons you need to be involved. Instead, you’ll want to be involved (or at the very least be willing to be involved more than you otherwise would). Having an engaging Business Analyst can bring everyone to the table and help groups focus on achieving meaningful results in a short amount of time.
How to interview for this trait: Look for the most boring looking project or accomplishment on the candidate’s resume and ask them to describe to them how they were able to perform <insert relevant competency you wish to assess>. Ask them a similar question for what looks to be an interesting or exciting project. Listen to how they deliver their responses. If you feel like you want to hear more from the candidate regardless of the project being discussed, then there’s a good chance that the BA knows how to be engaging regardless of the environment.
You can also ask them about how they’ve dealt with situations where stakeholders were not committing sufficient time/effort to accomplishing tasks and how they overcame it. If the first thing out of their mouth was “I talked to the Project Manager” then you probably have someone who does not believe they can inherently engage stakeholders.
2. They aren’t easily ruffled by conflict
Business Analysts are often faced with unruly or disagreeing stakeholders, unrealistic timelines and potential or actual shifts in scope. Sometimes all their hard work that has been put into gathering, validating and presenting requirements turns out to be completely useless as soon as the sponsor sees the report and says “but I thought we were supposed to build X. That’s what I really need, regardless of what the charter says”. Top that off with trying to get stakeholders to return your calls and e-mails, evaluate the relevancy of 200 business rules in the current software, and fighting with the new requirements management tool and it’s a surprise there aren’t more Business Analysts with frayed nerves.
Like Project Managers, I’ve found that great Business Analysts cannot be easily perturbed. They realize that most of their environment is out of their control, and even though they can often be held accountable for things beyond their scope they take as much as possible in stride. Business Analysts have to be able to handle constantly changing goals, priorities and whims of many stakeholders. While they shouldn’t be simply trying to accommodate everyone without question, they need to realize that it’s all part of the process and that inevitably there will be delays or issues that will impact deliverables and timelines.
How to interview for this trait: It is one thing to say “tell me a time when…,” it’s quite another to actually see someone’s reaction when faced with a situation. After a candidate has responded to a behaviour-based question, one of the interviewers can pretend to become rather rigid and start making assertions that the Business Analyst did not do the correct thing (e.g. “I don’t think you should ever contact the sponsor directly, you should always go through the Project Manager”). Have the interviewer continue to insist on their point as the candidate tries to explain their reasoning or position. Don’t get into any unprofessional conversations such as name calling, but be stubborn. If there’s a hint of a defensive response, then that’s a bad sign. If they take it in stride and are able to accept the interviewer’s opinion, then this is a very good indicator. Business Analysts should expect everyone to have an opinion different from them and know when to move the subject along and acknowledge the person’s point of view.
While I don’t think this technique is suitable for every interview process, I think it can yield insightful responses in many circumstances.
3. They are multi-disciplined
A lot of Business Analysts have expertise and experience in IT and their domain. While this could be considered multi-disciplined I am looking for individuals who have experience in performing tasks in completely unrelated fields across multiple industries. I find that Business Analysts are able to more easily relate to capture information, interact with stakeholders and identify opportunities if they’ve worked in many industries, either as a BA or in an operational role. Great Business Analysts can leverage their knowledge of several disciplines to take techniques and information and apply it to their current project or duties. I find Business Analysts who have been in several industries to be more versatile and less susceptible to believing that certain analysis tools, techniques or work products are what are needed for any and every situation. Business Analysts with an academic background that crosses several disciplines (for example, a degree in Sociology but a Master’s or Doctorate in Math) also demonstrates a multi-disciplined mindset and experience.
A great Business Analyst realizes that all their activities and methods need to be adapted to the specific environment and situation at hand. Multi-disciplined Business Analysts can often find innovative ways to deliver value to their projects and organizations with their wide range of knowledge.
How to interview for this trait: Few people stay in the same field for their entire career, so ask the candidate to discuss a time when they’ve applied knowledge from a job in one field and used it in another field (even if it’s what they learned flipping burgers before heading into investment banking). If the candidate has always been in the same field but has an education in a field that is more or less unrelated to business analysis (Arts, Chemistry, Real Estate, etc.), ask them how they feel that education can help them in a specific BA situation (e.g. “What did you learn with your <degree/diploma/etc.> that would help you be able to ensure that you have a complete set of requirements?”).
4. They are inquisitive
I’ve never met a great Business Analyst that didn’t ask more questions than they answered over the course of a project. Great Business Analysts realize that they are merely a conduit of information and are always asking as many stakeholders as needed to help elicit, refine, validate and implement requirements. A Business Analyst should always be thinking “What, why, how, where, when, who” when they’re communicating with stakeholders and analyzing solutions.
Often Business Analysts won’t get the real information they need the first time around. Whether it’s determining the root cause of a problem, identifying the core need, or ensuring that all the bases are covered when reviewing a potential solution, great Business Analysts realize that while they’ll probably never have a complete set of information they can ask timely and relevant questions to get as much information as possible so effective decisions can be made.
How to interview for this trait: Tell the candidate a little about the project or operational role they will be performing, but keep it high level. If they don’t ask any follow up questions, that’s a major red flag. The more questions and follow ups they ask that are pertinent and relevant, the more likely they are naturally inquisitive and know how to search for important details and considerations. (Note: if they start asking questions like “what’s my vacation pay” and “what are the benefits of the company” before asking for a lot of details about the role, you’re probably looking at the wrong person for your job).
5. They think (and action) strategically
Business Analysts need to always be asking questions about the value of their work. Work that doesn’t relate to the strategic goals of the organization doesn’t just have little value, it’s really fake work. Great Business Analysts understand why what they’re doing has value and can articulate that to stakeholders. In addition, they are always looking for ways to uncover value for the organization by thinking about the organization’s strategic goals. This may lead the BA to recommend the merger of two overlapping projects or highlight the opportunity for process re-engineering that will reduce costs. Great Business Analysts show their companies that they are not simply the “IT guys who don’t just talk tech,” but are people who understand the needs and goals of the organization and can find ways to help them realize their objectives more efficiently.
Great Business Analysts also know how to action on strategic thinking. Rarely will the Business Analyst have the authority to act on an opportunity themselves, but they are willing to develop compelling arguments for superiors to take action. Doing so may place them at a slightly higher level of risk (since they may be going against popular or conventional thinking), but they also do this altruistically for the greater good of the company. I’m not advocating that Business Analysts should be mavericks, but they should know how to communicate the value (or lack of value) in recommendations to superiors.
How to interview for this trait: Give the candidate a scenario for a proposed project. Ask them if they believe the project is a good one to undertake given your company’s goals (assuming the BA could have found these goals on your website or in provided materials prior to the interview). Good candidates for any position should review those goals prior to going to a job interview, and a great Business Analyst should know how to measure a project against those goals.
Also ask the candidate if they’ve ever been on a project where they didn’t think the project was that valuable to the company. Start off by asking them something about the project (how was it run, how did they know it wasn’t valuable, etc.). After they’ve done describing the project, ask them what they did to let others know that the project wasn’t valuable. If they didn’t do anything or very little, then this makes me question whether they can really action on strategic thinking.
6. They care about the details
Most of the above traits are things you want to see in other roles, particularly business leaders and salespeople. One of the things in my mind that sets the Business Analyst role apart from some of these other roles is the need for attention to detail. You can’t be an Analyst without being a little bit anal J Great Business Analysts know the importance of having precise and clear details documented and communicated properly, and are adept at managing large amounts of detailed information.
This also means that a Business Analyst must be able to scale their message and thought processes. A great Business Analyst can give a compelling presentation to executives on the value of a project and then turn around and discuss with a Quality Assurance member why a change to requirement R-1938 impacts test cases T-321 and 329. Without proper attention to detail the Business Analyst can’t ensure that the actual solutions developed or procured will meet the needs of the customer, or even that those needs are sufficiently articulated to be able to adopt solutions.
How to interview for this trait: The best indicator of this trait is to review work products that were exclusively developed by the candidate, although this is often difficult to acquire. Instead you can get the candidate to play the equivalent of Where’s Waldo. Ask the candidate to review a sample deliverable and point out potential issues in the content (e.g. imprecise/ambiguous verbiage in requirements, lack of traceability, etc.). Make sure you give them sufficient time to review the document; this is typically a good activity for a 2nd or 3rd interview. The more issues that the candidate uncovers the better (bonus points if they spot stuff you didn’t even intend to be an issue).
I would also evaluate how detailed the candidate’s questions are when asking about the job, the work environment, etc. Again great Business Analysts want as much information as possible, particularly when they’re looking to commit to a position that will take up the majority of their waking hours.
Finding Great Business Analysts
Finding great Business Analysts can take time and effort; hopefully these traits will help you identify individuals with the potential to be great BAs even if they’re in different roles or don’t have the experience yet.
What are some traits of great Business Analysts that you have worked with?