Q: What Comes Before Requirements, A: …

Before creating product requirements a Product Manger must first create a business analysis
Before creating product requirements a Product Manger must first create a business analysis

A good product manager needs to be able to wear many different hats and one of them is that of a Business Analyst. (Oh great I can hear you saying – yet another job for the overworked PM to take on). Before you throw your hands up in the air and run screaming from the room at being presented with even more work, it turns out that you are already doing this job and just may not know it. I guess we should start our discussion in the beginning – just what is a Business Analyst and why should I care?

We are all familiar with requirements and just how important they are to ensuring that the product that you are working so hard to create meets your customer’s needs. What has been missing has been the realization that an analysis of the business needs to be done before any requirements start to be collected. If you don’t understand WHAT the business does and, even more importantly, HOW it does it, then there is no way that you’ll ever be able to create products that complement the business. All too often Product Managers try to combine the business analysis task with the requirements collection task and end up doing at best half of both jobs.

In some larger companies, there may be whole departments of business analysts, in small firms the full responsibility for this task may fall on the shoulders of the PM. If we can all agree that the business analyst’s role of understanding how the business operates is important, then perhaps we should have a quick discussion to fully understand what a business analyst does?

At a high level, the business analyst is the role that the product manager plays in order to bridge the divide between IT departments and the rest of the business units that they support. No matter if the product being developed is for internal consumption or for external customers, the business analyst’s role is to ensure that the most is made of the human contact between multiple internal departments.

The end result of a business analyst’s efforts feed into the requirements collection process. However, in order to generate this output, a business analyst needs to start with a clear understanding of what those product requirements will eventually look like. This includes having a good understanding of the plan to eventually create the requirements, what types of requirements will be needed, the process that will be used to gather the requirements, and the planning and preparation that will go into creating the final set of requirements. Note that the business analyst does not need to actually create product requirements; however, they should have a good understanding of what they will look like.

In order to understand how a company does what it does, the business analyst is going to have to do a lot of talking. As the analyst moves from department to department, he/she is going to have to use many different techniques to elicit information from various employees. Some techniques that can be used include:

  • Brainstorming
  • Job shadowing / observation
  • Surveys / interviews / focus groups
  • Collaborative work sessions
  • Prototyping
  • Document / Interface analysis

After having collected all of the information needed to completely describe how the company operates, the next step is to find a way to document this information. As we all know, thick binders of dense text will be put on the shelf and never looked at again. A few issues that the business analyst needs to resolve as the information is processed are:

  • Developing Use Cases to show how information & parts move within the company
  • Categorizing and packaging the collected information
  • Documentation techniques that work best for this particular company / division.
  • Change control – critical because of the understanding that process information ages quickly.

In the end the Product Manager / Business Analyst needs to develop and document a detailed understanding of how the company/customer operates in order to prepare to develop requirements. The skills that a Product Manger needs to have in order to do this successfully are as follows:

  1. The ability to elicit and assess information from information holders.
  2. The ability to conduct interviews with users and business leaders.
  3. The ability to facilitate collaborative sessions.
  4. The ability to resolve conflicts and reach consensus.
  5. The ability to navigate internal politics.
  6. The ability to foster creative problem solving within the various departments.
  7. The ability to document the business information that has been gathered.

So do you play the role of business analyst in your firm today? Do you do a good job of documenting how the business works or are you too busy creating actual product requirements? What skills did I leave off of my list of what a business analyst needs to do? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.