Niall Ridge is a Senior Business Analyst with IMA who is passionate about helping other Business Analysts to explore and improve in their role. He's also a self-confessed data-nerd, and loves working on Business Intelligence solutions

Niall Ridge is a Senior Business Analyst with IMA who is passionate about helping other Business Analysts to explore and improve in their role. He’s also a self-confessed data-nerd, and loves working on Business Intelligence solutions

I have a confession to make. Ever since I started working as a Business Analyst (well, actually long before that), there has been one feeling that visits me like a recurring dream – “I don’t know what I’m doing”. Initially, this response would occur daily – what does a good requirements document look like? How do I know when I’ve got enough detail? How do I operate this coffee machine?

Fortunately, although this feeling still occurs, it happens a lot less frequently, and I now know how to operate a coffee machine. More importantly, it’s no longer something I fear and I’d almost venture to say that I enjoy the feeling. Because I know that that feeling is why I’m there. The subject I’m looking at is complicated and the problem is messy but that’s why the business has engaged a consultant – to help them work through the problem.

Without sounding too much like an advertorial, I think the biggest strength of IMA is the people. The one on one interview, the intensive logic test, the peer interview – used when IMA employs a BA – are all designed to make sure that when a business engages a consultant, they get a problem solver: someone who is logical, who can think through a problem and, quite likely, has been there before.

Nowadays, when I find myself in a situation with a high degree of ambiguity and uncertainty, I put my head down and start chipping away, knowing that I’m sometimes there because no one “knows what they’re doing” yet with this particular problem. It can sometimes involve days of having a head swimming with new information before the lines and patterns start to become clear but, because I’ve been there before, I know that I can trust the process. Of course, ‘the process’ will vary with your particular situation, but here are 6 tips that have helped me when facing uncertainty:

1. Communicate early and often – let your project manager or supervisor know about the complexity as soon as you can. Tell them (in understandable language!) why there might be complexity, what the level of that complexity may be, what you expect the impact may be and how you’re planning to investigate and address it. As for any communication, it’s critical to tailor this to your situation by understanding your audience. For an example of this, check out Chris Robson’s excellent post on how to deliver bad news.

2. Get started – the quote “the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step” has been used so often that it’s easy to overlook the truth of the statement. Don’t let yourself be overawed by the task, do something! If you’re facing a new task, this might mean getting on Google and spending a few hours researching and planning, or it might mean talking to people. Don’t feel guilty about this ‘non-productive’ time, it’s an essential part of the process.

3. Don’t get distracted – rarely is my power of imagination more evident than when facing a difficult or long task. Unfortunately, this normally manifests itself through inventing new ways of procrastinating – getting a hot drink, doing a simpler task or even checking news or social media. One technique I’ve found quite effective is to set small goals, like not doing anything else for an hour. This has been particularly effective first thing in the morning, and gets the day off to a great focussed start.

4. Write it down – with complex problems it’s easy to forget your solution to one chunk of the problem while working on another, so keep complete and clear notes!

5. Put in the hard yards early – if you’re working on an area with a lot of uncertainty, don’t get caught out by underestimating the task. Work hard during the early stages and make sure that you know how big the job is. You can relax later on when you’re much more certain about how much work there is.

6. Bottle the memory – each time you manage to find solutions in uncertainty, take a moment to reflect. One of the benefits of experience is that, the next time you feel daunted by an uncertain or ambiguous task, you can take confidence from knowing that you did get through it last time, and you can again.

I hope that these suggestions will help you break through uncertainty in your own work and, if you find yourself thinking “I don’t know what I’m doing!”, know that you’re not alone. In fact, it might be a sign that you’re in exactly the right place!How about you – can you think of a time when you’ve felt out of your depth, or overwhelmed by uncertainty? What techniques or tricks did you use to get through it?