There is a lot of discussion surrounding business analysis in agile project management. Some, more pessimistic, leaders think this is a death knell for the business analyst role as we know it. Others are more optimistic and see ways the two concepts can work together in harmony.
But how different is business analysis from agile project management? Do teams really need to choose one or the other? Or will BAs simply evolve to provide value in an agile environment?
Let’s look at the role of business analysts and how they can help (or hinder) agile management teams.
BAs Can Work Outside of Individual Projects
When managed well, business analysts can thrive in an agile environment. Some companies are moving their analysts off of individual teams and projects, instead directing them to work as a mediator between the project and management teams.
Willem Botha, a senior business analyst at DVT, writes that agile management has freed up business analysts to actually analyze and improve the business, instead of just working as a technical BA on specific projects.
“The need for quality analysis in a world of increasing change and technological complexity is high,” he writes.
This is an issue that many business analysts have faced over the years. Their employers know they want business analysis but aren’t sure where to begin with the role.
“Many business analysts are seen as note-takers rather than analysts,” Ali Cox, senior instructor at B2T Training, writes. “Taking notes is not how we add value. Analysts, regardless of title, have the skills to facilitate conversations, which is at the heart of agile.”
Business Analysts Solve Problems Within Organizations
Some companies are placing business analysts closer to the management and client services teams. These employees work with leadership to identify problems and help product owners come up with solutions.
Peter Vogel, owner of PH&V Information Services, explains that business analysts don’t actually execute these solutions. Instead, they make sure solutions created by development teams are valuable. The main three questions that BAs address when evaluating solutions include:
What are the real needs or problems of the business?
What would solve those needs or problems?
What fits with the organization’s existing systems or goals?
Without a business analyst to consider each of these questions, the development team will create something that doesn’t solve the right problems or solves them inappropriately.
Business Analysts Are Part of the Development Team
If they’re not taking on roles on par with the client services team, business analysts might start working with developers on a project level. Interestingly, the main flaw in the role of business analysts in agile management may be the management methodology itself.
Business analysts have a clearly defined role in waterfall project management, writes Inflection Point. While this isn’t the case in agile management, it doesn’t mean the BA role is unimportant. And, although some say BAs need to have their roles defined, others believe this step is unnecessary, as business analysts work as members of the development team.
Ulf Eriksson, the founder of ReQtest, says the term “developers” doesn’t only refer to people who write code. This is especially true as agile project management moves out of its software development roots and into non-tech-related industries. “Developers” are testers, implementation teams and support staff who help the scrum master and product owner reach their goals.
Other industry leaders agree. “This is why agile encourages cross-functional teams,” Ryan McKergow tells InfoQ. “We have all the skill sets within the team that are needed...but we don’t necessarily need specific people being a pure specialist (and nothing else) within a team.”
Building a team of generalists (with their own specialties) makes it easy for people to step up and fill gaps in the work.
“If you see a project touching more than three or four systems, I would definitely recommend having a dedicated BA and PM,” Banu Raghuraman, former product owner at Avocado Consulting, says. “On a smaller project, however, it’s actually in the team’s best interest for the role to be hybrid.”
This way, your product owner isn’t reliant on one person to do specific tasks, and there’s room on the team for BAs to step in wherever they are needed.
Some Business Analysts Try to Become Proxy Product Owners
Not all business analysts will fit comfortably on your development team, which could lead to friction as they try to figure out where they stand within your organization.
Don Hussey, managing director of advisory services at Norwalk Aberdeen, says business analysts often end up helping the product owner develop user stories and working as a team assistant. “The solution is not to try to figure out what our role is, but rather to create a role customized to the needs of our team, product owner and customers,” he writes.
The Dangers of the Proxy Product Owner
While business analysts may try to position themselves as second to the product owner and their right-hand worker, it can actually be a serious mistake for BAs to come off as “proxy product owners,” Simon Bates, COO of Manifesto, says.
This is because the product owners still have all of the decision-making power in the project. If team members grow confused and start turning to the business analyst, the project will slow to a crawl as communication and role expectations break down.
Matthew Adams, founder of Business Analyst Guru, agrees with Bates, and adds that setting up business analysts as proxy POs also makes product owners lazy.
“They think the Proxy PO will answer all the questions,” Adams writes. “This setup is an excuse for management to cling onto their own control but without having to do the actual work that’s required from a Product Owner role.”
The development team might start to feel like there are too many managers and project leaders and not enough hands actually doing the work.
Business Analysts Can Step Into the Product Owner Role
While a business analyst should not become a proxy product owner, in which they serve as an assistant, they can step into the product owner role full-time, Mia Horrigan at Zen Ex Machina writes.
The role of product owner “is often a natural extension of a more senior business analyst’s role,” Horrigan explains. In order to fulfill the role, the business analyst must typically acquire new skills and must also be given the full power of product ownership, being the same power they lacked when assisting as a proxy.
Horrigan isn’t the only one who thinks product ownership is a natural fit for business analysts.
“The product owner role is undervalued in Agile, but because it's aimed at getting the team to realize the best possible solution, the business analyst who can make the transition is pure gold to the company,” Jaco Viljoen, manager of the digital business unit at IndigoCube, says.
Viljoen estimates that up to a third of business analysts could step into the role of product ownership, and five percent would take over the scrum master role. An additional 20 percent would move into testing and work with other members of the development team.
The Business Analyst Can Help or Hurt Your Organization
Business analysts themselves aren’t good or bad. Their effectiveness depends on your organization and how you use them. If they don’t have clearly defined roles, then they are bound to flounder and hinder your project efforts.
“Agile practices and business analysis actually deliver tremendous value to organizations when they are leveraged effectively together,” Laura Brandenburg, CEO of Bridging the Gap, writes.
BAs work to keep the backlog organized, discover effective business process, and break down micro requirements to make tasks more digestible. In many ways, they work to provide the background support and mediation necessary to remove potential barriers.
Without Guidance, Business Analysts Can Get In the Way
Breakdowns occur when business analysts try to create their own roles without leadership input or become proxies for other team leaders. While management should consult analysts on their career goals, they should first have a strong vision in mind for what the BA does.
The team at Scott Ambler and Associates lists multiple issues that BAs face in an agile environment if they don’t have the direction and guidance. These include:
Strong personalities can influence the product owner or overall vision.
Analysts can reduce the influence of stakeholders with their own research and ideas.
Analysts can overthink and conduct unnecessary analyses that slow down projects.
They can reduce opportunities for other developers to hone their leadership and communication skills.
Essentially, these issues occur when BAs are not given a concrete role and are trying to make themselves useful. They end up getting in the way.
BA Skillsets Are Valued on Most Teams
It’s a shame that many businesses don’t know what to do with their BAs, as they’re valuable sources of information for the company and can be utilized in multiple ways.
Business analyst and agile coach Dave Saboe explains that the traits of a successful business analyst can fit comfortably in multiple aspects of an organization. Business analysts are trained to be value-driven and tell stories with the information they find. These traits align closely with the principles of agile management. There’s no need to kick your BAs to the curb just because your team is moving toward agile planning.
Business leaders often move their analysts around the company, trying to find out where they fit. One BA might work comfortably with the development team while another has a hard time and is better suited to assume the role of product owner. Every employee is different, and identifying their skills and career goals can help you find the best place for them within the organization.