Episode 13: Bob Prentiss

Tracie: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Traceability Podcast. I am your host, Tracie Edwards. Today I’m so excited. We have Bob Prentiss with us, better known as Bob the BA. Bob is a long-time business analyst and trainer and executive, and he is the CEO of The Uncommon League, and so, so thrilled and happy to have you here with us today. Bob, thanks so much for taking some time with us.

Tracie:

Hello everyone, and welcome to the Traceability Podcast. I am your host, Tracie Edwards. Today I’m so excited. We have Bob Prentiss with us, better known as Bob the BA. Bob is a long-time business analyst and trainer and executive, and he is the CEO of The Uncommon League, and so, so thrilled and happy to have you here with us today. Bob, thanks so much for taking some time with us.

Bob:

No. Thank you for setting this up. It’s such a valuable service to provide different perspectives to people, and especially in the time of COVID and the chaos that we’re living in. I think we need more of that. More communication, more context, more connection.

Tracie:

I agree. It’s been a passion of mine over the last few years to share BA stories, be more fearless, be more resilient, and help other BAs to do the same. I know that that’s very much your mindset and the message that you share as you do your various engagements. Really, just wanted to start out, how did you get into business analysis? For those who haven’t heard your story.

Bob:

My story. Yeah. Well, once upon a time in a land far, far away … I won’t go back as far as to when I was born, but what’s interesting about anyone becoming a BA, right? Did any of us plan for it? Did anyone know that that’s the direction? Of course not. I mean, I was a theater music major. My life was going to be Broadway and the opera or whatever else would have happened, but things don’t happen always the way we envision them, and we’d take a left turn and we get a job in corporate America.

We’re told what to do initially and we do it and we just keep moving forward. I realized I like to solve problems and I was always in a position of doing that. I just had a new job every nine months when I was at the Pillsbury organization, so the Doughboy. I worked for the Doughboy, which was eventually bought by Diageo, which they’re a drinks’ company. It was a great combination, desserts and drinks and pizza, as well as all the other brands. What was interesting about that experience is I didn’t realize I was doing business analysis things and I was doing business analysis the entire time.

I was in sales and operations doing report solicitation and diving into people’s problems and figuring out how all that stuff works and getting fixes sent to IT. I was doing that elicitation and analysis piece long before anyone knew that’s really what it was. I woke up one day right after I had left Pillsbury. I had finally had enough. We had been through mergers. I was working for Häagen-Dazs at the time. See, also Häagen-Dazs. I mean, come on. It was such a unique part of my life to work with all these crazy brands. 

After I declined to take a job in Nowhere, California … because that’s where they were moving towards to go into a merger, and I’d already been through another merger. I was like, “I’m done with the mergers.” I took a package and left. I had several offers and I made the wrong choice, and what’s interesting about that is that it went horribly awry. The person that hired me left the company the day I got there. The people that inherited me didn’t want me. That was two weeks of going nowhere. 

HR was completely appalled and they were like, “Please take a couple of weeks’ severance if you want to go and find another job.” Well, I ended up reapplying for the job. It was this job actually where I woke up and said, “Oh, I’m a business analyst for real.” That was the early 2000s when people were just starting to talk about what it meant to be a BA. The IIBA was just forming, and so I ended up being at the ground floor of all that stuff. 

No plans for being a BA, just knew that once it all solidified everything I had been doing for the previous 10 years was that. Then add another 20 some years and here I am.

Tracie:

Here we are.

Bob:

I was doing the Broadway [inaudible 00:05:08] here I am. I mean, it was like the star [inaudible 00:05:10]

Tracie:

Hey world. Well, I think so many of us who are a little more advanced in our careers, that was the way it was with business analysis, right? We were doing work. There wasn’t a name for it. We were trying to solve problems and then all of a sudden we discovered there is a name for it and that’s what we’re doing and “Oh, we’re business analysts.” I think that speaks to discovery mindset where you’re moving into an organization and creating it as you go along.

Bob:

Very much so. I mean, when I went to the next company with, again, this mindset, “Oh, I’ll be here forever.” I was at the last company for 10 years and most people that know me wouldn’t think I have that type of personality, but I really do like to hunker down. I was hired in for a migration effort and as it turned off, I was the lead in between the business and IT. It was a hundred percent, everything I was doing was business analysis. 

It’s what I knew where the industry was going but now I’m in an organization demonstrating this skill set and they had no clue what it was or why they would need it later after they got out of migrations and started applying it on real projects. The second phase of my career was as fascinating as the first, because now I had focus. I had to influence an entire organization on what it meant to be a BA and what the value was. Of course at the same time, I’m getting multiple certifications. I’m progressing, I’m doing my own growth, everything else, heavily involved.

Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter, I started with the other people. Ran that for seven years and things keep building. We keep learning. We keep growing. Then everything just was like, it’s business analysis. It was no longer my desire to just be Jack of all trades. I got focus behind that platform and as a result, I will say, by the time I left the next company, they had over 70 BAs that-

Tracie:

My goodness.

Bob:

Yeah. That’s how much we had influenced and the work we had done. Yeah. It was really gratifying. Now, granted, they’ve been merged a couple of times since then, and I’m sure it’s gone to heck, but [inaudible 00:07:35]. You build a program and the next person comes in and trashes it.

Tracie:

As these things go. Yeah.

Bob:

Yeah.

Tracie:

Getting, I guess, to one of what I know is one of your favorite topics is the influencing without authority. I think, well, some of us as BAs we’re very dramatic, we’re very verbal, but often we’re a little hesitant to drive some of that influence. What was that in you that you were able to be that influencer and that leader and-

Bob:

Yeah. That’s a great question. I’m going to give you a slightly different answer than maybe what would be expected. I think it was going back to understanding what was the point of influence and what it really was. What I thought influence was, was dramatically different than what influence is in the corporate environment and should be. That’s because typically, influence people see it as a model, a role model, things like that. That goes a long way. A lot of people think influence is just presenting the facts, and that only goes a little way. 

Those two things aren’t even remotely close to what it takes to influence. So when I tie that back to what was really inside me, was my passion to do the right thing for the people in the project and the organization maximizing business value. That’s been my motto for a very long time. To do that I think I need to influence passionately about the things that I know are right and I got to get everyone else on board with that. Of course, everyone has a different agenda. 

Everyone has a different thought process and everyone is just their makeup is very, very different. If you don’t have the passion and you don’t understand that influence is all about doing the right thing for people, influence is about being a compelling force, that you’re going to push as hard as you can. You’ll walk away. If they really don’t want it, then you’re okay with that. Anything more than that becomes persuasion and then it gets ugly. That’s how most people try to influence. They logically persuade. 

The fact is this, the fact is this, the fact is this. You can do that to me all day long and I won’t care. You take those things and you start wrapping them up. You understand what influence is really for, and then you have a passion for it. Then come to the rest of it. That’s when you have to learn how to understand and read people at a completely different level. There’s this journey you have to take with influence if you want to be an influencer.

Tracie:

It almost sounds a little bit like the Simon Sinek mantra of they will buy what you care about. They are more influenced by the why than by the what kind of thing.

Bob:

Well, I think that there is an aspect in marketing of that and I think you always have to look at the who, the what, the where, the why, the when, the how, and the how many, all those combos. But there’s actually a deeper secret into why someone’s going to buy. It’s actually not what I am presenting just as a topic. It’s how I’m presenting it to someone based on what they value. For example … And these are called currencies. Bradford and Cohen wrote about these. I’ve spent 15 years analyzing them on a whole different level. 

They talk about it, but they don’t go deep enough into the strategies of how you use them. For example, first and foremost, my big thing is inspiration. If you don’t inspire me on another level, I’m never going to buy what you’re buying. I just I need to see why it’s so important for me. I need to see how it’s going to change lives. I need to see. This isn’t just rah, rah inspiration at the football game. This is nonprofit mentality, big picture, do the right thing stuff.

If you want to influence me to do something, that’s how you better come for me. Otherwise, I’m not going to buy or help out. You could be a very completely different type of person. Maybe you’re a command and control person who needs all the details, or maybe you’re a relationship-based person that if I don’t build a relationship with you first, I’m never going to buy what you’re buying. You can see that. One of my favorite things to do is go to a state fair or the Renaissance and I analyze people when they’re in that moment of looking at stuff and whether they’ll purchase or not. 

I’m like, “Not going to do it, not going to do it.” Because I know they’re not hitting what that person cares about. I get a little too geeked out about doing stuff like that. Life is a social experiment.

Tracie:

Right. Right. That speaks to what I think is a conundrum these days for business analysts, because so much of the world is going to the STEM skill set and the technical business analyst. I think often we’re missing that relational aspect of trying to drive change and influencing as a result of the relationship.

Bob:

Well, agile really messed things up for a lot of people, didn’t it? It’s unfortunate because agile is so grossly misunderstood with what its original intent was and how people are treating it. It’s why so many companies … I haven’t been in a company in a year now that’s successful at it. It’s a difficult topic, but when you start moving around the roles and the expectation is, “Oh, no, that role does it now,” then that leaves BA to become more technical if they’re not going to do that other side.

What’s funny is the other side isn’t trained on how to do that relationship stuff either and so misunderstandings around roles, especially. I mean, let’s just take the product owner. The point of product owner is someone that is highly educated in their business product. They know exactly what that product needs. They work with their subject matter experts directly to make sure that they have the right vision and information. They make all the decisions. When a sprint goes live, everything.

They’re the owner like a sponsor would be, but they’re also skilled in business analysis 100% to do the necessary analysis. They’re part business, part BA, part sponsor superhero. Okay? They work that way because we’ve back-filled their role on the business side. We’ve dedicated them to a team 24/7 and we’ve also thrown out the idea that we don’t need budgets or timelines because we’re there to build the best product. Well, then we fast forward to the future where we have BAs and they say, “We don’t need a BA.”

Well, but what they don’t articulate is the fact that the BA is actually in the product owner and so when they do set up a product owner, that product owner doesn’t have any experience. Then we find out that the product owner isn’t a true product owner. They don’t have the authority. All of these things are peripheral to what you’re talking about. That relational aspect, we’ve lost it all because we don’t know what each other’s doing and how we should operate in a hybridized environment. I get really passionate on that one.

That one drives me a little insane because I’m all about hybridization. I love hybridization and I love agile. I think agile can work. I just don’t think very many people [inaudible 00:15:23]

Tracie:

Not everybody is, I guess, as broad-minded and generalist anymore. It’s all about specialization and trying to put square pegs in round holes as far as people development and that kind of thing.

Bob:

Yeah. Well, I’ve been saying for years, trying to help BAs figure out where to go, because I notice they’re getting a lot of pressure in like, “You either need to specialize or you need to move to a product owner role.” You have to decide which you like better because the technical people are going to have to specialize more and that product owner role is going to be pushed very hard. What they’re going to do in most cases is they’re going to fill it with a BA because most companies just are not going to pony up the right level of product owner.

Tracie:

Definitely has been my experience, especially a product owner with that influence as you were saying.

Bob:

Well, what a nice tie-in, right? Product owners with influence.

Tracie:

What was going on in your career where you’re like, “I’m really not into corporate anymore. I want to go off and make a difference another way.”

Bob:

Yeah. The real question is, was I ever actually really into corporate or was it a necessary evil? Then I woke up and go, “Hey, this pays pretty well.” I think everyone has these moments in their lives, or at least I hope they do, where they have an epiphany about something. I know some people they come to me all the time like, “I’m still not sure what I want to do when I grow up.” Well, I was at a point when I was at the second corporate company … Again, that was another nine years. I started to do a lot of presentations for the local Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter, I was part of some thought leadership groups. 

I was just really getting involved in the industry. I started showing up at conferences on behalf of my company, showing the great work that we had done. I’m like an OG of COEs. I’m one of the very first … I know it’s a weird thing to say, right? I’m one of the first that I’m aware of that actually built a BA COE. It’s been a couple of decades. I was presenting on that quite a bit, along with a colleague and running around the country. It’s interesting, you know that people watch you, but you don’t often know why they’re watching you. 

Some people are flat out just watching because they’re head hunting. It’s flattering when it happens. Well, I actually started happening pretty rapidly. I got to the point where it was time for a change because I had done some research on my value systems. I had done a lot of research on myself personally through Myers Briggs, StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath insights. I was looking at all those different models, just models, et cetera and I kept coming back with this profile, educator, counselor therapist, educator, counselor, therapist. 

Here I was being hit up by education companies saying, “Hey, you want to come teach business analysis for us?” It was a no-brainer. You’re handed a gift. The real tie-in and the real connection was I woke up one day going, “Doggone it, I finally now know why that’s my favorite movie of all time.” My favorite movie of all time is To Sir, with Love with Sidney Poitier and Lulu.

Tracie:

Okay. I love that movie.

Bob:

It’s fantastic. What is it? It’s a person, an educator who wants to help these kids think, learn and work differently, the motto of my company and trying to get them unstuck. For those a high school teacher, alternative teacher approach things, this is like the first movie before the Michelle Pfeiffer movie and others came later. It wasn’t that I wanted to be Sidney Poitier himself, although that would not have been a bad thing. Oscar winner man about town. It was just, I just like the concept of what he did and I wanted to help people. 

I had helped a lot of people in these organizations, but what if I went beyond that? How many people could I help? Many, many years later, I have a pretty doggone good following. I have been able to present all over North America and globally, technically with virtual stuff. I’ve reached thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of people. I’m one of the lucky ones.

Tracie:

You definitely are, and you are known and loved. I’m very well aware of that. I guess going to that topic of helping people get unstuck, especially those of us who are mid-career or longer.

Bob:

Isn’t it all [inaudible 00:20:32] it’s just a number [inaudible 00:20:33]

Tracie:

The whole concept of feeling stuck and not necessarily knowing what to do about it or how to get unstuck, maybe talk about your advice to folks who know they need some change and they don’t necessarily know what it is.

Bob:

Yeah. A couple of years ago I decided to use one of my personal coaching models and it’s on value-driven change. It’s something I normally do with people one-on-one, and I decided, well, I’m going to do it at the big conference. I tied that in with a concept called the bucket list, which was using a bucket list as an example of pushing your goals forward. Well, this whole approach is really about helping people get unstuck or at least getting them to wake up a little bit to say why they need to move forward.

What it really is, is getting in touch with your values and if your values are not being met, then you need to develop a strategy to raise those scores. I mean, there’s a scoring model, and it can be a bit of a shocker at first. You think like, “Well, company is okay.” You go through your scoring system and you’re like, “I tell you, you needed a five and you got a two.” You’re not even close. By the way, the scores are a half, zero or one. That’s a big gap when you’re looking at a scoring system.

Then it’s about developing a strategy for why you’re not happy and why those values are not being met. It doesn’t just mean change companies, change roles right off the bat, but it’s about digging in. I always find that that is an excellent way to get unstuck because it’s very jarring when it happens. It also helps people start coming to grips with the idea of, “Am I really working in the job I’ve always dreamed of, or am I just paying the bills and it’s convenient?” It gets into that mindset like, how do you want to spend your time?

I find that to be incredibly important. This is all about trade-offs, right? There are going to be a lot of people that have to continue that job, but not forever. That means you can start building these strategies to say you know what, if you really value this, then do something about it. I do have one other thing that helps me get unstuck. I have analyzed the schnizz is out of the Kübler-Ross Death and Dying grieving cycle, but not just for death and dying, but to recognize where you’re at, because no matter what we go through, we go through this.

We go through anger, denial, and the problem is most people don’t recognize they’re stuck in one of the modalities and then they don’t get unstuck. I do periodic checks using that model to say, “All right, what am I doing right now?” I was like, “Well, I clearly have been in denial for 45 minutes and 37 seconds.” As I realize I haven’t moved and I’m just still sitting there staring at the screen. I used it just recently to recognize the depression that I was in. Wow. A week just went by. 

If I didn’t know enough to use that as a periodic check system and understand how that works, then I continue to be stuck. I’ve seen people go through depression for months and no matter what you say can’t get them unstuck. It’s they have to come to that realization. That’s why using a model like that, that forces you. It’s right in one of my notes and it’s on my to-do list. It doesn’t matter where I’m at. I’m just like, “I’m not stuck in any mile. Things are great.” A week later I’m like, “And I’m really angry at something I can’t control.” 

Then you have to start taking stock, right? Those are the two things that I would request of people, to really look at their values, see if their values are being met. There’s a wide array of values. I am going to come up with a little mini book, hopefully here.

Tracie:

Oh good.

Bob:

Before I leave this plane of existence on this. It’s all about that. That’s specifically all it’s designed to do, so.

Tracie:

Well, having gone through your scoring system in a previous organization I was at, that was very helpful for me personally, as I realized there’s some misalignment somewhere and I need to be open to doing something to make that different. That certainly did work for me, so.

Bob:

Wow. That makes me feel very good. That is a wonderful validation. I mean, I know the model works. Still, there’s a lot of work that you would have to do as an individual.

Tracie:

Right.

Bob:

I find most BAs that are stuck are smart enough to get them out of the hole once they can figure out what that is.

Tracie:

Yeah. I was listening to something today, so the concept of disrupting ourselves and that kind of thing. How it’s often that we think to disrupt ourselves means we have to go somewhere different kind of thing, but it was making the point that not necessarily. You can disrupt yourself in the same organization and you can find a situation that matches your values and still be in the same organization.

Bob:

Absolutely. I mean, I think sometimes the disruption in the same organization is to take a job that no one else would ever think you would take because you know you’re going to grow from it. I’ve had the pleasure of working both on the business and IT multiple times, but in the same organizations, because the first 20 years was corporate 50, Fortune 50 environment. That kind of disruption is very healthy. I did a game changer presentation a few years ago, and I talked about being a disruptor in this industry. 

It doesn’t have to be disruption on a nuclear scale, but that’s what most people think about because that’s what we’ve been trained to think about with movies and everything else. It could be a simple disruption to say, “You know what, I’m going to finally make the switch to user stories and acceptance criteria, even though I’m in a waterfall environment.” Which by the way, would actually improve everything you’re doing and by the way, there’s 90% no difference between the requirements you write today [inaudible 00:27:17] because those weren’t actually agile.

User stories and acceptance criteria are not agile, it’s just a requirement style writing choice, but it’s really accurate when you use it right. Yeah. I love that. How have you disrupted today?

Tracie:

Well, just thinking back over the last few years, when you and I first met, I was in an organization that just wasn’t a fit for me in a role that I was really straining against kind of thing. I’ve moved to a couple of organizations since then trying to find what that fit was. I think sometimes you’re going to disrupt and it’s not going to be a fit. We have to not be afraid of it not being a fit and then doing something different to course correct a second time. Maybe you over-corrected the first time and now you got to bring it back to center a little bit in another way.

Bob:

Yeah. Well, you mentioned the F word there and fear is a big problem for most people. I think it’s all about perspective and you can deal with fear a lot better when you have that perspective. Being perfectly frank, I know you know already, but maybe some of your listeners won’t, I have stage IV cancer. I have three to six months to live and it’s about perspective. I can go, “Oh, why me? Boo-hoo.” Or, I can simply look at the time I have left and recognize, “You know what, I’m not at the border of the U.S.-Mexico border being kidnapped by cartel and sold into slavery.” Which has been happening left and right, all right? 

These people with legitimate papers to get in the country can’t, and they’re stuck there in tents, and they’re being kidnapped. Perspective. When you go to that thing, that next moment and you’re like, “Well, I’m really nervous.” This has happened to a couple of people that sent in responses to me after seeing a presentation where I talk about cancer and perspective. They’re like, “Yeah. I was really nervous about that job interview. Nope, not anymore.” What’s the worst that can happen? You don’t get the job? No? 

Then it wasn’t the right fit or you get the job and now you’re like, “Oh, I’ve got to meet 30 new people.” Oh, and maybe you’re an introvert on top of that, that doesn’t like that massive interaction. What’s the worst that can happen? No one’s going to die in that situation. You’re not going to pay any more or any less taxes. Next time you’re worried about something, just give it some perspective and think about less fortunate people and it takes you into a whole different mindset.

Tracie:

Absolutely. The things that make us feel insecure are not quite as big and dramatic as they are in our own heads, so.

Bob:

Exactly. Well, that’s even perspective. I’ve had people tell me about, “Oh, you had this impact and whatever.” I’m like, “In the scheme of things, let’s put some perspective on that. I’m on a planet of how many billions of people? Seven? Eight? What are we up to? I’m a blip.” That’s why focus less on me, focus more on you and your opportunity and maximize the time you have. Don’t worry about the rest of it because it’s going to be gone like that.

Tracie:

Well, I guess let’s talk about … while we’re here, talk about Sing Your Life and what your plans are for that.

Bob:

Yeah. Singyourlife.org is my vlog. I don’t even know if the call them vlogs anymore. That word vlog just became blogs, but it’s a video blog where I just do what I’m thinking in the moment or sharing my experiences and the really icky tough decisions I’ve had to make on cancer. They have been extreme, and I’ve had to make decisions that most people will never have to make. I’m just trying to share that along with the concept of sing your life. Have the pleasure of meaning what you sing, have the pleasure of singing what you mean.

Be able to tell your truth. It’s annoying at times. It’s time consuming. It’s still work, but I’m sharing information that some people have used and it has allowed them to make better decisions. I guess it’s the right thing to do. I’m just going to keep making videos, as long as I’m able. I had a three-week period there where I didn’t get anything posted, so naturally that sent the rumors off, like what happened to Bob? I was sick. I’m not going to lie, and then I got depressed and I am just … You have to find that mojo again.

Yeah. Originally, I had planned on a new keynote and a book and I was going to do this whole series and staff and then COVID hit. Thanks. Thanks COVID, now I can’t go anywhere. Oh, well.

Tracie:

Oh well, but I think that message of sing your life just contains that fearlessness, resilience and taking action to get unstuck and be passionate about our lives.

Bob:

I talk a lot about that. It’s so easy to get stuck. I’m going to be honest, earlier today I was stuck. There are three things I easily could have done, but … Now, I could certainly blame it on the medical cannabis that I took, but I don’t feel anything so it’s not that. I wish that were the case. [inaudible 00:33:26]. It’s not anything like what you guys expect. No. I was stuck because I lack the motivation around those particular items.

It’s an interesting thing I keep talking about perspective, but every day I get more perspective. It’s a fascinating thing that I am calculating like almost every minute of how I want to spend my time and what I want to do. Boy, a lot have been checked out the door.

Tracie:

That goes back to what we’ve been talking about. It’s about values. It’s about perspective. It’s about priorities, what really is critical and what isn’t and all those things.

Bob:

Yeah. The more you can embrace it and the more you understand your values, I think the better life you’re going to have. I mean, it’s one of those things. It’s freeing when you get to that point. Maybe that’s the what Maslow talked about with self-actualization on some level. I don’t think so. I think of Gandhi when I think of self-actualization.

Tracie:

Yeah.

Bob:

I don’t think I’m ever going to be Gandhi. Not with [inaudible 00:34:48]

Tracie:

Yeah, me neither. What would be your parting shot as we close out our interview today and final message for those in the BA community.

Bob:

I’m going to sum this up with my biggest piece of advice and it’s something that most people don’t do a good job of. It’s context. You want to be successful as a business analyst, every time you open up your mouth should be providing context. Context for breakfast, context for lunch, context for dinner. Every time you’re eliciting, facilitating, it’s context. If you are not constantly using communication to provide context, the reason why we’re here, this is the purpose of this. This is how this will look.

This is where this could go. You must communicate at that level. It will take you farther in your career than anything else will. I guarantee it, because people will see you as a leader in your domain. They’ll actually really believe you know what you’re talking about and you will, whether it’s immediately or later. I’ve spent decades practicing it, trying to help out. I can point out that every failure is always due to a lack of context. I’ve been studying that very topic for seven years now. Any project value you can name, it was due to context by someone’s point.

If I had my final parting, parting, I’m so glad we had this time together. Just to have a laugh and sing a song. Seems we just get started and before you know it seems the time we have to say so long, so long, so long. Farewell. Don’t get me started because I’ll just keep connecting them. It will be a 30-minute goodbye series.

Tracie:

A little goodbye riff there.

Bob:

Yeah.

Tracie:

Thank you. Thank you so very, very much for spending some of your time with us today. For those of our listeners, if anything resonated with you today, please make a comment or send me an email at Tracie T-R-A-C-I-E@traceabilitypodcast.com or let Bob know at bobtheba.com. Live fearlessly, be resilient, sing your life, give context and be the BAs that we know you can be.

Bob:

Yes. Absolutely. Be extraordinary.

Tracie:

Amen.