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Author: Richard Larson

Beware Tech Solutionism and How to Avoid it

We all like solutions, right? Problems are troublesome things and solutions make them go away. Well, yes and no.

Some solutions address most of a problem. A majority solve a portion, and a few do not solve their problems or might even cause new ones.

Just ask Minnesota citizens who faced long lines, incorrect fees, and received duplicate plates and tabs when the $93M Driver’s License and Renewal System (MNLARS) was launched in 2017. The State had to spend millions more to patch the worst of the problems.

Some “solutions” even get scrapped before they are ever implemented or shortly thereafter. For clarification, I am not referring to the kind of failing fast that innovation can sometimes cause but the mistaken solutions that should never have been launched. To illustrate, Minnesota has now decided to replace MNLARS with packaged software after spending over $100M on the system.

What I want to explore here are the consequences of “tech solutionism” or relying too heavily on technical solutions to solve all business problems. And not just the consequences but also three things to help avoid or at least minimize the negative outcomes.

The issue of tech solutionism can be defined as “the belief that every problem has a solution based in technology”[1]. In other writings I have railed against “jumping to solutions,” which is a similar phenomenon. The belief in tech solving everything is understandable as technology has evolved over decades and especially with the emergence of web sites, apps, and artificial intelligence (AI). The rapid rise in AI might instill a false sense of confidence perhaps because, given enough data and machine learning, it might appear that our solutions are able to do what humans should or could be doing.

There are a number of pitfalls to an over-reliance on technology to solve all problems.

  • Masking Root Causes. I have long been a proponent of defining problems and getting to root causes before we apply solutions. As one article puts it, “In fact, the fanfare around these [AI] projects smacks of tech solutionism, which can mask root causes and the risks of experimenting with AI on vulnerable people without appropriate safeguards.[2]
  • Potentially biased data. Solutions are only as good as their data and “… the current state of the art is pretty bad when applied to global populations. Researchers have found that facial recognition software, in particular, is often biased against people of color, especially those who are women.” [3]
  • Costly. New technology invariably causes problems with its use and introduces a learning curve. Even when technology is easy to use, integrating it into current processes can be difficult.[4] Digital transformation is important for competitiveness, but “going digital“ for its own sake and not actually solving problems will waste time and money.
  • Security issues. New technology brings added security threats, especially for web- or app-based solutions. With additional reliance on big data, protecting it and providing privacy is even more important.[5]
  • Do we need perfection? Many of us know by experience that problems can be solved in multiple ways, including non-automated solutions. Additionally, there is always the default option of doing nothing if solutions are too expensive or complex. As Evgeny Morozov puts it in his book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism:

“…I believe that not everything that could be fixed should be fixed – even if the latest technologies make the fixes easier, cheaper, and harder to resist. Sometimes, imperfect is good enough; sometimes it’s much better than perfect.”[6]

So, what can we in business analysis and related functions do about these pitfalls? Here are three important activities we can do to reduce the amount and impact of tech solutionism:

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  • Define the Problem. A common cause of “solution jumping” is due to incomplete understanding of the business problem. Often, business leaders and even some in our community take a kernel of a problem, find a software package or some other approach like AI or Agile and deem it will solve or help solve the problem. I have had countless conversations with people in our profession who have been brought in to implement a solution after it has been chosen, with little ability to change that direction.

I have often joked that we do not want to apply a $100 solution to a $10 problem, yet we know that happens in our organizations. A clear problem statement and data to support it can give us the problem’s impact. That in turn helps to focus on choosing the right path, including possibly doing nothing.

  • Find Root Causes. Before getting to an appropriate solution, I have long known that determining the root causes of a problem is imperative. There are several techniques for doing this including Fishbone Diagrams, Five Whys, Pareto Charts, and others. Suffice it to say unless we know where and why something is broken, how can we apply an appropriate solution?
  • Build Good Business Cases. A good business case can tie together the situation, its root causes, alternatives considered, the recommended best approach, the feasibility of that approach, and a cost-benefit analysis of the recommendation.

A final consideration (having myself had good business cases rejected) is this: no matter how disappointed we may be if our wonderful business case is not approved, the decision is not ours. Executives may still elect their preferred solution and choose to jump to their solution for reasons beyond our knowledge or control.

In summary, the above suggestions may seem simplistic and perhaps outdated. I firmly believe they will always play a part no matter how sophisticated technology becomes. Are they (and me) old-fashioned? Well, as the rock star Bob Seeger put it in his song “Old Time Rock and Roll”:

“Call me a relic, call me what you will
Say I’m old-fashioned, say I’m over the hill”[7]

And allow me to alter his lyric a little: “Just give me some of that old-time problem solving.”


[1] Solutionism definition: Macmillan Dictionary, undefined, Downloaded July 10, 2020

[2]Opinion: AI For Good Is Often Bad” by Mark Latonero, Wired Magazine – undefined. Downloaded Nov. 18, 2019

[3]Opinion: AI For Good Is Often Bad” by Mark Latonero

[4] “Why Is It So Hard to Solve Problems with Technology?” by Phill Jones, The Scholarly Kitchen – undefined. Downloaded April 6, 2020

[5] “The 11 biggest issues IT faces today” by Paul Heltzel, – undefined. Downloaded April 6, 2020

[6] To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov, © 2013 by PublicAffairs, a division of the Perseus Books Group.

[7] “Old Time Rock and Roll” Lyrics by George Jackson, Thomas E. Jones III, and Bob Seeger

Business Process Changes During a Pandemic

What a difference a couple of months can make! I visited a doctor’s office in early March to treat a broken finger before the covid-19 shutdowns had begun across America.

Like any other clinic, no one wore masks. There were no social distancing measures in place. My doctor extended his hand to shake mine (I gave him an elbow bump in return). There was hand sanitizer available, but that had been the practice over several years of flu outbreaks.

Fast forward two months and consider a follow-up appointment of mine in mid-May. Walking into the clinic was comforting because all the staff and other patients had masks on (but also a little disconcerting). Extensive signage told us the rules, such as waiting in line 6 feet apart. Several chairs in the waiting area were blocked off to enforce social distancing. There were boxes for sanitized and for “used” pens to reduce the spread of germs.

Another change from March was the presence of a “scribe” to assist the doctor with recording notes and observations. This procedure is still relatively new to medicine and may or may not have been precipitated by the pandemic. Still, it was a noticeable change from March, and given my love of process, I even mentioned it to the two of them. My non-expert view is it may reduce the spread of germs since the doctor does not need to handle a computer during a visit.

By now you may be wondering what this has to do with process change. Consider the following five categories for any business which must interact in person with its customers, whether or not they may be ill.

1. Increased risk and liability. When governmental shutdowns and sheltering in place began, medical facilities closed too. My original follow-up appointment in April was cancelled because of the shutdown. Running a business during a pandemic increases the risk that customers and employees may infect others or may become infected themselves. Visiting or working at a business during a pandemic, whether a clinic or grocery store or gas station, involves some risk.

But what about a medical clinic or emergency room in which a visit is not exactly optional? If an establishment is lax in their procedures or can be shown to be negligent in protecting patients, then a lawsuit may be the result. In short, heightened risks during a pandemic are strong incentives for strengthening business processes to avoid liability. 

2. Procedure complications. The clinic I attended in May had some visible procedure changes and I am sure there were many I could not observe. The physical space was altered with extensive signage and floor markings to encourage social distancing. Simple procedures to provide “clean” and “used” pens for patient safety were small but thoughtful (and appreciated) steps added to the clinic’s daily routine. When I had an x-ray in March for my finger, they simply plopped my hand down on the machine. Two months later a staff person was there to sanitize the surface for my x-ray and undoubtedly before the next patient. Those were just some of the noticeable changes. I am sure the clinic, like airlines, drug stores, or post offices to name a few, must perform additional cleaning and sanitizing not needed pre-pandemic.

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3. Increased communications. Before my visit I received numerous texts and emails explaining what to expect and what was required during my visit. Most of the messaging pertained to wearing masks and distancing which was not done two months ago. It was comforting to me as the customer to get this communication during the pandemic.

My wife and I recently had some electrical work done at our house. The electrician’s company also sent out several texts and emails about their procedures for protecting us and our house from possible germs. We appreciated that and called to clarify one point.

Setting up the communications for the clinic and the electrician may have been a one-time event, but I am sure it still took many hours to perform. As conditions change, so will the communications need to be altered. Having developed and overseen a great deal of customer communication in my career, I know it is a regular part of business. However, having an external trigger like a pandemic represents opportunity costs and delays other kinds of productive work.

4. Added expense. The additional processes and procedures mentioned earlier will increase the expense of the business who must perform them. Unless an organization has excess capacity in its workforce, they either need to pay overtime or hire additional employees or contract laborers to do the cleaning and sanitizing. Adding scribes in a clinic to help control germs is an added expense.

The supplies needed to operate in a pandemic also increase expenses. Our local grocery store has added plastic barriers in addition to supplying employees with protective masks and sanitizing supplies. They spray and disinfect the check-out lanes between each customer, adding to their expense.

5. Reduced revenue and profits. With an increase in cost and potentially a decrease in revenue, profits are bound to decrease. Some examples include:

  • Reduced number of patient appointments in a medical clinic to maintain distancing.
  • A national warehouse store we shop at limits the number of customers in their store at any one time to minimize spreading of infections. They still have a steady stream of people waiting to get in, having waited in line with scores of others 45 minutes to access the store recently.
  • Training companies like ours will need to limit attendees to in-person classes to allow proper distancing or will be forced to conduct virtual-only classes.

Any business that limits the number of customers for safety reasons will expect a decrease in revenue. That can be mitigated by online sales for retailers or training companies, but some organizations like chiropractors, beauty parlors, or barbershops cannot replicate what they do in an online fashion. Along with an increase in expenses, profits will decrease which in turn will cause other detrimental effects such as layoffs or closures.

A pandemic is a pressing and urgent stimulus for many process changes. Some of the changes will likely disappear in time, such as mask wearing and social distancing. Other changes like increased sanitizing and safety-related communications may be permanent. Organizations hope, of course, that reduced income and profits are temporary and will need to adjust their operations accordingly. You might say there is never a dull moment in process work, but then again, I am a process nerd!

Want to Really Understand Business Needs? Sharpen your Root Cause Analysis Skills Part 2

Part 2: Five Root Cause Techniques to help get to Business Needs

Part 1 of this series explored the notion that business needs represent “a problem or opportunity to be addressed” (BABOK Guide v3 definition from IIBA (International Institute of Business Analysis). It stands to reason that root cause techniques are then uniquely suited to understanding those needs since they are designed to get to the bottom of a problem or opportunity.

In this part I review five of my favorite root cause techniques and suggest the kinds of situations for which they are most appropriate.

Five Techniques

These five techniques are not an exhaustive list, but they are some of my favorite tools I have found helpful over my career to understand and ultimately solve business problems. They all have their purpose and are in the BABOK or PMI BA Standard or both:

  1. Consultative interviewing – essential when using the other techniques, including…
  2. Five-whys – more of a mindset, but often overlooked when we are busy – which is usual!
  3. Fishbone/Mind Map – great brainstorming tools to help structure your root cause analysis.
  4. Pareto diagram – A technique that uses data to help find the primary causes of a problem.
  5. Interrelationship Diagram – excellent tool when there are compounding, interactive, (and possibly even competing) root causes.

1.      Consultative Interviewing

As we saw in the first part of this series, it is easy to jump to solutions. I believe we need to understand the problem first and use consultative interviewing to do that and to start uncovering business needs.

Consultative interviewing is a special kind of elicitation that is professional and focused on goals and is respectful and collaborative. When done right, it builds credibility, trust, and ultimately buy-in. The latter point is important if the root cause suggests a different solution than one favored by our sponsors.

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Many of us already use this form of questioning or interviewing automatically. We know that it requires good listening skills and genuine curiosity and interest to determine both needs and expectations. Consultative interviewing leads to positives such as informed advice, confident recommendations, and viable alternatives. (Confidence is important if, again, we end up recommending a different solution than the assumed one.)

The Right Questions the Right Way

Increase Buy-In. Consultative Interviewing helps discover together what the client’s needs and wants are, and how our solutions can meet them. Eliciting needs, whether in sales or business analysis, is best done as a collaborative discovery process, and not as an “extraction.”

Avoid leading questions. Consultative questions are designed to broaden the conversation and encourage clients to open up and share their needs and concerns. Otherwise, “leading” questions give the impression the questioner has a hidden agenda and is pushing a certain solution. This also helps build trust.

Examples of leading questions to avoid as you interview consultatively include:

  • “Don’t you think that ________?”
  • “Isn’t it better to _________?”
  • “Have you ever thought about a _________?”

Instead work to use consultative phrases that promote open, thoughtful dialogs such as:

  • Tell me more about…
  • Let me see if I understand…
  • Could you elaborate on…

2.      Five WHYs

Remember the Jefferson Memorial story form part 1 of this series? It was an example of 5 whys in action. This is not a technique as much as a mindset. It has been part of business since the 1930’s because it is effective and reminds us we need to go deep enough to get to the real needs.

It is simple and easy to use and can be employed often with little preparation. On its own it can lead us to the root cause of a problem, but we can be led down the wrong path if we ask the wring people or those with hidden agendas. Five “whys” is part of other analysis tools as we will see and works best with a consultative interviewing style to ask “why.”

Five WHYs Example

Here is a favorite (and simple) example of mine to illustrate Five whys. Suppose you faced a problem like this:

We need to fix the potholes on Main Street again. How can we patch the potholes the fastest and cheapest way?

1. Why do they develop again so soon?  A: The holes develop every year and they do not go away.

2. Help me understand that.  A: Over time the asphalt deteriorates and develops holes.

3. Why does that happen?  A: The freezing and thawing of the asphalt wears it out.

4. I thought asphalt lasted forever?  A: Asphalt is durable for 10-15 years, then the coating begins to wear out, and it cracks easier.

5. Tell me more…A: The City has not resurfaced Main Street for over 20 years – the cost of repairing potholes in any year is less than resurfacing it.

So, the root cause of this example is a funding or budgetary problem, not deteriorating asphalt.

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3. Fishbone Diagram/Mind Map

Once we use consultative interviewing or other tools to understand the problem or situation, we can use other more elaborate techniques that incorporate Five Whys to get to the root cause. These two root cause techniques do just that.

Fishbone diagrams and mind maps are snapshots of what is going on today. Assembling them makes use of Five Whys to help get to the root cause. The resulting diagram often exposes areas where we lack knowledge and/or data. See Figure 1 for the structure and Figure 2 for an example.

The Diagram

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Figure 1: Fishbone Diagram Structure

Fishbones start with the “Effect” as many fishbones call the problem. Because of that, it is also commonly called a cause-end-effect diagram or Ishikawa Diagram after the inventor. It usually has 4-8 major sub-causes, which can be “5 why-ed” down into sub and sub-sub-causes.

The major causes on the tips of the “bones” can be any relevant categories, but in practice usually come from a standard group such as People, Policy, Process, Place, Machines, Measurements, and Systems.

For example, say you have a problem of transferring medical records too slowly. Here is how to complete the fishbone:

  1. Start by asking why verifications are so slow (consultatively of course).
  2. Maybe you determine there are 4 main categories – People, Process, Measurements, and Systems. Note them on the diagram as shown on Figure 2.
  3. For each of the main categories, ask how the category, like Process, slows down the transfer of records.
  4. Maybe you get the reason of “inefficient transfer process.” From there ask how does an inefficient transfer process slow down transfers. You might hear “too many manual processes” and “serial, one-at-a-time processes.” Note these too on the diagram in a hierarchical structure like Figure 2 below.
  5. Continue adding additional sub-causes as appropriate.
  6. Move on to each of the major categories you identified and drill down each of them. Tip: For both the mind-map and fishbone, I recommend only going about 3 levels deep, otherwise your diagrams are too detailed and “bony.”

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Figure 2: Example Fishbone Diagram

Mind Maps

A mind-map is basically the same as a fishbone, but with a format more like an octopus (bad joke). Start with the problem in the middle, like the head of the octopus. Instead of fishbone ribs, the tentacles are the causes, and they in turn can have sub-causes.

Figure 3 shows the same medical records example done as a mind map.

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Figure 3: Example Mind Map

Tip: There is no need to do both a fishbone and a mind map since they both diagrams accomplish the same thing. Use whichever one is more appealing or is a standard at your organization.

4. Pareto Diagram

Pareto diagrams are graphical tools applying the Pareto Principle, which is based on the 80/20 rule. They use data to focus efforts on the factors and causes that offer the greatest potential for improvement. 

They display the relative importance of problems in a simple, quickly interpreted, and user-friendly format. They are best used when you face problems that have many symptoms that can be measured.

How to Create a Pareto Diagram

  1. Decide on the problem, such as customer complaints.
  2. Choose the issues or causes. (Five whys can help).
  3. Collect data for the potential causes.
  4. Order data from largest to smallest and draw the bar graphs. See Figure 4 for an example.
  5. Calculate the percentage of the total that each category represents and the cumulative percentage starting with the largest category. Excel makes this fairly easy.
  6. Graph the cumulative percentage line.
  7. Analyze the “vital few” breakpoint when the curve hits 80%. These are the most significant causes – the 20% that cause 80% of the problem.

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Figure 4: Example Pareto Diagram

5. Interrelationship Diagram

Fishbones and Mind maps have their limitations, with one big one being they are hierarchical. What if your problem is more complex with some causes also being the symptom of other causes and so on like a chain reaction?

The Interrelationship Diagram helps with that situation. It is an excellent tool that helps when there are compounding (and possibly competing) root causes.

  1. Starts with a situation / problem like “Customer reports are not getting out on time.” See Figure 5.
  2. Add in the potential causes as bubbles, using the most likely ones you found, such as from a Fishbone Diagram or Five Whys. Tip: try to limit the causes to no more than 7 plus or minus 2 to keep the diagram at a high level.
  3. Add “cause lines” by drawing arrows from one bubble to the next according to whether a factor is a cause of another or an effect. (For example, Low Wages cause staff shortages and Scheduling problems. Staff Shortages in turn cause paper to run out, database extract delays, and scheduling issues.)
  4. When done with all causes, add numbers to indicate how many times a factor is being caused by another (“Incoming Causes”) or is the cause of another (“Outgoing Effects”). For example, 3,1 for “Not Enough Paper” means it is a symptom 3 times from other factors and is itself the cause of 1 other factor.
  5. Make determinations of which are the most significant (or “big”) causes. These are the important factors to correct such as “Shortage of Staff.” Working on symptoms like “DB extract delays” will not be as fruitful to solving the problem.

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Figure 5: Example Interrelationship Diagram


Understanding and addressing business needs are arguably the most important factors for any successful project, program, or product. This series covered the importance of needs and five techniques that will help discover the root cause of business problems, which equate to the important factors for learning business needs.

2-part series: Want to Really Understand Business Needs? Sharpen your Root Cause Analysis Skills

Part 1: What are Business Needs and why are they so Important?

What makes a successful project? There are many objective measures (such as on time and on budget) and subjective options (e.g., customer satisfaction) to answer that question. As a generality, I think a project is successful when we apply an appropriate solution to a business problem, one that addresses the underlying cause. In short, we are successful when we address the “business need.”

We all know it is easy to jump to solutions or to fix just the symptoms of a problem. We are all guilty of it and is so common it has a name: “jumping to solutions.” When we do this, we often fail to get to or seemingly even want to get to the root cause of a problem.

As an example, let me paraphrase a classic story of solution jumping vs. getting to the root cause. The Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC had a problem a few years back with large amounts of paint chipping off. It required repainting every six months to a year, far more frequently than it should have needed.

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If you know this story, then you know it was not poor-quality paint or shoddy workmanship that caused the need for frequent re-paintings. It was because of bugs! Near dusk when they turned the lights on this beautiful monument, a certain type of bug came out. Not a bug, but hordes of them! With so many bugs, the birds in the area swooped in to eat them and then left bird droppings as a souvenir after their insect feasts. The root cause of the problem was bird dung from bugs that caused frequent power washing to clean it, that then wore away the paint that caused the need for frequent re-painting.

To make a long story short, once the U.S. Interior Department got to the root cause, they found that turning on the lights a little bit later fooled the bugs. Far fewer of them swarmed around which in turn reduced the bird droppings and the solution drastically reduced the power washing and repainting needed.

This series of articles will explore how to understand business needs using five common and proven root cause analysis techniques. By finding root causes we can truly understand business needs and not rely on what our business stakeholders tell us their needs are. It is a repeatable way to provide appropriate, cost-effective, and lasting solutions like they finally did for the Jefferson Memorial. Part 1 will focus on what are business needs.

What are Needs?

So, what are needs? I do not mean psychological needs like in Maslow’s hierarchy. I am also not differentiating between needs vs. wants so that if I say I need a new pair of shoes, I do not literally mean I am currently shoeless. What I essentially mean is “I really want a new pair and I’m willing to pay for them.” And that is what any project or program requires – a sponsor willing and able to pay for something new.

When considering “business needs,” what do sponsors pay for? Too often it is a predefined solution. I am sure many of you have experienced a sponsor bringing you a solution. In that case the project or program’s objective is to implement the predefined solution with business needs either previously explored, assumed, or possibly overlooked.

I frequently hear people tell me they are brought into projects after the solution has been chosen – seemingly too late for any needs assessment or root cause analysis. I often respond: “It is never too late!” You can always help forestall project disasters if you are diligent about wanting to get to root causes and actual business needs.

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Business needs have many facets including:

  • They represent business problems
  • They represent business limitations
  • They reduce the chance of “solution jumping”
  • They lead us to requirements and designs
  • They justify projects

Why are needs so important?

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Figure 1: From Needs to Solutions

Anything a project team creates “should” stem from needs. Needs are at the heart of what we do, and they tie back to business problems or opportunities. They lead us to the requirements and are also the basis for designs, both “logical” or physical designs. Designs are turned into constructed things such as solution components, which in my experience has been software, but could be any constructed deliverable. Finally, all the components add up to one or more solutions.

You may intuitively know this but having a visual helps me to see the relationships and the importance of getting needs right. If we fail to understand needs, we risk delivering solutions that will not address underlying business problems and the resulting solutions will have decreased value and may even be scrapped.

What do IIBA and PMI-have to say about Needs?

The BABOK Guide v3 from IIBA (International Institute of Business Analysis) defines needs as “A problem or opportunity to be addressed.”

Looking further into the BABOK Guide, it literally starts with Needs as the core input when planning the BA approach. It is the very first task in the Guide. I realize the tasks are not intended as sequential items, but the placement is hard to ignore.

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Figure 2: Needs in BABOK Guide v3

Needs are also the primary input when eliciting requirements, which leads to virtually every other task in the BABOK Guide.

The first Domain in The PMI Guide to Business Analysis (from Project Management Institute) is Needs Assessment. The Business Need for a project or program in that standard is defined during the “Assess Current State” task along with a current state assessment. It is also the entire first chapter in the PMI publication Business Analysis for Practitioners: A Practice Guide.

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Figure 3: Needs in PMI Guide to Business Analysis

Needs are formally defined in PMI’s BA Standard as “…the impetus for a change in an organization, based on an existing problem or opportunity.“ It is entirely consistent with the IIBA definition and both standards remind us why root cause analysis techniques are so important for clarifying business needs before analyzing and defining solutions.

In the next article of this series, look for descriptions of five common and useful techniques for root cause analysis, and by extension, business needs.


A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK® Guide) v3 from International Institute of Business Analysis, published 2015.

Business Analysis for Practitioners: A Practice Guide from Project Management Institute, published 2015

The PMI® Guide to Business Analysis from Project Management Institute, published 2017

Five Crossword Tricks to Help Pass Certification Exams

I love to complete crossword puzzles. More than a pastime, they are more like an addiction for me.

At any one time I have 3-4 different puzzles in progress, of varying levels. I am no expert, but I have learned a few techniques that surprisingly matches advice I have given over the years to help candidates pass their certification exams.

You see, it helps to approach your exam like a puzzle. Why is that? The “puzzle” creators, the certification exam writers, devise tricky and challenging questions like a crossword editor does. They are difficult because the exam writers want to test your knowledge of business analysis, project management, agile, security or whatever your certification interest. I think it will be helpful to treat your exam like a puzzle to help get in the right mind frame.

To that end, I have developed a few tricks over the years to help me solve crossword puzzles. Here are five of my best tricks and an explanation of how they apply to cert exams.

  • Skip over hard answers – work the easy ones first. No matter how easy or difficult a puzzle I work on, there are always some clues and sections that are easier than others. Use those to help answer harder ones and to build confidence. Leave answers blank you are unsure of and only lightly pencil in those you are partly sure of.

CERTIFICATION APPLICATION: Skip hard questions and leave them blank the first or second time through your exam. Exam creators like to devilishly put hard questions near the beginning to test your meddle. It is easy to spend 10 or more minutes on early difficult questions, which leaves you that much less time for the remainder. Skip them! From my own and others’ experience, difficult questions are easier the 2nd or 3rd time through.

  • Rely on patterns to figure out answers you are unsure of. When I am uncertain of a crossword answer, I find it helpful to look at surrounding words and letters for clues. In English, certain letter combinations are more common and others will not occur at all. For example, if a word ends in “K,” odds are the preceding letter is an A, E, C, L, N, R, or S.

CERTIFICATION: APPLICATION: Look for distracters (e.g., oxymorons like “assumption constraint”) to spot incorrect answers. Look for answers that have 3 commonalities between them and one that does not (odds are good that is the correct answer, but not always.) Wording from one question can help you with others (this happened on every certification exam I took).

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  • Make sure you understand the correct meaning of a question. Clever crossword editors use clues that could have several meanings depending on how you interpret them. For instance, a simple clue of “Free” on a puzzle I just finished could mean the verb “to free” or the noun “to be free”. It could be free of cost, free of constraint, or carefree, such as “free and easy.”

CERTIFICATION APPLICATION: Just like clever crossword editors, clever exam writers try similar tricks to make you think and not just recall. For instance, suppose you encountered a question that makes common sense but contradicts your body of knowledge. Once example I remember from my PMP preparation had to do with paying bribes to get a project approved in a foreign country where that was common practice. That option would not be the correct answer because it violates the PM Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide®).

  • Use multiple iterations to complete your answers. I have heard of expert puzzlers who complete the Sunday New York Times in one sitting (in ink no less). Most people cannot do this and on difficult puzzles I need several attempts to complete it and I always use a pencil!

CERTIFICATION APPLICATION: Unless you are an expert test taker, expect to do two or three iterations of reading through and answering questions on your exam. If you follow rule #1, you should leave blank every hard answer on your first read-through. You should also flag any questions you are partly sure of as mentioned in rule #2. From observations in teaching numerous certification classes I know the importance of this. After practice exams in class, many students reported they changed an answer or two only to discover their first one was correct. Do not let this to happen to you on your exam! Leave answers blank until you are sure of them.

  • Use your best guess if you must. Sometimes I will write down a crossword answer even if I am not sure of it. I do this more often near the end of a puzzle to help me with adjacent answers. Confession: I have been known to fill in words to complete a puzzle just so I can finish it and move on.

CERTIFICATION APPLICATION: If your time is nearly up and you have unanswered questions, by all means use your best guess. There is no penalty for guessing, only for not answering a question. Try to pace yourself so you have time to make an educated guess. If you are seriously close to the end, put down any answer. In other words, like a crossword, go with those “lightly penciled in” answers. One of my students early on told me an urban myth that answer “b” occurs most often in exams. I am not sure if that is true but putting answer “b” on say five blank answers probably ensures you get one or two of them correct.

I have worked with certification preparation and exam strategies for many years, including training countless candidates. One common denominator among virtually all my students has been exam anxiety. We all face it and there is more than one approach to combatting it.

Treating an exam like a puzzle is one approach to reducing exam anxiety by providing strategies for navigating difficult questions on your exam. Using crossword tricks like the ones outlined above can help reduce your exam anxiety and improve your score. Let me know what you think and share your own tricks that have worked.