Business Analysis: Lessons from Fables

In another article, I talked a little bit about my career path leading to the role of “missionary”. One of my more recent categories of professional work has been in project management and business analysis. An aspect of both of these roles is to produce something that is new or unique within a certain time frame. Key to doing this well is to know what “customer” wants. So a very important first step in creating something new is to figure that out.

Gathering and documenting requirements is a crucial aspect of any project. Unfortunately, in business analysis and project management, we can fall victim to the trap of assumptions. This is not only for someone lacking experience. Even the most seasoned of professionals can fall prey to this error in omission and can be one of the weakest links in developing a project.

The difficulty can be attributed to a number of reasons. It is an aspect of planning. The time that it takes to effectively gather requirements can feel like unproductive time. Business analysts are not alway trained in art and science of requirements.

But I must say that the blame does not solely rest on the business analyst. Frequently it is the customer who has a challenging time articulating precisely and clearly what their needs are.

And finally, there seems to be a persistent problem with users and business analysts jumping to a solution rather than keenly describing and analyzing what the needs are. It is our human nature to want to jump right to the solution. This may lead to something that I call “Ready, Fire, Aim”. Understanding the problem to its fullest extent reveals a greater part of the ultimate solution.

By skipping this part of the problem solving, our solutions are not what typically solves to root cause of our problems. The graphic below is a classic representation of what a poor description, or (and more frequently) poor understanding of that the requirements are. 


On a trip home from the emergency room in another city where one of our granddaughters was having undigested coins removed, there was a bright, full moon off to our left. Thinking of our princess and seeing the bright orb in the sky, I was reminded of a story that my second grade teacher read to the class one day. It terms that even a child can understand, the story reflects the additional costs, features and compounded problems that we add to our ‘solution’ when we fail to find out what the end user truly wants. The following is a paraphrased version of the classic tale by James Thurber called ManyMoons.

The king called for the Lord High Chamberlain, the Royal Wizard, and the Royal Mathematician who all quickly came into the throneroom. The king explained the dilemma, then asked, “Tell me about the moon and how can we get it for Princess Lenore.”
“The moon, sire,” replied the Lord High Chamberlain, “is three miles above the earth, is as large as the princess’s room, and made of green cheese.”
Unhappy with the reply, the king turned to the Royal Wizard for counsel. “My daughter wants the moon. Please get it down for her.” This proved to be more disheartening since by the wizard’s estimation the moon was 25,000 miles above the earth, was as large as the entire castle, and made of purest silver.
Finally, the king turned to the Royal Mathematician to hopefully get a more realistic description and more promising results. “Sire,”said the Royal Mathematician, “the moon is 50,000 miles above the earth, is as large as the entire kingdom, and is painted to the sky.
The King, exasperated, sent the three on their way and called for the court jester. He asked the jester to play a dirge on his lute since he was so terribly sad that he could not get the moon for his daughter and she was, therefore, seemingly incurable. The court jester begged, “Let me talk with her, Sire.”

He told the Princess her bedtime story and looking out of the window together he asked, “Tell me about the moon?” The princess explained that the moon was about the size of her thumb nail since she could hold out her thumb and just cover the whole moon with her thumbnail. It wasn’t any higher than the tree outside her window since it often got caught there just before she fell asleep. And then she further explained that the beauty of the moon was because it was made from pure gold.

The jester went to the court jeweler and asked him to fashion a piece of gold into an orb, slightly smaller than Princess Lenore’s thumb nail and to fasten it to a golden chain. The next morning when the princess awoke,her father, the king, presented her with the pendant. Lenore’s heart leapt for joy. By the time she finished her breakfast, she wanted to get dressed and play outside. She was once again well.

James Thurber Many Moons

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