Visual Modeling: A Critical Skill for Business Analysts

Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, said that, “[a]t its simplest, a shared vision is the answer to the question, ‘What do we want to create?’”

As facilitators of knowledge exchange, tasked with helping business and delivery stakeholders reach that “shared vision”, effective use of visual models  is a critical skill:

Visuals act as metaphors for our life situations, our goals, our hopes, our dreams, and our ideas. People tend to think in patterns, which are how we organize, create, and execute processes, i.e., how we get from here to there successfully. Patterns are most easily understood visually! – Dean Meyers

So what does a visual model look like? I like a description from (my all-time favorite resource on communication using visuals) Idiagram:

We don’t hold a narrow definition of exactly what a ‘visual model’ should look like: they should use whatever visual elements or styles – diagrams, maps, graphs, charts, pictures, cartoons, etc. – that will most effectively represent the problem at hand.

If you’re interested in learning more about communication using visuals, and want to check out some excellent examples of ideas portrayed visually, go spend some time poking around the Idiagram website.

As a hiring manager of business analysts, it’s been encouraging to see a general uptick (at least locally) in the proportion of candidates that can demonstrate competency visually modeling flows, mock-ups, and diagrams.

In the near future, I fear the BA that is stuck in the rut of primarily writing textual, declarative requirements is going to have a harder time competing for work. Stakeholders that have been treated to visual models have seen that there is a better, less laborious (for them) and more effective way to understand requirements than the 75 page, big, thick requirements spec.

Do you agree on the criticality of visual modeling skills to having a successful business analysis career? What are your go-to visuals? How have you developed your modeling skills? I’d love to hear your comments!

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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  1. I feel that it is DEFINITELY a necessary skill for a BA to be able to visually model flows, mock ups, and diagrams!! With so many tools out there to assist this effort such as CaseComplete and Visio….It is almost expected nowadays to allow Stakeholders to view exactly what is occurring within a system or updated process.  

  2. I could not agree more. In fact, I would go further and say that visual models are not optional, but required for every project. There is no way that the full picture can be seen without visual help. Typically on an IT project, multiple visual models are needed because any single model will only show things from a limited perspective.

    I would even be more rigorous about “what does a visual model look like”. Rather than have the BA start from scratch and find their own format, there have been years (even decades) of work on models like Process Flows, ensuring that the model is complete and consistent. Whenever I set out to do a new Process Flow, Business Data Diagram, Ecosystem Map, or Data Flow Diagram, I grab the latest template because I know that practitioners have included all their lessons learned in these models as they were developed.

    Great article, I encourage you to continue preaching this message to whoever will listen!

    Jeremy Gorr
    Senior Product Manger

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jeremy. I agree with you on sticking primarily with the “tried and true”, I do like to leave the door open for innovation, though, and am typically fine with whatever models or hybrids a team agrees best suits the need.

      We’ve seen benefit in some cases by actually specifying requirements primarily in visuals with supporting text instead of the opposite as was previous habit.

      It’s all about providing the information in the format that’s easiest to understand and discuss, and with context that makes it meaningful to the user/reviewer.

      BTW – I am a longtime fan of the Seilevel site and message boards, and really looking forward to Joy Beatty and Anthony Chen’s upcoming book on visual modeling!

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