Ar Ramadi, Iraq – the city where many serious battles took place during the American occupation in 2003-2005. At that time, I was still a university student, but on the site, there was Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, who were the officers of Navy Seals. Today, they are running a company called “Echelon Front’’, thanks to which they transfer knowledge and experience in the scope of leadership, which they gained during their mission in Iraq and while working as instructors at Navy Seals trainings. Their experiences are gathered and described in a book entitled “Extreme ownership”. It is a leadership textbook which, in my opinion, has much in common with the description of a Business Analyst’s role.
Punch line: a leader holds responsibility for everything
“Extreme ownership” – the phrase is to be understood literally. Leaders are held responsible for any failure – they are to be blamed. Jocko figured it out in a tragic situation. During one of his missions as a leader, an Iraqi soldier, fighting on the American side, was killed by a Navy Seals’ sniper. It could be said that it was the outcome of fatal coincidences. Someone had not reported a change in the position, and the other one had mixed up the buildings and given the wrong location, which amidst the chaos of war resulted in the inability to recognise the right target. When Jocko was preparing to present a report on the action, it occurred to him that the only person to be blamed was nobody else but himself. He was the leader and therefore, he was responsible for preparing the mission and controlling what happens during every action. Taking the blame could ruin his career – after such a situation one usually needs to leave their service. However, Jocko’s bravery was appreciated – he gained recognition in the eyes of his superiors and subordinates. All this showed that a real leader cannot put the blame on any internal or external factors. There are at least two reasons why this is so important. Firstly, as in the world of superheroes “with great power comes great responsibility”, in the world of leaders “with great responsibility comes great strength”. A person, who takes great responsibility for success or failure of the team, stops complaining and starts noticing how much influence they have. They start to understand that it is enough to make a change on themselves or on their team in order to change the whole project. By assuming responsibility, instead of complaining that the client is not cooperating the way we would like them to, we start looking for a way to change something. In the end, nobody wants to be held responsible for a failure.
Secondly, such an attitude of a leader gives more courage to a team. A team that is led by a leader, who takes responsibility for every failure, is a team which is not afraid of taking risks. The team that feels supported by their leader, will do their best to avoid project failure and will support and trust their leader in their decisions.
But what does it have to do with the position of a business analyst in a team? I would say that quite a lot. Jocko and Leif describe a set of attitude and principles that make a good leader. They are supposed to lead the team and project to success. It turns out that such attitudes bear a striking resemblance to those that should be applied by an analyst. Before I move on to describe a few of them, we need to make sure if there is room and need for a leader in a “self-organised scrum team”.
There are no bad teams, there are bad leaders
Here is one of the most important principles described in “Extreme Ownership”.
A self-organised team is not enough – a team needs a leader, and most frequently it has one. In every team, there is a person who has a bit more charisma and self-confidence, and it is most often that person who (more or less consciously) sets the tone. Leaders need to be aware of the responsibility and duties that lie on them. There is nothing wrong in an ordinary team member becoming a leader. However, in such a situation it is worth considering if such an “ordinary” leader will be able to lead the team to success or failure.
Good and bad leader in action
The book describes a very interesting situation which took place during one of the workshops at a Navy Seals’ training camp, which shows how important the role of a leader is in a team. Several teams (consisting of six people) competed with one another. The task was to cover a given distance in a boat and transport that boat to the beach, and the participants were supposed to repeat it several times. The rules were simple: the team who wins, is allowed to take a rest before the next round; the team who loses is given an extra set of challenging tasks to perform. Such kind of “motivation’’ does not increase the team spirit in a losing team – quite the contrary – after several lost rounds, signs of frustration and mutual blame-game could be observed. After a while, two teams were selected: the one which kept winning, and the one which kept losing. It is quite easy to work out what the leader of the losing team could feel: “I got people who I can’t work with, and because of that I’m considered a bad leader.’’ The instructors decided to carry out a small experiment. They switched the leaders in both winning and losing teams. If a team works for the score on its own, such a change should not affect the score. It did, however.
How can a team benefit from a leader
After several rounds, the roles started to be reversed. The weakest team was performing much better, and the best team much worse. Suddenly, it appeared that it is not a team, but the mentality and attitude of the leader that determines who wins.
And maybe a Project Manager is a leader?
It is very often the case that management is confused with leadership. A Project Manager, as the name suggest, manages a project – is responsible for reports, budgets, deadlines. PM, like any other team member, may be predisposed to be a team leader. Whether it will happen or not depends on various factors.
In order to become a leader, one needs to have the right predispositions. Of course, it’s also worth being in the right place. Of all project roles, a Business Analyst (BA) seems to be in the best position to assume the role of a leader. Relationship with the client, high and low level of understanding of a project, as well as close cooperation with the team makes BA a good candidate for a leader, just by performing his or her duties. Any other team member would need to go beyond their role in order to fully serve the team as a leader. Whether a Business Analyst will undertake to fulfill such an important role and whether he or she will succeed, lies only in their hands.
What is, after all, the role of a leader? What do the best leaders do? They inspire and motivate. They have a vision and are able to spread it and convince people to perform a given task. They are able to motivate people to put this vision into action. They explain why a given task needs to be performed, but they don’t get into details of how to perform it – this is the team’s responsibility. BAs should do their best to understand the client and their visions and goals. However, understanding is not enough – a leader needs to believe that the project makes sense and has a purpose. He or she needs to believe that there is more to it than just single tasks – that there is a goal that is worth achieving.
One of the analyst’s tasks is to understand the vision and mission of the project, both the one on paper and the one that can be sensed by actions taken by individuals responsible for the project. And here we come across difficulties. At times, it may seem that the project is a waste of time and money – that we are building a house of cards. Sometimes, it may actually be the case, but it’s always worth considering: what is more likely to happen: that the owners of a big company are wasting money to destroy their legacy, or that we can’t see the bigger picture. From my experience, despite the best intentions and willingness, it’s sometimes hard to believe in the success of a project. What is left then is faith in our team’s success, which in spite of hard conditions and obstacles, will manage to do something amazing. Without a leader who believes so, a team will not do more than just performing the tasks along the line of the least resistance. The situation has been adequately described by Simon Sinek in one of his interviews:
“there is one subtle difference between a bricklayer building a cathedral and a bricklayer building a wall – after all, they both use only bricks’’.
It is the leader who needs to understand the team’s mission and to convince them that what they are building is not a wall, but a piece of something bigger and life-changing. If a leader succeeds in spreading such faith in larger whole among the team, then (according to corporate nomenclature) problems will become challenges.
Being in charge of the upper and down management chain.
Being a real leader has nothing to do with being in power, resulting from the position. A real leader doesn’t need it. An analyst doesn’t have it (coincidence?). However, a leader needs to be able to influence the people around. A leader’s and analyst’s tool is communication. It’s enough to recall how much influence on the United States had the activity and speeches of Martin Luther King, a man who held no official power, yet led to great mental and political changes.
Up the chain
By definition, an analyst is supposed to have the best relationship with the client. Thanks to that, he or she is highly likely to be in charge of the upper side of the management chain, i.e. to influence the client by means of communication. Every person working with clients knows that there is no perfect client. One client will be too chaotic, the other one too formal or will not have sufficient amount of time for us. I suppose that cooperation with the client does not result from what the client is like, but to what extent we are able to understand them. And this is the role of a leader – to understand the client and to reject a romantic vision of a “perfect client’’, and in the IT world a business analyst is the best person to perform this task. If we are able to understand the client, it will be possible for us to understand the requirements or why the client acts in a given way. If, apart from understanding, we manage to build a relationship with the client, we will be able to help them understand their mistakes and change behaviours which do harm to a project. In this way, we can lead the client so that the project could become successful.
Down the chain
However, the client is not everything – we need to bear in mind that the team is the most important factor. A leader is an individual who serves the others – he or she inspires them with a vision and, at the same time, helps to avoid potential obstacles. A leader makes it possible for a team to succeed by creating environment in which success is inevitable. An analyst keeps in touch with every team member thanks to his or her daily work. Such a person also knows what the team needs and has a direct influence on various factors, which might facilitate or hinder the team’s work. An analyst is also in the position which naturally entitles him or her to have an impact on the others. If we are able to explain the expectations, we are also able to explain why the client requires so many reports, is not able to express their thoughts or has no time for us. These skills combined with an analyst’s position in a team (a mediator between the client and the team) may affect the success or failure of a team.
A leader is likely to succeed if he or she is able to combine seemingly extreme attitudes. The same applies to an analyst.
They both need to be confident about their decisions but, at the same time, listen to the team and the client.
They need to take the responsibility for the team’s mistakes but should not be overwhelmed by a sense of guilt.
They have to lead and let other team members lead them, if they have a bigger knowledge and experience.
An analyst needs to be a leader and shape leaders among the team members.
“Extreme Ownership’’ is a book consisting of more than 300 pages, which describe various stances of leaders. I recommend this book to any Business Analyst. It has helped me understand how a Business Analyst can contribute to a team if only they take up the risk and prove themselves to be a natural-born leader.