The Role of Business Analysts in Agile

Business analysts have a role in agile organizations; they can become a product owner, join a team, or work across products where they collaborate with product owners and teams.

Maia Nikolova, head of business analysis at News UK, spoke about the place for business analysts in a post-agile world at Aginext 2020.

In the early days of agile, a lot of people wanted to erase the job title “business analyst,” but then the question of what to do with that skill set arose, Nikolova mentioned. Becoming a PO was one obvious choice, but that is quite limiting when you have vast initiatives cutting across several products with a lot of dependencies, she said.

At News UK the role of the BA is within the agile team and it’s quite integral when it comes to gathering the detail around the pieces of work that need to be done and making sure that it gets delivered.

Nikolova mentioned that she previously worked in companies where the BAs are part of a more traditional PMO structure and yet have managed to help deliver initiatives in a very agile manner. It all depends on the scale of the organisation, the context of the industry and the maturity of the agile practices, she argued.

Nikolova said that the lines between PO and BA are blurred in many ways, but then it comes to what structure the organisation needs in order to make sure that it is successful. The two roles do not have to be the same and they do not have to be in conflict, but you have to think about what each role will bring to the team and why you need it.

The BA role brings incredible value in any framework; it is about making sure that you are confident in your own skills, Nikolova said. You will have to do things differently, but what are BAs good at if not adapting to change?

InfoQ interviewed Maia Nikolova about the role of business analysts in agile organizations.

InfoQ: What are the responsibilities of business analysts? What outcomes should we expect from them?

Maia Nikolova: I can probably speak about responsibilities and outcomes all day and that’s mainly because the role of the business analyst (BA) varies from organisation to organisation, and therefore people’s expectations of the role are different.

In a team that is fairly mature in its agile practices, the BAs usually find themselves facilitating difficult conversations and decisions AND making sense of ambiguous requirements. In a way, it can be compared to the traditional BA role where you would be expected to collect a set of requirements, but unlike waterfall, you are constantly iterating on the requirements and on your approaches to meet them through your discussions with the dev team, the product managers, the business stakeholders, the UX&D team, etc. Key responsibility (despite its vagueness) is providing the right information at the right time in order for the product development to continue.

InfoQ: What is your view on the role of a business analyst for teams that are using Scrum or another agile framework?

Nikolova: I probably fall within a fairly “traditional” view on the topic – the BA can either be part of the Scrum/agile team or can come in as/when needed for specialised knowledge on certain pieces of work that the Scrum/Agile team needs to get done.

InfoQ: What are the challenges of managing BAs?

Nikolova: I think overall, the Agile BA role is great!

A few things that we as BA Managers need to be aware of include:

  • Understanding of the role – because of a BA’s ability to be a flexible, helpful and an overall “fill-in-the-gaps” person, the role of the BA gets blurrier and blurrier. This is what makes it interesting and also so great when it comes to working within an agile team. Ultimately it also makes it complicated to explain to others, especially those unfamiliar with the role. If it is complicated to explain, it is easy for people to underestimate the value it brings so make sure you are clear in your “pitch” of what your BAs do!
  • Being pigeonholed into the role – if you are a great BA, nobody wants to lose you so they will continue giving you BA work even if you want to go into something else like project management. It is key for those managing BAs to actively support their career aspirations even if they are outside of the discipline, and to lobby on their behalf.
  • Hitting an analysis complexity “ceiling” – if you are constantly with your team and helping them solve delivery problems, it is very hard to dedicate focused analysis time on upcoming large initiatives. There is a balance that needs to be struck so that people don’t get bored with small pieces of analysis, but also don’t over analyse so that they don’t distance themselves too much from the product team.

InfoQ: How do you ensure that your team of BAs is happy with their roles and career choice?

Nikolova: Good question! I make sure that I talk to them on a regular basis, as my team is about 20ish people. We have a clear competency framework now which helps guide the conversations with the BAs better on what they want out of their career at News UK.

Additionally, it is making sure that the paths for progression are clear and understood and that opportunities are brought up to everyone’s attention so people can apply for new roles in new teams if they want. The bottom line is providing opportunities for development and upskilling.

InfoQ: What’s your advice to BAs in organizations that are adopting an agile way of working?

Nikolova: Be open-minded! Request training and/or find online training on Agile on your own. Join Agile meetups if you have the option and reach out to other BAs who have worked in Agile for a while who can be your mentors.

InfoQ: What do you expect that the future will bring for BAs?

Nikolova: It will be very exciting and fast-paced just like for any other role in technology. I will say it again: the key would be to be open-minded and adaptive to change. Some of the traditional BA skills like process mapping will always be needed, but the time for lengthy documentation (unless perhaps for compliance or regulation purposes) is over! It is about how the BA can synthesize information and provide value for a product team to make decisions quickly and accurately.

One thing I would urge all BAs to do is to get a firmer grasp on analytics and data in general! Understanding how to interpret the data in front of us and telling a story through it will only be more appreciated by businesses going forward. Get yourself some training and shadow the analytics teams in your company if you can!