Back To The Future: Two Ways To Develop Better Future State Skills

many 3d humans with empty chat bubblesWritten by  Bruce Harpham

A key business analyst skill is describing the future state of a project. After the dust settles, what does the customer get? What will the website do? Articulating answers to these open ended questions is a key ingredient to the project planning process.

Producing a future state document requires creativity and strong relationships with stakeholders. In this article, I will cover both of those areas. By implementing these ideas, you will be able to make a greater contribution to your projects.

Tip: For guidance on how the future state concept fits into business analyst deliverables, read Sergey Korban’s article here, The Structure of Business Analysis Documents.

Improving your ability to develop the future state is a skill that has value beyond any one project. It is a way of training yourself to see opportunities. Rather than simply stating “improve process X by 5%”, you will have the capacity to ask bigger questions. Does it make sense to keep the process in place? There’s no point in improving a process that fails to create value.

Work Out Your Creativity Muscles With These Exercises

“Creativity is a great motivator because it makes people interested in what they are doing. Creativity gives hope that there can be a worthwhile idea. Creativity gives the possibility of some sort of achievement to everyone.

Creativity makes life more fun and more interesting.” – Edward de Bono

When you start a project, the desired future state is often vague. In the early stages, the project vision and project charter may still be under development. That is where your creative approach adds significant value.

Here are six other ways to improve your creativity skills at work. Practice these ideas and you will soon become the most creative person on your projects.

  1. Ask “Why” three times. Asking multiple times is important because many people provide unhelpful answers at first (e.g. “that’s the way I was trained.”)
  2. Study products and services outside of your industry. Jim Collins and Jerry Porras write about Nordstrom’s legendary customer service in “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.” Part of Nordstrom’s success is due to training all staff in customer service.Industry provincialism – studying only what your immediate competitors do – is a sure-fire way to limit your creativity in coming up with new ideas.
  3. Read “The Ten Faces of Innovation” by Jonathan Littman and Tom Kelley to learn about how industrial design IDEO approaches product development. In reading the book, I found “The Anthropologist” concept the most interesting.
  4. What would the ultimate customer say about this project? When you work on projects, you may think of your customer as another employee of the firm. The ultimate end customer is the person outside the organization who hands over their money to buy products and services. Focusing on the customer is one way to cut through the complexity that plagues projects.
  5. Forget Constraints For A Few Minutes.
    Constraints – limited time and money – are an ever-present reality for business analysts. At times, “excessive realism” hurts more than it helps. What would your project achieve for customers if the CEO handed you a blank cheque? Aim to come up with at least ten ideas!
  6. Pursue Creative Activity Outside of Work.
    When you’re a driven professional, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about work constantly. For the sake of your own happiness, you owe it to yourself to periodically explore a creative activity.

If you work with Excel and PowerPoint all day, consider experimenting with painting, drawing or music. In addition to intrinsic benefits, these pursuits help me to relax. That way, I’m able to be refreshed when I return to the office.

Work On Your Interpersonal Skills To Build Better Relationships

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” -Peter Drucker

As knowledge workers, we communicate for a living. As you work on building a future state or a project vision, it is common practice to seek input from stakeholders. A large project could seek comment from sales, marketing, customer service, legal and other units. Some stakeholders will enthusiastically share their views while others will be taciturn.

As business analysts, we need to tools to work effectively with people. In the early phases of a project, you have the opportunity to build effective relationships. The following five tools and resources will help you work better with your stakeholders.

1. Get Your DISC profile and learn how to use it.

I learned about the DISC ( ) behavioural profile from Manager Tools. This instrument is extremely helpful in understanding your communication behaviours.

2. Take The Dale Carnegie Course.

One of the longest running business skills courses in the world, the Dale Carnegie Course comes highly recommended by Mary Kay Ash, Warren Buffet and Zig Ziglar. The course takes place over a number of weeks and offers ample opportunities to practice communication skills and receive feedback.

3. Talk About The Elephant In The Room.

Some people get nervous when analysts and project managers start talking about projects and the future state. The project can be seen as criticism of the people who run the status quo.

Address this concern openly by focusing the conversation on the future. Resist the urge to get embroiled in fights over the past.

4. Go Slowly.

Relationships with stakeholders are built over time. If you are meeting someone for the first time, they may be wary of you and the change you represent. Fortunately, you can build trust over time by keeping your word and communicating frequently.

Tip: Don’t rely on one mode of communication alone. For example, if you tend to use email, add occasional phone calls to your stakeholders to improve the relationship.

5. Practice Active Listening Behaviors.

Did anybody ever teach you how to listen effectively? It is not a skill that is widely taught despite its importance. Practice the foundations of active listening – maintain eye contact, take notes and periodically confirm your understanding verbally – to signal you are paying attention.

Tip: A classic active listening technique involves saying: “I understand that the invoice process takes up half your day – did I get that right?”

Discussion question: What is your favourite way to build the future state and get your projects started?

About the Author

Bruce Harpham writes about project management training. Bruce’s experience includes leading process improvement projects at financial institutions and institutions of higher education. ProjectManagementHacks.com

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