Five Essential Principles for Agile Business Analysis

Engaging teams to cultivate new skillsets and aspire to high performance helps to solidify the capability for continuous change and improvement. With the majority of organisations adopting agile and DevOps ways of working, it’s never been more essential to ensure business analysis teams possess the core skills and development pathways to deliver business outcomes through these methodologies. But what makes a great agile Business Analyst (BA) skillset? Should we abandon the more traditional skills of the generalist BA?

The first area to explore is how BAs typically get involved in agile-based project work. More experienced agile BAs saw a slow evolution their projects, in which iterative ways of working yielded changes in approaches to analysis. For example, constructs such as “requirements” evolved into the need to write user stories iteratively. Today, many organisations seek specific agile BAs who have deep practical experience in working on agile projects.

Based on the latest research, it’s no surprise that agile is reshaping business analysis. The adoption of agile has exploded across most industries in the last five years and has transformed both the way organisations work, and the results that they have seen. For example, according to the Harvard Business Review, around 25 percent of companies had actively adopted agile in 2018, and 55 percent were in the process of doing so. As of May 2019, the 13th State of Agile Report reports that 97 percent of organisations practice agile! But what has driven the acceleration of agile adoption? It often stems from the benefits of an agile approach. Forbes Technology Council attributes several key benefits to agile methodologies including adaptation to change, faster feedback cycles, and earlier identification of issues. By adopting agile in the development cycle, companies can respond rapidly to changing market conditions and bring products to market far quicker than with traditional approaches. 

Agile adoption has accelerated other transformational changes, including the introduction of product-led organisational structures and the replacement of the BA role. Over time, our approach to cultivating agile skillsets within the BA role has evolved to match this transformation. Early work involved establishing core ways of working through initial sprints. Today, the role encompasses agile delivery frameworks and contracts.

 Skillset development and management have also transformed over this period. Whilst teaching the basics of agile through methodologies such as SCRUM provided the foundation for strong agile BAs, training now encompasses other concepts such as understanding agile at scale and product capabilities. Keeping in mind the virtues of an agile approach and our learnings from the journey so far, what are five core principles that the BA can apply to unlock the benefits of agile in his or her role?

  1. Execution beats knowledge every time. Getting early and regular exposure to agile ways of working is key. Often, agile ways of working can be applied to smaller groups and tasks outside of project delivery (e.g. through Kanban boards, continuous improvement activities, and higher rates of collaboration.) Apply agile approaches to smaller initiatives and tasks that can help you cement the mindset early.
  2. Embrace flexibility with ambiguity: The ability to adapt to continuous change in business objectives is an indispensable skill for the agile BA. Instead of striving towards perfection, focus on iterating to drive successful outcomes and business value.
  3. Prioritise self-learning: Build on your knowledge regularly, in small increments. Seek support from those with experience: Building on practical advice will help to cultivate capability and overcome the common challenges associated with applying “theoretical” agile principles to real-life initiatives.
  4. Focus on the principles: Agile methodologies are not one-size-fits-all solutions; here at North Highland, we suggest tailoring the approach to fit your organisation’s needs. Develop a strong command of core agile principles to ensure you’re equipped to adapt your ways of working and deliver rapid value, regardless of the methodology.
  5. “We,” not “me:” Soft skills such as stakeholder management and relationship-building are crucial for the agile BA. Agile moves away from heavy up-front analysis to regular, iterative requirements analysis. As such, BAs that are skilled in building relationships will benefit from easier access to their stakeholders facilitating agility and responsiveness to change.

All of this talk about the importance of agility in business analysis begs the question: Is the traditional BA skillset dead? In a word… no. Different sectors, and even divisions within a company, require a wide range of skills including more traditional BA traits such as requirements elicitation and process engineering. Knowing how to use and adapt these in relation to agile adoption across projects and programmes is key.

The right talent, when well-managed and inspired, will drive exceptional outcomes. Key to unlocking the promise of the BA workforce is to balance foundational BA skillsets with emerging agile techniques.