Critical Thinking in Business Analysis: Why it Counts

Five percent of the people think; Ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.” 
― Thomas A. Edison

Business analysts are paid to think. Thinking is a force of habit that defines us and the quality of the decisions we make. If the numbers from Thomas Edison are anything to go by, our ability to think through situations should never be taken for granted.

Critical thinking is an extremely important quality that should be nurtured, refined and actively applied to every decision we make.

What exactly is Critical Thinking?

“Your mind is working at its best when you're being paranoid.
You explore every avenue and possibility of your situation
at high-speed and with total clarity.” 
― BanksyBanging Your Head Against a Brick Wall

In simple terms, critical thinking may be defined as "reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do". Another definition by the Critical Thinking Community is: "a mode of thinking, about any subject, content, or problem where the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skilfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing reality. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored and self-corrective thinking."

Being critical is like being paranoid – Not taking everything you hear or read at face value. Critical thinking creates opportunities for exhaustive analysis which in turn, leads to well-informed decisions.

Why bother?

We need critical thinking for practically everything we do - academics, work and even in our personal lives. BAs should be able to hold logical debates from the beginning to the end. We are often required to think and speak quickly within a short frame of time. Our work also demands that we hypothesize connections between ideas while thinking on our feet. Thinking the right way the first time, can save a lot of rework down the line. We must be critical of our own ideas and other people’s ideas.

Being critical allows the BA to confirm which requirements are valid.

Don’t take what you hear or read at face value. Weigh up the evidence provided by stakeholders and consider the implications or consequences of their suggestions before making a recommendation. For example, a requirement may sound straightforward until you consider its impact. Will the requirement necessitate the inclusion of an associated requirement? Will allocating such a requirement to the first release affect the project deadline and available resources? Can the inclusion of the requirement be justified? For example, a stakeholder may state in simple terms, “I need a report on the number of job applications we receive”. Being critical implies drumming up questions like:

  • Why is this report needed?  
  • Who will be the recipient of the report and how will it be used?
  • Is this report similar to any existing report?
  • In what categories should the applications be presented?
  • Which locations should the report cover?
  • What is the anticipated frequency of use?
  • In what format should the report be presented – Graphs or tabular form?

At the end of your analysis, you may discover that:  1) A similar report already exists which can be modified to suit the requirement, 2) The report may not be necessary at all – perhaps what the stakeholder really needs is a single functionality for adding up the total number of applications per month or 3) The frequency of use may imply that the requirement should be assigned a lower priority or even deferred till a later phase.

This hypothetical example of the application of critical thinking shows how a lot of time can be saved from the get-go as opposed to a situation where the analyst just takes the requirements at face value without finding out what the “real” requirements are.

In certain situations, a stakeholder may put forward a requirement that’s not necessarily tied to any business value but rather to their own increased convenience. Being critical allows the BA to distinguish between requirements that add value to the business and those that should be given a lesser priority.

There’s a huge difference between what a user wants and what they need. Being critical means separating “bells and whistles” functionality from the core functionality the system should deliver.

In seeking improvements, it’s also useful to consider if users have a valid justification for why they do things a certain way. You may find that when a person does things a certain way for so long, they may not have a valid reason for retaining these practices or even understand the reasons why these practices were encouraged in the first place. If the reasons for maintaining status quo are unclear and there are visible flaws in a process, there’s no reason not to improve it.

Being critical assists the BA in questioning stakeholder assumptions and concerns

Some assumptions or concerns are valid while others are not. If a stakeholder shares a concern, the onus is on the BA to investigate the concern and ascertain its validity. One of the things the BA may want to find out is if stakeholder concerns are “general” concerns shared by others or if they’re isolated concerns stemming from a single experience one stakeholder had in the past. For example, a stakeholder may state, “Our current system is slow – it doesn’t generate reports quickly enough”. This statement requires further investigation. The BA should in this instance, verify how much data crunching is needed to generate the report, the speed of the network and if other users have encountered the same problem. The user for instance, could have been running a complex report over a poor network connection. Such claims should be investigated critically before recommendations are made.

The key takeaway is to be investigative in your approach; you never know what you may find.

Here's an interesting insight to critical thinking by Stever Robbins