Economic Stimulus, Meet Business Analyst

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Before you tune out, don’t worry, while “politically motivated” this is NOT going to be a post on politics, but on process and procedure – business analysis, if you will. That said, as an American, it’s been hard to tune out talk of the recently passed “economic stimulus” package, wherein we’ve apparently discovered that by having government spend a number of dollars with enough zeroes behind it, we can get our struggling economy back on track.

Anyway, last week I caught myself evaluating the whole situation from a business analyst’s perspective and began to wonder how I would try to handle the mess if it were my project and I were the BA. I began to think through some of the questions I might ask and how following fundamental principles of business analysis might improve matters.

When it gets down to it, how do we know that all the programs and spending have accomplished or are going to accomplish what we want them to? And not just for this bill, but for all of the mega-billion dollar proposals? And not just for this administration, but for every administration past, present and future?

Ok, I know I’m sounding like a skeptic, here, but don’t blame me – it’s my job. An important part of what I do as a business analyst is to make sure that resources are spent to the best benefit of the customer. This post is a summary of my musings from a quick, 10-minute-or-so brainstorm I did the other day on the topic.

Clearly Defined Problems:

How might outcomes be different if we made sure that legislation had clearly articulated problem statements so all could  be clear as to what specific points of pain each “project” intended to address? Sorry, but as a business analyst, I’m going to have to tell you that “the economy is messed up” is just wayyy too vague a problem.

SMART Objectives:

How might things be different if we had a clear definition of how success would be defined and how we’d measure it? If we limited scope to a few prioritized, SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely/Testable) objectives? Sorry, but once again, “fixing the economy” is way to vague an objective.

Traceability:

How much easier would it be to determine what “works” and what doesn’t if every program/line item (read: dollar) had to be traceable back to one of these clearly defined objectives? How much easier would it be to identify which resources (funds, in large part) were actually allocated to their intended purposes as opposed to getting lost in the bureaucracy?

An Agile Government?:

So, the stimulus package was a massive BTD (Big, Thick Document) measuring in at nearly 1100 pages, and “stakeholders” had less than a day to review the final draft.  Kind of sounds like the requirements review schedule from a  project destined for mediocrity at best, huh? What are the odds of us moving to a more iterative and incremental methodology for getting legislation through the pipeline? How successful could it realistically be if we did?

You know, something like “working legislation over comprehensive documentation,” or “constituent collaboration over contract negotiation.” I’m not a legislator or a government expert but is it necessary that every bill be so long, complex and convoluted that the end-user of government services (that’s us) doesn’t even bother trying to read or understand them? Give me some user stories!

What else?

So, there are a few of my thoughts. I’ve never really done the “open thread” thing, but I would be very interested in your thoughts as project people and business analysts. How could principles of business analysts be applied to government procedures to make them more effective/efficient?

Also, am I the only one that looks at non-job related things like the legislative process and thinks, “Wow, they could use a good BA!”?

One reason I enjoy being a business analyst is that the principles and skills are so portable. Root cause analysis, defining SMART objectives, tracing solutions (and dollars) to objectives, finding the most effective ways to communicate ideas and many other things BA’s do daily with our project work are just as applicable in solving other types of problems.

What are some ways that you’ve either applied, or seen principles of business analysis applied effectively outside the IT project environment?

About the Author

Jonathan Babcock is a management and IT consultant with expertise in business analysis, process optimization and solution delivery methodology. Practical Analyst is his outlet for sharing what he's learned, and for interacting with solution delivery professionals across the globe.

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15 Comments

  1. Jonathan:

    I don't see anything wrong with business analysts getting involved with discussing the US economy especially when they offer a positive solution like you just did.

    Personally, I would like to see the US government do more root cause analysis, so we can be sure that they are solving the right problems.

    It seems that no-one is willing to identify the root causes of the ongoing economic crisis and I wonder how they anyone can offer a solution without taking out time to identify what needs to be solved

  2. The general business analysis process is similar in any kind domain of consideration. The simple steps that you laid are appropriate. The economic issues in consideration should be translated into exact problem definitions in a way similar to solving business management problems rather than technological problems.

    That said, handling of the scope is most critical as in the case of stimulus. If the problem are at an industry level, then the steps to resolve them should be at an industry level and not at a corporation level. If the problem is at a business or corporation level, it should be addressed with solutions for the corporation. If the problem is with the government procedures, the solution should be drafted to address the core issues there. The resolution should be supported with sane policies and finances rather than adhoc requests that will create conflicts of interest. (By default shareholders and tax payers will have different priorities 🙂 )This was one of the problems in the way the leadership handled the crisis in the initial days and let firms fall one after another. If the level at which the crisis is handled is not appropriate, the solutions will not be lasting. The solutions take time to trickle down and patience is of utmost importance. What is prevalent is panic and hence there are large swings in the markets.

  3. Part 1:BTD's are common in legislation. My question is usually how the 1100 pages got written, and how long did that take. In this analogy, is Legislation the 'requirements' or is it the end product?

    The bad and good thing about legislation in a democracy is that it is the result of compromise among competing stakeholders who have different objectives. Every other organization that uses BA approaches is NOT a democracy, i.e. the standard company or corporation, where there may be competing stakeholders, but they all do eventually report up to one person who can end the haggling and make the necessary decisions. I think the Romans had this mind when they created the first temporary dictators to run everything in times of crisis, but that legacy has of course been a problem ever since.

  4. Part 2: So, using BA approaches to creating legislation, at least in the USA federal system, can be a problem if a common strategy and goals can cannot be agreed to first. I myself live in a country with a parliamentary system where the head of state is a figurehead, so a prime minister with a majority government certainly can more readily ignore the other minority stakeholders, while remembering that his own government can turn on him/her if their leadership becomes untenable.

    With legislation in any system of government, it comes down to the votes. We all know that is the worst way to make a decision in the private sector, the gurus tell us to gain consensus, to get to the win-win outcome.

    So, a BA approach has to treat legislation/law as the strategy/policy/goals, then you an look for the solutions/projects to implement those goals.

    However, my view and anyone else's on this is influenced by perspective. I have never worked in the public sector but many BAs do. I would be interested in getting their views on this.

  5. I guess the trick with partisan politics is getting your stakeholders to agree on root causes in the first place. That said, some project environments can get pretty "partisan."

  6. Thanks for the comment, Saji.

    When I first posted, I started to look back and think about all the ways the government analogy doesn't seem to hold water, but when it comes down to it, the situation with handling legislation/spending in government to make it meet the needs of users/stakeholders is really just a different type of problem in a different type of organization.

    Sure, scale in terms of dollars and impact on lives is on another plane from most projects I or most other BA's will ever work, but when it gets right down to it, the same problem solving principles could (and I might argue, should) be applied. As high-profile as it is, congress is just another organization with problems to be solved.

    Let's get some post-its and affinity diagrams going on the walls, here!

    I like your comment on criticality of scope, by the way.

  7. David,

    Thanks for weighing in. By the way – I really enjoyed the "Cascade" article on RQNG. Great stuff.

    To add to your question on how the BTD got written and how long it took, I'd add my own around how it was reviewed/scrutinized. The bigger the doc, the easier to slip in those little "nice to haves" – can you say "scope creep"? Especially if a) you know the stakeholder isn't going to read the doc, or b) the stakeholder isn't going to have adequate time to read it even if s/he wanted to.

    All that said, it's fun projecting what would be better about some of our legislative processes if we applied certain principles we're familiar with and confident in, but it isn't like our projects are devoid of their own style of politics either, are they?

    Principles of business analysis would certainly help in some important ways, but we're not talking silver bullets, either. I apply principles of business analysis every day, but I still have to deal with the politics! 🙂

  8. Good point on the votes vs. win-win consensus. When it comes down to it, in politics, compromise is only of value if you don't have enough votes behind you to shove it down the other guy's throat. Not the best recipe for success in a business or IT project environment!

  9. JB, Thanks for the reply. I fully agree with you that the principles used by BA are to be used. Essentially, the principles of a BA to solve techno-functional problems are similar to the principles used by Management Consultants to solve Business Problems. However, what is different is the impact and time lines when you see the results. BA will almost instantaneously see results in a short time frame for all that he does. But with Management problems, the time lines are quarters and sometimes years as they take time to percolate across the corporations. This also has impact on cost because if the fix is not spot on, reversal will be even costlier and it may even lead to the demise of the corporation. By this scale, economic problems will be even more challenging because of the nature of the population it addresses and the stakes of the people who are working to fix it.

  10. Yes, which I have heard described as 'the 'Tyranny of the Majority'. Obama is giving bi-partisanship a chance, still trying even when the GOP won't. Who was the last president that had filibuster-proof majorities for his party in both houses?

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