Up In The Air Consulting

This post originally appeared on the IIBA Community site on April 6, 2010.

I loved being a business analyst consultant. It didn’t matter if I worked as an internal consultant for different areas in the same company or as an external consultant brought in for my specific industry or technical knowledge. Not only was the job fabulous, the travel itself was incredibly fun. Finding new and different places to eat, being lost in strange and unique ‘burbs, even dealing with cranky people who thought you were there for no other reason than to find a way to do away with their job. There wasn’t a single aspect I didn’t enjoy (aside from filling out the expense reports). It is a job that I routinely miss and I wonder how long it will take before I am drawn back to that life.

In that light, it was with great expectation that my wife and I watched the latest George Clooney movie, Up In The Air. Highly acclaimed, spectacularly cast and a familiar subject matter meant this was a ‘no way can it fail’ movie… that still failed. Spectacularly. Repeatedly. Explosively, even.

If you have not seen it, I suggest it if for no other reason than to see the ways in which someone acting as a BA can fail. Spectacularly. Repeatedly. Explosively, even. No, its not George Clooney’s Nick character (above right) who failed, at least not in a BA role, but that of Anna Kendrick’s character Natalie (above left). She’s new to the job and made some of the mistakes nearly every rookie makes. Here’s a list of the ones I saw, without giving so much detail that it would ruin the movie for you.

Thinking You Know Better Than Anyone Else

Natalie’s character was smart. Ivy League smart. She looked at a company which had a massive travel budget and thought, there has to be a better way. She did as we all do at some point and asked if there isn’t a way that technology can reduce the expense of the job and improve the bottom line.

What Natalie failed to understand is that while a process might seem to be made better with the use of technology, some processes either should not or can not be made better with technology. Her ideas did cut down on the travel budget, improving the bottom line in the short term, but she neglected to see that the value in the service provided to her clients was classified not just in terms of expense reduction. The task she sought to improve was a very human, one on one endeavor, which she learned the hard way by watching Nick in action. Some things look a lot better on paper than they do when you see how they impact the lives of your stakeholders.

Flowing it out

Probably the most laugh out loud moment for me in the movie was when you get a peek over Natalie’s shoulder and see her dragging around boxes in a Visio diagram. Yes, she was putting together a process flow, but of how to fire people. There are two reasons that this was a laugh out loud moment.

First, the process diagram itself was a disaster. I know this is Hollywood and whoever put that document together did not understand what a good process flow is supposed to look like. There were activity boxes and decision points all over the page, with the flows looping around and over each other. The short glimpse I had of the page made me think more of a spider web than any workable process. It was nearly unreadable and had it been real, would have been sent back to the BA who created it in very short order.

Second, the process she was trying to outline could not be outlined at the level of detail she was searching for. In my opinion, here is about as detailed as you can go in the process of letting an employee go for economic reasons:

Creating a repeatable process flow for something as variable as a human conversation is difficult due to the unpredictable nature of the activity. Sure, you can notate specific points which must be addressed during the conversation, and maybe even a general order for these to be brought up, but the sheer number of possible branches and the amount of emotional volatility contained in a conversation about termination makes anything beyond that very difficult.

It must always be in the front of our minds when designing a process who we are defining the process for and what is the outcome for all the people involved in the process. There is no way to anticipate all the various ways in which an employee might respond when confronted with the stress of their job being eliminated and thus our process must be considerably more flexible in order to deal with the large number of unknown twists and turns such a conversation will inevitably take.

So there are my thoughts on “Up In The Air” from the perspective of a BA. If you’ve seen it, what did you think about the movie? Were there any other scenes that made your inner BA cringe in pain?
Image from Chicago Reader.