What does it mean to be a good business analyst? It’s like asking someone, “Are you a good driver?” or “Are you good with kids?” Business school is traditionally the place where you might pick up these super awesome business analyst skills, but many times case studies and group projects may not be enough. In the business world, knowing how to act when your business is facing losses, managing inventory, and figuring out salaries are all problems that require a skill set that can gained through practice and real-world experience.
I’ve never taken a class that taught me how to be a good analyst. I don’t consider myself to be a good analyst since analysts are always learning new tools and techniques to be, well, better analysts! Here are the top 5 skills you should have in order to be a better analyst no matter what industry or role you are working in or aspire to work in:
1) Continue Learning New Skills
The default platform we talk about on this blog is Excel. Many people believe good business analysts are Excel geniuses and must have taken classes or are inherently smart and know how to build crazy formulas in Excel. Most business analysts learn Excel by being thrown into the deep end, and Excel is an old life jacket they are given to survive. When faced with a business challenge, you must learn what tools to use to solve the challenges and many times the tools do not involve Excel. This means you need to learn new skills on the fly whether it is understanding the new CRM platform the company is adopting or putting together a flowchart about how to better run a restaurant chain.
Knowing the ins and outs of Excel is great, but building new skills whether it’s technical software or public speaking will only make you that much stronger at understanding new business challenges and using the correct tools to solve them.
2) Decipher The Signal From The Noise
In the book aptly named The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, Silver talks about the huge amounts of data we have available to us to help us better forecast the economy, the weather, and other everyday issues. Good anlaysts take a large data set and can pick out the patterns or story lines that are actually defining the business versus drawing false conclusions from the data. One of the biggest challenges you face as an analyst is to be able to step back from the data and figure out from a bird’s eye view what message you are trying to get across to your audience or stakeholders from the data. Too often, we get stuck in the weeds of the data to understand what the purpose of the analysis is. If you had to put one headline in the newspaper about what the data is telling you, what would it be?
3) Bridge Gaps Between Different Parts of the Organization
A very basic question a COO might ask you is how to reduce costs? This involves understanding the full business process from sales to engineering to product development. The only way you will understand the full picture of what’s going on is by talking to all the stakeholders involved in the business challenge at hand. When I used to intern at a bank, I was tasked with building a simple dashboard for the COO’s chief of staff. I literally went in and interviewed every person that was providing me data to figure out how all the different parts of the back office are related. Sure, I was 20 years old and had no idea what I was doing, but I slowly learned that good anlaysts can speak the language between various different groups in the organization. People will trust you more since you speak their language, and act as a translator between different departments.
4) Always Ask Questions and Be Curious
Similar to #2, in order to understand the signal or the root of a challenge, you need to cut away the fat and go straight to the source of the problem. Sometimes data you receive is not perfect, and you should be asking yourself, where does this data come from? Why did it come this way? Are there other ways for me to analyze this problem? What am I missing? If you are not constantly asking yourself why something is the way it is and challenging the status quo, the business will never change and be stuck in its old ways forever. Let’s face it, people are averse to change no matter how “innovative” they say they are. People like the way their spreadsheets are organized and like to format their presentations a certain way, but this is where you can step in and say you have a better solution because you took the time to ask questions about why a process exists, and how it could be improved.
5) Know The Rules and Change The Game
This is my favorite tip for being a better analyst since it’s the one time, in the world of spreadsheets and PowerPoints and useless conference calls, where you can be the badass and shake things up. You know what all the stakeholders value in your business and you’ve discovered a solution that is well researched, adds value to the organization, and will make everyone happy. You have the ability to change the way an entire organization runs and people will quickly see that you took the time to understand everyone’s point of view and found a solution that satisfies everyone. This is one of the most satisfying feelings as being a rock star analyst. Sometimes the change doesn’t involve an increase in revenue or decrease in costs, but rather changes people’s perspectives about a business issue or gives your colleagues a view into the business they have never seen before. Everyone thinks that process XYZ runs a certain way because that’s just the way it has always been. You must fully understand the constraints of the process before researching and analyzing new ways of running the process. Once you discover something new about the process or challenge, you break the traditional thinking people have and change the game for good.
What other skills have you gained as an analyst you think all analysts should have?