On writing good acceptance criteria for your user stories

I am a Business Analyst on an agile team. User stories and acceptance criteria are my bread-and-butter. But when I first left the comfort of elaborate requirements to embrace the simplicity of user stories, I found the concept freeing, yet challenging.

User stories were an easy concept to grasp. But understanding, internalizing and writing good acceptance criteria, which pretty much make or break your stories, made the whole thing tricky. Even now, depending on the feature I’m working on, I sometimes struggle with writing “good” acceptance criteria.

In those times, this article by Sandy Mamoli helps clear out the cobwebs.

Acceptance criteria:

  • Define the boundaries for a user story/feature
  • Help the product owner answer what they need in order for this feature to provide value (typically these are the minimum functional requirements)
  • Help the team gain a shared understanding of the story/feature
  • Help developers and testers to derive tests
  • Help developers know when to stop adding more functionality to a story

What’s your 5-year career plan?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that project requirements have a tendency to balloon-up and, if left unchecked, can cause downstream issues in cost, time or quality of the end deliverable.

As a Business Analyst – the conduit between the business stakeholders and the product development team – one of the best things you can do to monitor scope creep is meticulously maintain a requirements traceability matrix.

As per the BABoK (Business Analysis Book of Knowledge), requirement traceability is “the ability to identify and document the lineage of each requirement, including its derivation (backward traceability), its allocation (forward traceability), and its relationship to other requirements.”

This exercise of creating and maintaining a traceability matrix ensures that the end deliverable always ties back to the original business goal(s), and that time, effort and resources are not wasted on activities that provide little or no value in meeting goals.

But what on earth does any of it have to do with your career goals?

Actually, quite a lot.

Just think about all the activities, courses, workshops, seminars, and conferences you’ve attended with the vague hope that it will somehow help further your career. And while I’ll grant that no learning is truly wasted, a more focused approach to picking and choosing the activities that directly tie back to your overarching career goals is probably a more efficient use of your time, effort and energy.

A couple of years ago, I came across a great article about charting your career goals using a simple tool — a calendar. Specifically, a multi-year calendar.

What’s different about this approach is the tactical focus on planning, preparing and meeting deadlines while still keeping the big picture in view.

The article is rooted in academia but the concept itself is easily applicable to any field.

Here is the original post: Why You Need a 5-Year Plan

And the follow-up post: In Response to Popular Demand, More on the 5-Year Plan

Mentor

A mentor is someone who has already been through the highs and lows of the path you plan to take and can expertly guide you around the worst of mistakes.

A great mentor is one who advises you, cautions you and yet motivates you to experiment and find out for yourself. But he or she is always there to guide you as you learn and grow.

I’ve come across some truly inspirational people at work and in life. I’ve learned so much from them. I’ve asked them for advice when I needed it, and they’ve been kind enough to guide my path. But I failed at making stronger ties that could survive with the inevitable distance. Ties that I wish I had when I’m deep in the trenches and looking for a way out. Books and blogs are good at the rescue, but not enough. A person who has been there and done that is your best bet.

A great mentor is a rare gem. If you’ve found one, consider yourself lucky. If you haven’t, start looking right away. It’s never too late for course correction. And if you can’t find one? Keep searching.

And, in the meantime, try to become the mentor you wish you had, and help someone else as best as you can. You are never too young or too old to be a mentor or a mentee.

Why salespeople make great business analysts

In the last few months, I’ve come across an overwhelming number of questions on LinkedIn and Quora from people in sales who are looking to transition into business analysis. I love the work that I do as a BA. So I wrote about it.

I originally posted the following in response to a Quora question. I have since updated the answer to make the writing a bit tighter.

P.S. This is a long post. Almost 2000 words. You’ve been warned! 🙂

TL;DR. Salespeople have the soft skills to make great business analysts.

Doing a career change can be tricky at any point in time. But as they say: it’s never too late. Having said that, sales and business analysis are quite different. Yet, luckily, business analysis is an area where business experience and people skills matter more than any specific experience or education credential(s).

In fact, as a salesperson, you already have the background to be a solid Business Analyst (BA). You just have to package your skills and experiences and present it as such.

Broadly speaking, there are three career paths that can lead someone to a BA role:

  1. Someone with extensive industry knowledge. An example would be someone who has worked for different companies in different capacities within the same industry.
  2. Someone with deep business expertise. An example would be someone who has worked for the same company for years and can be considered a subject matter expert.
  3. Someone with a technology background. An example would be a developer, a quality analyst or a technology manager who has always had a keen interest in the business side of things.

I think a salesperson can easily tailor their experiences to fit profile #1.

To illustrate how one can do this, I’ll take a few sample sales skills from this article, and show you how each skill can be re-purposed for a career transition into business analysis.

But before we go any further, I have a disclaimer. My sales to BA skills mapping is for illustrative purposes only. I’m trying to find examples of common ground between the skills you likely already have as a result of your sales career and the skills expected from a Business Analyst. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and my attempt at mapping is approximate (to the best of my abilities but probably debatable).

#1) Product / Industry Knowledge = Domain Knowledge

A sales rep who doesn’t perfectly understand the product they’re selling is a completely ineffective rep.

If you’re a salesperson hoping to become a business analyst, this will be your biggest advantage.

In the business analysis field, this is called domain knowledge. A BA who doesn’t understand the business or industry and its policies, procedures, processes, acronyms and trends cannot be an effective BA. BAs are agents of change in an organization, and their main role is to enable change initiatives related to people, process and/or technology.

But how can they manage such a project without understanding the context, that is, the domain in which the change must occur?

Senior BAs typically have many years of domain knowledge.

#2) Strategic Prospecting Skills = Stakeholder Analysis Skills

This means searching for referrals through existing connections to new prospects that fit the target buyer or ideal customer profile.

The first step in any business analysis initiative is to identify the stakeholders, that is, the people who will be directly or indirectly involved or affected by the change. This includes the project sponsor(s), executives, management, subject matter experts, business managers, support staff, end users, etc. The list can be quite extensive.

The goal here is to identify the right stakeholders and build as comprehensive a list as you can.

BAs use “strategic prospecting” to figure out who fits where in the project puzzle. They assess and analyze the power, role, knowledge and expertise of the stakeholders to determine how they can best contribute to the success of a project.

#3) Rapport Building on the Call = Stakeholder Interviews

Some sales reps already have a natural ability to create an instant rapport with a prospect, and only have to finesse it. Other reps can learn to research prospects in advance and find common ground to empathize with the person on the other end of the line.

Usually, the next step in a business analysis initiative is to speak to the stakeholders one-on-one or in a facilitated group setting depending on the project need.

As I said before, BAs are change agents. And change is hard.

BAs as “agents of change” often find themselves in disengaged (at best) or hostile (at worst) work environments where they must leverage their rapport building skills during stakeholder interviews to build trust and confidence.

#4) Buyer-Seller Agreement = Change Management

It allows the prospect to feel comfortable and understand what is coming next, so no one feels ambushed by the next step. It also allows the sales rep to open up a two-way street in the selling process so that both parties get to a win-win conclusion.

The most crucial task in any business analysis initiative is to ensure that your stakeholders “feel comfortable and understand what is coming next, so no one feels ambushed.” This is especially true for stakeholders who are most impacted by the proposed change, but have the least amount of power or say in the matter.

This is just one aspect of change management, a task that a BA must continually engage in until the end of the project.

In his book, Business Analysis: Best Practices for Success, Steven P. Blais defines the BA role as someone who is “explicitly or implicitly responsible for the successful adoption of changed processes, products, and technologies in the organization… as a Business Analyst, you have to understand the business community and its ability to absorb the change.”

Stakeholder interviews, facilitated workshops and other one-on-one or group interactions are crucial opportunities for the BA to not only gather project requirements but to raise awareness of the business needs and goals, set expectations, promote engagement and generally help everyone go through the process of transition (aka change).

#5) Active Listening during the Sales Cycle = Communication during the Project Cycle

Great listening skills can help reps empathize with prospects to learn more about their business and pain points. With that knowledge, they can then sell more effectively and offer a better solution.

On the phone, the tone of voice, volume and pace of a sales rep’s speech are surprisingly important sales skills. In sales, how you say things to a prospect matters more than what you say.

Communication is the currency that makes good analysts great. One of the key reasons for project (software or otherwise) failures are bad business requirements, which is a direct result of bad communication, both incoming and outgoing.

Active listening skills (incoming) help a BA really understand and internalize the business need to effectively come up with clear, prioritized, consumable and complete requirements that deliver value to the stakeholders. Great oral and written communication skills (outgoing) help a BA be understood clearly and concisely.

Imparting the right amount of information at the right time to the right people helps keep everyone on the same page while they work towards a common goal, and helps the BA effectively manage the change process.

#6) Qualification Questioning = Need Analysis

You need to delve deep to discover your prospect’s business pain and how your product can help them solve it by asking qualifying questions. These questions help you determine what you should share about the benefits and value in your product based on what is going to be most important for them.

Done right, a BA is a proactive and trusted advisor and leader.

Done badly, a BA gets reduced to a passive role of a note-taker or scribe.

Great BAs lead stakeholder discussions. They look for opportunities to innovate. They stop and ask “why.” Again and again and again until they’ve dug deep enough to uncover the underlying pain that’s driving the need for change. Because to be an effective analyst “you need to tap into people’s non-conscious to define their real requirements. People are conscious of the immediate problems and issues with their processes and so will seek to have these resolved. However, few are conscious of the strategic intent and rationale of their processes — what they are really trying to achieve and the reason (or lack of reason) for each step in the process. This knowledge is held in their non-conscious and has to be tapped into to identify what they really want the process to do, and why.”

#7) Time Management = Time Management

The key to being highly productive is using good time management skills.

This one is self-explanatory. Pretty much a great skills for any professional. As a BA, not only do you need to manage your own time well, you also have to accommodate others who may be relying on you for deliverables or information to continue their own work. Multi-tasking is, unfortunately, a necessary evil.

#8) Objection Prevention / Handling = Change Management

Great sales reps practice the art of proactive “Objection Prevention” and not merely “Objection Handling” and can thus reduce some of the most basic objections by way of how they approach a sale.

Even the best reps can’t prevent every objection, so it’s important to help your team prepare for objection handling when they do hear one.

This is yet another aspect of proactively managing change in an organization as a BA: “Whether it’s a meeting (big or small) or a training session, someone has to shape and guide the process of working together so that you meet your goals and accomplish what you’ve set out to do. While a group of people might set the agenda and figure out the goals, one person needs to concentrate on how you are going to move through your agenda and meet those goals effectively.

#9) Demo Skills = Presentation Skills

Sales reps need to not only understand the product, but must be able to show off it’s capabilities to a prospect effectively through a demo.

Similarly, BAs must not only analyze business need to come up with innovative solutions, they must also be able to communicate it to the executives and sponsors who have the final word on green-lighting a project for implementation.

#10) Gaining Commitment = Stakeholder Buy-In

The key is making sure the right people with the right approval power are bought in to the process as the sale progresses.

In business analysis, stakeholder buy-in is the process of involving right people in the decision-making process with the hope of reaching a consensus on the proposed change initiative.

#11) Closing = Sponsor Sign-Off

Reps have to establish a timeline, and push the prospect to sign using a compelling event.

When the project sponsor says “yes, let’s do this!” This is the green-light to go ahead with implementation. All the analysis work you’ve done so far has led to this moment. In big companies, this is as much a formal process as a client signing a contract.

#12) Post Sales Relationship Management = Change Management

Relationships really matter; it’s that simple.

Another aspect of change management, which continues into eternity.

To wrap up, here is some general advice about making the transition from a sales to a business analysis role:

  • Does your current company have a BA practice? If so, making the switch within your own company might be easier.
  • Target companies with mature BA practice or BA centers of excellence.
  • Business certifications and other educational credentials can stack the deck in your favor.
  • You have people skills in spades. That’s your calling card. Use them wisely.