This is our second guest blog post in our hobbies x business analysis series. Well done to our client and friend of Herd, Dan Ford, Senior Business Analyst at the University of Cambridge. If you’d like to join our growing list of guest bloggers then please get in touch.
It was a dark and stormy night
One rainy, miserable Friday night in my early twenties, I found myself at a loose end. My friends and I were asking each other what the plan for the evening was, and one of us said he was stuck at a work party at a nearby pub and needed rescuing. We all worked for the same, sprawling company at the time and figured we could get away with gatecrashing, so we went.
Bernie was the friend in need of rescue. He jumped up when we walked in and introduced me to a few of his colleagues.
“This is Ania”, he said. Demonstrating his famous flair for raconteurship, he grasped at the only thing he knew about Ania as she turned to face us, and added “She’s Polish”, then almost literally ran away to join our other friends.
Ania stared at me, waiting for me to say something.
I said “Cześć!”, which is “Hi” in Polish. I thought this was a strong opening.
Ania rolled her eyes. Not that strong an opening.
“Everyone knows ‘cześć’”, she said, raising an eyebrow “Can you say anything else?”
I tried to stay cool and gestured to the fogged-up window and the bad weather outside then, by some miracle, added: “Dziś piątek i pada deszcz” (today’s Friday and it’s raining).
Ania nearly fell over and, long story short, we’re now married and have two kids.
Luck and Curiosity
It doesn’t do to think about the odds involved in the chain of events that led up to me speaking a total of about ten random words of Polish and almost all of them being directly relevant to that exact situation. It’s much easier to put it down to luck and curiosity.
Like any BA, I’m naturally curious and ask a lot of questions. Long before I knew what Business Analysis was, I sat opposite a colleague who was from Poland and, as part of everyday office chat, I’d often ask about the Polish language, because it seemed so complex and interesting to me. It really was just a fluke that we happened to sit opposite each other next to a window and that this led to me knowing the words for ‘rain’ and ‘Friday’.
Since meeting Ania, I’ve been learning Polish partly as a hobby and partly as a survival mechanism so that my daughters can’t plot against me without me understanding them.
The ups and downs of this experience have often made me think about the parallels between learning a language and becoming more experienced as a BA. I’ve brought a few of these reflections together here.
Just like with language learning, it’s easy to get bored with ‘Hello, my name is Dan. I live in England. I like food.” You think you know this stuff, you want to fast-forward to being able to tell jokes or talk about the meaning of life, or understand what it was that your mother-in-law just mumbled, because you’re pretty sure it was about you. What I’ve learnt, though, is that you need to understand those basics first – they’re more important than you might think. They teach you how nouns and verbs interact, they teach you rules about pronunciation, and they act as a foundation to build the rest of your learning on.
When I start a new project in a new subject area, I’m often gripped with an urge to get cracking and understand things as quickly as I can so I can start delivering. Of course, just like with learning languages, there’s no skipping the fundamentals. You need those good foundations otherwise you risk cracks forming in your understanding further down the line. This is why a well-paced, thorough understanding of those key areas like business structures, systems, stakeholders and environment is something we should never be tempted to skip when starting out on a new piece of work.
When I first opened a book about Polish grammar, I was faced with a sentence along the lines of “In the instrumental case, plural nouns of all genders have the ending –ami”. I read the section about five times, blinked, and closed the book.
I found had to go and learn an entire set of words in English to equip myself to learn Polish grammar, just like I’ve found that classic BA techniques like SWOT, PESTLE, Lotus Blossom and Ishiguro diagrams help us better frame and understand information about a new problem, functional area or product.
Sometimes as BAs, we have to learn a new method or understand a whole new concept before we can start to understand a new subject area. BAs starting work at the University of Cambridge often have to get their heads around aspects of the structure and governance of a unique 800-year-old institution before they can really start to understand why things work the way they do.
It gets easier
The more you learn, the more you can learn. This sounds up there with other trite ‘Brexit means Brexit’ soundbites, but what I mean is by going through the process of learning a whole new language, language learners often find themselves better prepared to take on learning the next language.
They’ll know the techniques that worked best for them for learning new vocab, they’ll know about the best apps and about tips like flashcards or conversation circles and they’ll know those super-specific English words that allow them to learn and discuss detailed grammar.
A BA who’s never worked on implementation of a Software-as-a-Service system, for example, might find the learning curve on their first SaaS project steep. They’ll need to understand the concept of SaaS and how it’s different to, say, on-premise at the same time they’re learning about how the business works and what their requirements are. Once that key knowledge is learned, though, it’s in the bank, and the learning curve for next SaaS project (or indeed any other implementation project) will be less steep.
It’s good to talk
If you find yourself trapped talking to someone who is enthusiastic about language learning (kind of like you are now, reading this), they’ll tell you there’s real joy in understanding and being able to communicate in that language.
I love ‘decoding’ song lyrics, films, books and even poetry in Polish and it sometimes feels like a backstage pass to be able to experience art in the original language. I used to roll my eyes when people said stuff like this, and I still do, but I find myself saying it now.
One of my favourite parts of being a BA is when a similar ‘click’ happens, and we find ourselves able to start speaking with stakeholders in a way that demonstrates we’ve put the effort into understanding the detailed context of their situation and their needs. The rich conversations this can lead to, and the high-quality insights we can gain from this ‘next level’ of rapport really do remind me of the conversations you can have in a second language when you’ve expanded your vocab. It’s the difference between talking about politics or philosophy versus asking for directions to the library.
There are always exceptions, except when there aren’t. Polish might look like a bunch of Zs and Cs smashed together (there’s a meme about it being a ‘Wi-Fi password language’) but the rules about pronunciation and spelling are surprisingly consistent. Once you get your head around them, you could read a sentence aloud pretty accurately even if you didn’t know what the words meant. That’s the opposite of English, where I imagine words like though, thought, tough, through, and thorough have learners rage-deleting Duolingo.
Polish grammar on the other hand, is one of the craziest concepts I’ve ever encountered, in or out of work, and the number of exceptions and asterisks in the rules have had me questioning my life choices more than a few times.
I think there’s a definite parallel here to detailed requirements work, especially with any project that involves understanding things like complex approval rules. Not only is there a need to be comfortable with complexity and to work to understand the many permutations involved, there’s also the mental toughness needed to deal with a new exception that pops up, seemingly out of nowhere, that causes you to rethink the whole thing!
I’ve found that exceptions are inevitable and it’s our reactions to them that define their impact on us and our work. We can throw our hands up in despair (which won’t change anything), or we can calmly work to understand and document the exception and recalibrate from there.
Not everyone wants to talk to you
Once you’re confident enough with your language skills, you want to put them to the test and try them out. You want to take the training wheels off and try speaking with native speakers. People react differently to this: some are delighted and encouraging, some laugh and cringe, and others just flat out refuse to engage.
One of Ania’s friends from Poland met me before I spoke any Polish. She speaks fluent English and, when I started learning Polish, she made clear she wasn’t supportive of it. She didn’t want her ‘secret code’ with Ania to be compromised. “No good will come of this!” she joked.
Jokes aside, years later, our friend still only speaks to me in English. We were at a dinner party in Poland recently. Everyone was speaking Polish, but any time she spoke to me, she switched to English. It felt like a record scratch interrupting a song I was enjoying.
I see a parallel in the BA world to the unforthcoming, gatekeeping stakeholder. In my experience, this is often a person who has built up a career’s worth of valuable knowledge but, for whatever reason, is reluctant to share it. Sometimes it’s because they don’t know whether we BAs, as perceived outsiders, will understand. They don’t want to overload us with too much detail. Sometimes it’s because they’re protective of the knowledge and suspicious about what will be done with it. Sometimes, it’s both!
I’ll get there with our friend. Just like with those challenging stakeholders, the more she sees me in conversation with others, the less worried she’ll be about me not understanding what she says. The more we get to know each other, the less suspicious she’ll be and the less protective of her secret code.
The solidarity of community. Even if you’re learning an obscure language, there will be a community of learners out there who will share your enthusiasm, joy and pain. They will offer help, reflect on their challenges and, yes, sometimes just want to show off how good they’ve got at it. As someone who’s only recently started engaging in the wider BA community, I’ve quickly seen that there is a whole host of talented, generous people who all love business analysis and want to nerd-out about the subject. Long may that continue!
🖊️ Authored by: Dan Ford, Senior Business Analyst, University of Cambridge
🎧 Favourite album: ‘Love Ire & Song’ by Frank Turner
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