The Must-Have Critical Skill-Set

I spoke at two conferences within these past two weeks – (1) IIBA Chicagoland Business Analysis Develop Day (ChiBADD) and (2) Data Modeling Zone (DMZ2017). At multiple sessions at each conference, a skill-set that is critical to the success of Business Analysts and Data Modelers kept coming up – facilitation skills, also referred to as “soft” skills. I also facilitated a “Data Hack-a-thon” at DMZ2017 and the only skill-set listed that was common to all 11 tables was “facilitation”. At ChiBADD, Bob Prentiss (Bob the BA), in his keynote presentation, called Business Analysts “Facilitators of Understanding”. There is a shift. Let’s explore.

After years of promoting group facilitation skills as a must-have skill-set to any role, I can say that people finally are listening, e.g.,

  • Agile recommends facilitation in every aspect of a project.
  • Data Modelers recommend facilitation in engaging the business in building business data models.
  • Business Analysts are realizing that facilitation is required for effective requirements elicitation.

Yet some people don’t get that learning facilitation skills is about developing a skill-set that is essential to their job. Business Analysts, Project Managers, Data Modelers, Six Sigma Green Belts, Strategic Planners, and others who don’t develop this skill-set are not prepared for today or the future. Unfortunately, too many people also believe that they have effective facilitation skills (“soft” skills) because they’ve presented or get along well with people. Not so…

Facilitation skills are a broad mix of skills. Some critical skills include:

  • Active listening – Hearing what others are really saying.
  • Group dynamics – Developing trust, teaming, and authentic collaboration amongst the group.
  • Dealing with difficult people – Turning difficult people into productive contributors.
  • Communication skills – Knowing “how to” present yourself ensuring that what you say is heard and understood.
  • Critical thinking – Pulling together the fragments of the message into a whole to form a better understanding helping people synthesize what has been said.

If you believe that you can learn this skill-set on the job, you are missing out. Learning on the job is a hit or miss effort where mistakes are perpetuated and there is no consistency – trial and error – and it demeans those people who, through proper training, spent a great deal of effort learning these skills. You must seek out proper facilitation skills training to be successful. Some Agile classes, data modeling classes, business analysis classes, etc., lightly touch on facilitation skills, but these classes focus on the specific technical knowledge required. That’s fine, but not sufficient.

You need an understanding of the “why”, practical applicable techniques, and structured thought processes in order for this must-have skill-set to be effective. Learn group facilitation skills, not because you want to become a dedicated Facilitator (which, by the way, is an option if you so desire), but because you can enhance job performance, drive collaboration, and achieve quality results.

Applying Agile Concepts to Strategic Planning

The Agile Manifesto may have been written initially for software, but its application to Strategic Planning works and it changes Strategic Planning from an event into a process. So, why not apply Agile concepts to Strategic Planning? I believe that planning should be a process not an event.  See “Swift” Strategic Planning.

I facilitated an Agile Strategic Plan for a group of organizational leaders who had hired a consultant a few years prior and the plan wasn’t working for them. The consultant took the leaders off-site for a week to work out their plan. The plan ended up being 84 pages long with loads of Baldrige Key Performance Indicators, but the plan ended up as “shelfware” for two years. The leaders wanted me to develop the plan a different way, so I applied Agile values to make the plan useful, as follows:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  • Working software (plan in this case) over comprehensive documentation.
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

First of all, we set a plan target of four pages long – the length of the U.S. Constitution. That’s adhering to the second value – working plan over comprehensive documentation. Reading 4 pages, versus reading 84 pages, makes a big difference. It also means that it makes it easier for the stakeholders to absorb and understand the plan, making it useful.

Looking at the first value, individuals and interactions over processes and tools, we developed the plan in facilitated workshops. Structuring the workshops to include multiple layers of leadership as participants incorporated the third value, customer collaboration over contract negotiation. We kept it simple, i.e., no complex processes. The leaders of the organization knew their industry – if not, strategic planning was not the solution to a lack of industry knowledge.

We further followed the Agile values by scheduling the facilitated workshops to last 4- to 8-hours to occur once a month. That meant that we never attempted to hammer out the entire plan in one workshop and each subsequent workshop began by reviewing the feedback and suggestions. We defined each “sprint” to define a portion of the plan, e.g., a complete Mission statement or a complete Vision, or a complete SWOT. In between, the leaders took what they had developed and shared it with others gathering feedback and suggestions. This brought in stakeholder collaboration and interaction.

Finally, once the Agile Strategic Plan was complete, the organization leaders defined a process for continuous review. They assigned a person to manage the plan and they reviewed the plan at every monthly staff meeting. The review was for progress, changes, and additions – i.e., it was a living plan and never “complete”. That supported the fourth value of responding to change over following a plan.

In addition to following the Agile values, we also were able to follow the Agile principles. Our measure of success was the plan. We provided continuous delivery of a working product and welcomed changes through the iterative workshops (“sprints”). Stakeholders were involved and leaders were motivated in a supportive environment. Face-to-face conversations were the norm in gathering feedback and suggestions. Sustainable development was accomplished through short, iterative workshops with continuous attention to excellence, good design, and simplicity enabling the plan to be useful. In the facilitated workshops, the leaders drove the process and we began each workshop with a reflection on previous work to improve following work.

Developing a Strategic Plan once a year and then waiting until the next planning cycle to update, makes no sense – the world doesn’t wait.