A Picture Paints a Thousand Words: The Power of Models

The use of modelling to convey outcomes and drive consensus is an indispensable tactic in driving organisational change. While modelling can take multiple forms and vary in level of detail, it consistently remains a powerful tool in the business analysis toolkit. In this blog, we explore opportunities to drive greater value through modelling. From there, we outline the steps to selecting the most impactful model to accelerate your organisational change.

Modelling is an abstraction—a way of representing the real world or a complex problem in a digestible format. A model allows us to filter out any noise that is not essential to understanding the core issue at hand. Research on the human mind underscores the value of modelling:

  • We remember pictures better than words. Roughly 90 percent of information transmitted to our brains is visual; therefore, we recall patterns and process information much more effectively in the visual format.
  • Visuals are an impactful and efficient way to convey information. One can deliver much more information in a single picture, whereas it may require a thousand words to describe the contents of that visual sufficiently.

Yet, as delivery methodologies continue to evolve from Waterfall to Agile or DevOps, organisations may be tempted to discard modelling as an archaic approach, with their preference moving towards written mediums such as user stories and epics. Yet, this approach rejects the core benefits of applying modelling to convey the “bigger picture.” In practice, business analysts (BAs) should share critical information in a manner that is most impactful for stakeholders—appealing to our visual proclivity as people.

Making Sense of Varied Modelling Techniques

Material from the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA) or British Computer Society (BCS) unearths countless approaches to modelling and diagramming for a range of delivery types. Each technique serves a distinct purpose and offers different information about how to communicate specifications and garner collective understanding across stakeholders.

BAs should select the technique that will best resonate with stakeholders for a given business need. For example, a data model may provide a view of the business objects that are manipulated during a business process (say, an order). A state model shows the lifecycle of the order (created, paid, shipped, etc.), and a process or use case model depicts the functionality that allows the user to do his or her job (moving the order through the workflow, using the functionality offered). In this example, these models can help the BA to:

  • Specify: Provide a clear, unambiguous view of requirements
  • Communicate: Align the view of all stakeholders (including yourself)
  • Understand: Explore and simplify complexity, creating a quicker way to assess change impact  
  • Validate: Use various models in collaboration to cross-check your analysis

Selecting a Model: The Crucial Questions

With so many possibilities, how can you select the optimal model? To inform your choice, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What are my target outcomes? As a business analyst or other business decision-maker, it is easy to be consumed by analysis paralysis. Be clear about what you and your stakeholders want to achieve, document the desired outcomes, and then select a model that can help articulate those outcomes most effectively.
  2. What is the right level of model for my stakeholders or purpose? Use a level of modelling that is fit for purpose and just enough. Avoid using a model for its own sake or to add unnecessary detail. It should add value to your work and help users clearly understand what you want to convey. The often-cited experiments of George Miller (1956)—popularly known as Miller's Law—introduced the concept of chunking. His findings suggest that the number of objects an average human can hold in his or her working memory is between five and nine, with seven known as the “magical number.” Applying this insight, ensure diagrams are no more complicated than necessary.
  3. How can I be consistent in my approach? To mitigate confusion, use a consistent layout, ideally one that stakeholders recognise and understand. Introducing new or alternative models unnecessarily or without proper context can increase the risk of confusion.
  4. What are the best practices? Start with tried-and-true approaches. Refer to IIBA and BCS material for recommendations, and use industry-standard notations to describe your models. While notations in the world of modelling can become complicated, aim to simplify your symbols and terminology to promote clarity with stakeholders.
  5. How can I keep it simple? Keep diagrams as small, defined, and succinct as possible. They should convey important information clearly without overwhelming. If a diagram is tough to explain to stakeholders or results in countless questions from your team, consider bringing the information up one level to maximise clarity and focus

Modelling is—and will continue to be—an essential function that supports the quality of business analysis, nurtures engagement with stakeholders, and, ultimately, helps to solidify the case for change in transformation initiatives. By picking the right model, you will be better equipped to accomplish these aims and help the organisation achieve its target outcomes.