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Differentiating Differences that Make a Difference

Perhaps you’ve noticed that a lot of people write, speak, train, and consult about Business Analysis (BA).

The number involved grows quickly when we also include those dealing with systems analysis (SA), requirements analysis (RA), requirements engineering (RE), requirements management (RM), and whatever related two-letter acronyms you no doubt could add.

For the most part, each of these probably represents different names for the same thing. Yet, presumably those claiming one term versus another think theirs is somehow different from the others—in some important way that truly makes a difference. Ironically, if indeed there are differences among these terms, they are hard to tell because there are no agreed-upon definitions that actually differentiate among them.

In fact, it gets worse. Thus, one partisan is convinced their term represents a particular characteristic; whereas someone else feels equally strongly that that characteristic represents their different term; and each is unaware of the other’s perception. Stepping back a bit should make evident how silly it all is; but of course, nobody sees folly in something dear to him/herself. It’s not limited to BA, nor is it new. Centuries ago, satirist Jonathan Swift made light of similar silliness in the classic Gulliver’s Travels.

Yet, such perceived differences actually are of great consequence to lots of people. Whether real or imagined, material or superficial, presumed differentiations often are taken very seriously and can have enormous economic and professional impacts. Consider, for example, how picking just the right terms for ads, titles, and web sites affects sales of books, training, and consulting.

Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to

Now that we say it out loud, it’s fairly easy to recognize some of the significant consequences when similar things are called by different names and when different things are called by the same names. Yet, few are aware that in the U.S. and Canada, the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA) and its various certifications predominate, whereas in Europe, the International Requirements Engineering Board (IREB) holds similar status. Each is convinced of their unique niche, but darned if I can see the difference. And, yes, a couple of other contenders further muddy the waters.

Where It Really Matters

In the final analysis, whether you call it RE, BA, or BS is superficial form and matters mainly to the handful of brand promoters like IREB and IIBA. However, difficulties differentiating content substance can have a much less evident, but unfortunately far greater and more insidious direct and indirect impacts.

We’re familiar with the physical science concept of inertia, wherein a body in motion tends to stay in motion and a body at rest tends to stay at rest. However, inertia also pertains to thinking. It’s very hard to overcome entrenched ideas, and institutions often create obstacles to further impede challenges to their vested ways of thinking. Establishing and defending a brand takes advantage of such inertia.

We still regularly see news reports of those in power, or seeking power, torturing and murdering people whose ideas are deemed to threaten the establishment/brand—just as they’ve done for dozens of centuries. Yet, once-heretical ideas can become mainstream, often though only after extended sacrifice by initial adopters.

While not happening to the same draconian extent in the BA community, nonetheless both conscious and unconscious forces continually curtail ideas that are counter to brands’ favored conventional BA wisdom. BA has become big business, relying largely on brands to sell products and services. Though probably not apparent to consumers, promoters quite consciously guard BA brands behind the scenes through economic, social, and legal pressures against their few generally easily-identified competitors.

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Unconscious Content Confusion

In contrast, content confusion directly affects a somewhat larger but still small group of BA authors and trainers like me. More importantly, though, content confusion can indirectly affect the full BA community by suppressing innovation and awareness of different and potentially better ideas. Content confusion is especially prevalent because it’s seldom recognized or conscious.

Stories of intrigue often advise “following the money.” In BA, money mainly comes from training, consulting, and publishing. Overwhelmingly, buyers choose which BA products and services to buy based on brief titles and descriptions. Not surprisingly, most BA courses and books have similar names. A search for a particular BA topic keyword on Google or even a training vendor’s website implies all displayed courses/books have comparable content.

Indeed, many BA products’ content essentially is interchangeable. Sometimes that’s intended, such as for courses/books to prepare one to pass a particular certification exam. More often it’s unintended, typically occurring because most authors/trainers simply repeat what they’ve learned from other authors/trainers. That’s not my content.

Better-known authors join to institutionalize their repeated content in various BA brands’ bodies of knowledge. Consequently, I find competing brands’ content virtually indistinguishable except for stylistic variations and a few consciously coined signature terms. Most brands avoid confronting competing brands directly, I’d say somewhat cynically because they can’t convincingly describe let alone set apart their differences.

Different authors/trainers do vary in how they present their common content, which presumably makes one product more interesting or informative than others. Over time, popularity and search engine rank should reflect superior products. However, inertia and promotion also affect product perceptions. Since few buyers look past the first page or even first item of a search, prominent item position is mainly what’s reinforced.

Moreover, titles and keywords that buyers think to look for are unlikely to reveal products that have different or innovative ideas content. Even the brief descriptions of similar-sounding products often cannot convey meaningful content differences.

Buyers sometimes rely on sales representatives to explain respective products’ pros and cons. With perhaps 1000+ titles for sale in their catalog, sales reps cannot actually be familiar with more than a few, and may not truly understand them, let alone how their content differs or why it matters. Not surprisingly, sales reps usually stick with pushing the same popular products, sometimes at the expense of possibly preferable ones.

Confusion’s Catch 22

Indeed, parts of my courses and writing are like what others also say. It would be foolish not to gain guidance from colleagues and other experts. However, mostly what’s the same is general concepts and techniques. On the other hand, my work is differentiated by key central models and methods which I developed personally over many years performing real projects of business significance for leading organizations.

Certainly, many people have project experience and maybe even have innovated; but I’ve seen few who critically understand what they’ve done and even fewer who can extend it to benefit others. Besides having a propensity for trying to figure out how and why things work, I’ve been fortunate to build perspective from encountering similar situations several times and having the occasion of creating courses to analyze and translate them into meaningful models and methods others can use to advantage.

For example, my BA work focuses on discovering what I call REAL business requirements, which are very different in ways that make important differences from the “requirements” most authors, trainers, and brands focus on.

Yet, few buyers, sales representatives, or even other BA authors/trainers recognize that my courses/writings (including also Proactive Testing™, REAL ROI™, and Beyond the Textbook™ acquisition) differ from most others, let alone understand the differences or appreciate why my materials are so much more valuable. Differences in titles and descriptions just don’t register with someone until after they’ve learned about my approaches; and they won’t learn about my approaches because the differences don’t register with them. Explanations like this are so important for building awareness.

REAL Business Requirements

Other authors, trainers, and bodies of knowledge do use the term “business requirements,” almost always to mean objectives and purposes/desired value. In contrast, REAL Business Requirements are business deliverable whats that when satisfied achieve objectives and thereby provide value. That’s a real difference.

REAL Business Requirements deliverable whats are satisfied by some product/system/software, whose product requirements/features are ways how presumably to satisfy the whats. Other authors, trainers, and bodies of knowledge focus almost entirely on product/system/software requirements hows, which do not themselves provide value.

Creep, changes to requirements after they supposedly have been settled, is a major cause of project overruns. Conventional wisdom is that creep is caused by requirements, meaning product requirements, which are not sufficiently clear or testable. Testability is largely a function of clarity.

While clarity and testability are important, much of creep occurs because the product requirements, regardless how clear and testable they are, fail to satisfy the REAL business requirements, mainly because the REAL business requirements have not been defined adequately, in turn because conventional wisdom mistakenly thinks that product requirements are THE requirements.

Thus, the key to reducing creep is first to discover the REAL business requirements deliverable whats that provide value when satisfied. Then, define the requirements/features of a product/system/software way how to satisfy the whats.

Traditional BA courses and writings don’t teach this because their authors don’t know it. When I present these ideas to a group of practicing business analysts, about half seem to have aha moments and make comments like, “Now I understand why I’ve been having requirements problems all these years.”

Ironically, many BA guru authors/trainers don’t seem able to understand the differences. Some folks would say it’s because they have a vested financial interest in the traditional model focused on product requirements that they sell. I think it’s more likely their mindsets are so firmly established that they cannot mentally accept something fundamentally different. I think that’s their loss, and more importantly also the BA community’s loss.

In addition to explanations like this to create awareness my courses do differ, I’ll more consistently include hopefully differentiating terms in course titles, such as REAL business requirements, and explain their important differences in course descriptions.

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