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Avoiding "Learned Helplessness"

The business analysis toolkit is extremely broad and one of the challenges can be choosing the best set of techniques for a particular context. It is tempting to gravitate towards a few favourite, well-understood and well-worn techniques; however doing so without thinking might mean that critical aspects of the change are missed or important stakeholder views are marginalised. 

Much as every practitioner is likely to have a few favourite techniques, there are probably a few that they are less familiar with, and perhaps even a few that they are downright sceptical about. Imagine hearing a fellow BA discounting a technique in one of the following ways: 

Oh, nobody uses data models in the real world…” 

I’d never be allowed to use a rich picture in my organisation…” 

I’d love to write some structured use cases but we use Jira so we have to use user stories...” 

It would be very easy to leave such statements unchallenged, but to do so would be robbing the organisation of the opportunity to benefit from these techniques. These statements underline a somewhat passive approach to practising business analysis; they imply that others dictate the techniques that the practitioner should use. Yet BAs should never be passive scribe as they are active and reflective practitioners that have a high level of autonomy. It is easy to underestimate the influence that a good BA can have within an organisation. 

Beware Of The Comfort Zone 

As the slightly cliched expression goes “authority is often taken and not given” and the same is true in a business analysis context. A highly capable BA could challenge all three of the statements above based on the assumptions that are baked within them. A highly skilled BA doesn’t need permission to use a technique; they may need to influence, build buy-in and negotiate but the choice of technique ought to be theirs. This decision will be influenced by a whole range of environmental and contextual factors such as the type of project or initiative, the delivery mechanism and so forth, and it is the BA’s responsibility to balance these factors. 

However, it is easy to feel helpless sometimes, to feel undervalued as if the BA role has been firmly shut into a limiting functional box. This type of organisational “learned helplessness” creeps out slowly and inhibits the ability to change ways of working. Phrases such as “Oh, we always do it this way….” and “We tried that once twenty five years ago and it didn’t work so we mustn’t ever try it again” can be heard. There is a sense that a particular approach might be better but, well, it’s probably best to leave things as they are. That approach isn’t really for me/here/now (* delete as applicable). Like an awkward teenager reluctantly complying with a parental instruction, the work gets done but nobody is particularly happy with it. At least the box gets ticked—after all, if the boss specifies how to do the work then nobody can get criticised for doing it that way. 

This is an easy pattern to get caught in, but it’s an essential one to break out of for both personal and organisational reasons. It is a common observation amongst BAs that some stakeholders vehemently resist change, and prefer to “do things the way they’ve always been done”. It’s therefore doubly important that those working within change roles lead by example and stay on the top of their game. If BAs aren’t prepared to change, try different approaches and stretch their comfort zones, what message does this send to those who are having change imposed upon them? 

Stay Fresh, Keep On Learning, Keep Challenging 

Of course, in reality it is a minority of BAs that get caught up in the trap of learned helplessness. Most BAs actively work at keeping their knowledge fresh through training, reading blog articles (such as this one!), mentoring and other informal learning methods. They take thoughtful and calculated approaches to analysis—rather than relying on the same techniques time and time again they interject new ones. This can be uncomfortable particularly if the technique is somewhat new to the practitioner, but using techniques is the best way to learn them. Luckily there is a wide range of useful material out there for us to draw upon, much of it just a Google search away. 

This variety is what makes business analysis such a rewarding role; after all, no two days are exactly the same. Alongside lifelong learning, highly skilled BAs also throw in a healthy dose of respectful challenge (whether that’s to stakeholders or other BAs), and actively seek out feedback on their work from other professionals. This includes respectfully calling out ‘learned helplessness’ where it is seen, and helping people free themselves from this trap. It includes respectfully critiquing each other's work through peer-review process, and constantly seeking to improve. 

With business analysis being crucial to organisational success, practitioners should expect to evolve. It’s crucial for practitioners to stretch their comfort zones and to provide mutual support to each other as they do this. No technique or approach should be completely off the table, and taking an adaptable approach will lead to better results for projects and initiatives too. What’s not to like?! 

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