#028 - The curse of experience
Welcome to Issue #028 of The Forcing Function - your guide to delivering the right outcomes for your projects and your users.
✍️ Insights: With experience comes the lure of narrow-mindedness.
🤔 Made me think: The more narrow-minded you are, the less you see.
👨💻 Worth checking out: Melbourne to Cairns by kick scooter.
With experience comes the lure of narrow-mindedness.
Growing in seniority as a business analyst (BA) comes with the risk of growing more narrow-minded.
Seniority comes with experience. Compared to a newbie, you’re recognising patterns of what works well and what doesn’t across all the client projects you worked on. You’ve seen it all before and you already know what to do without even asking.
In reality, you’ve stereotyped the situation, you’ve defaulted to your cookie-cutter solution, and you may not even know that you’re making a mistake.
The dangers of skipping divergent thinking
A useful lens to look at narrow-mindedness is the concept of divergent thinking versus convergent thinking in problem solving.
As business analysts we are already more prone to being narrow minded because of the nature of our role in projects. We are expected to logically analyse the situation, then extrapolate the recommended and reasoned option for our client. We are geared to converging onto a single well-defined solution for our client.
That tendency is even stronger when you’ve been a a BA for a long time, 20+ years of projects for me, and when you’re a BA specialising in a specific technology, like I do with Salesforce.
You’re aware of what can be configured (i.e. is cheap and easy to do) and what is going to require complex custom coding (i.e. is expensive and hard to do). You also know what should be avoided. That all feeds into your pre-conceived view of what’s right and it is tempting to skip ahead to that tried and tested solution you have.
But, if you’re prioritising your own comfort and your avoidance of risk over what your client needs, is that solution going to be best one for them?
For example, Salesforce used to require users to edit records one by one. So, if bulk editing was a critical requirement, I specified a customised component that would allow my client to do this - akin to editing cells in Excel. Then, Salesforce released new functionality which allowed in-line editing of multiple records on list views and on reports.
If I had defaulted to what I’d done before, I’d have subjected my client to unnecessary work and complexity when they could’ve simply used the out-of-box functionality.
The more you rely on convergent thinking to the detriment of divergent thinking, the more rigid you’ll be as a business analyst. One with only a limited set of ideas which you brute force apply, no matter what. And when the project does go sideways on you, your chances of success slip away with your lack of ability to adapt as needed.
Instead of being a skilled problem solver that has your client’s best interests at heart, you’ll be that person that can only say: “but, we’ve always done it this way”.
The bubble of being a Londoner
Back in my youth I thought that London had everything. All the culture, the events, and, of course, the food. Why go anywhere else when there's so much here already?
“No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
Samuel Johnson | Writer
Looking back, it was a narrow-minded view and one that I didn’t realise I even had until I left London for university in Scotland.
That choice, unexpectedly, opened my eyes to what life outside of London had to offer. Making friends from across the UK and internationally, with the exchange students, made realise that I was far too London-centric. That I had a lot of catching up to do with a whole world out there for me to explore and experience.
The discomfort zone of travelling
It won’t surprise you that, from my years as a BA, I exquisitely research and plan out every trip I do. From the hour-by-hour itineraries, my custom Google maps with pins for places to visit and where to eat, through to the checklists to complete. My wife loves it as she only has to approve what I come up with.
What may surprise you is that despite all that prep work, I do willingly embrace the unexpected challenges and problems that arise along the way.
When I started travelling, it was stressful trying to stay on schedule and I was frustrated that my trips rarely ran according to plan. On diagnosing what was going wrong, I realised this was a feature of travelling - not a bug. That I’d get it wrong in-country, that things worked differently there, and that I couldn’t do what I usually did.
I needed that wake-up call to get myself out of my rut of narrow-mindedness.
Like boiling the proverbial frog slowly, I had created that rut almost imperceptibly - given my inherent bias towards convergent thinking. Being out of my comfort zone, challenged me and tested my resilience. It reminded me that if I’m going to get the most out of a place, its peoples, and the trip itself I had to adapt.
That attitude has helped and continues to help me be a better BA. Here’s three specific examples of how:
Finding my bearings: Arriving in a new city and starting on a new client are remarkably similar. In both cases I've got to quickly figure out where I'm going next, what the lie of the land is, who's around, and how X gets done here. Same processes, just different context.
Communicating intentions: When I don't speak the local language, I improvise. Could be non-verbal, a sketch, or murdering a phrase. With patience and goodwill, we figure it out. It's the same on a project. Whilst my stakeholders all technically communicate in English, they are all different in how they convey their intention and how they hear mine. So, I have to find new ways to ensure that we understand each other clearly.
Being adaptable: Travel taught me to have a plan but hold it lightly. Travel is full of unexpected situations as even similar countries have striking differences. It’s the same with clients. Every asset manager client I’ve had does the same thing but in very different ways. So, the options I recommend do have a common starting point but a different recommendation at the end.
For me, travelling is one of the ways I steer myself back to being more open-minded. Each trip exposes me to new experiences, new learnings, and new perspectives on what I take for granted. And, best of all, there’s usually a fun memorable story that stays with me long after the trip has ended.
Embracing the tension
In doing a trip, I don’t deliberately go looking for trouble. But neither do I avoid it completely - locking myself away on an all-inclusive resort. Instead, I deal with each issue as and when it arises.
It’s a similar tension in business analysis between being open-minded and being narrow-minded. As mentioned above, if I’m too close-minded, I’ll jump to a solution. But if I’m too open-minded, I’ll procrastinate on making decisions, or I won't stand my ground with my client when it’s blindingly obvious that an option is simply wrong.
The key is not to skip over the divergent thinking and go straight to convergent thinking. You need to allow yourself the necessary time to do both and to cycle between both to come up with the best option. Especially when time is limited, and you don’t think that you can afford to.
There has a healthy tension between the two extremes. It may not be comfortable to sustain. But, it’s there for good reason.
So, a question for you: what have you been defaulting to when you should’ve been open-minded?
“Over time, the person who approaches life with an openness to being wrong and a willingness to learn outperforms the person who doesn’t.”
🤔 Made me think
The less you move around, the less you see.
In photography, composition is one of the fundamental elements of making a good image. In reportage, the mantra is to always get closer. In landscape, it’s about finding the right balance of foreground interest against the background vista.
For both, it’s about moving around to get as much of a complete view of the subject to know what’s the most likely position to yield that stunning image.
“It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.”
George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) | Novelist
🧑💻Worth checking out
🔗 Melbourne to Cairns by kick scooter | The Guardian
It’s often said that the joy of travelling is more about the journey and less about the destination.
Uni, a 23-year-old from Japan, isn’t like most tourists who visit Australia. Instead, he’s doing a ~3,000km journey from Melbourne to Cairns only using a foot-powered kick scooter. With nothing but his traditional kasa (pilgrimage hat) and a backpack.
What a way to really get to know a country, to have an experience you won’t forget in a hurry, and to challenge yourself.
You can read more at The Guardian and follow his journey on Instagram.
🖖Until next Thursday ...
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For now, thank you so much for reading this week's issue of The Forcing Function and I hope that you have a great day.
PS: Thanks to P for reading drafts for me.
Sometimes the people you work with can keep you on top of your game. I'm a senior software developer, but I know if any of my teammates heard me say “but, we’ve always done it this way," they would INSTANTLY rebut with "that doesn't mean we should do it that way now." They would shame me for saying something like that!
There are definitely times when I feel like saying “we’ve always done it this way," but knowing I'll get an earful, I have a strong gut reaction that forces me to look for the best solution instead.
All of this is to say, there are definitely ways to prevent narrow-mindedness as you rise up the ranks.