Issue 32

Critical Thinking in Business Analysis

Răzvan Costa
Business Analyst


"Five percent of the people think; Ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think." - Thomas A. Edison

In November 2014, a local IT company was the host of an event dedicated to Testers: Rapid Software Testing. At the end of this event, for a day, the speaker tackled a rare subject for the IT industry, but important for testers and analysts: Critical Thinking. The trainer of the event was Michael Bolton (not the singer!), a well-known figure in the Testing Industry. Although the event was directed towards Testers, some of the information regarding Critical Thinking applies to Business Analysts as well.

Most of the Business Analyst's work is thinking. Thinking is a force of habit that defines the quality of our work and of our decisions at work. However, there are lots of situations when we realize that the result of our thinking did not produce the expected results. This is because more than too often we do not choose consciously the way of thinking according to the situation and this has its shortcomings.

Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book (Thinking, Fast and slow) that people have two systems of thinking in their minds, System 1 and System 2:

If that short description did not say enough, think this: System 1 is the one which helps you react to external signals, recognize objects or faces, orient attention, associate ideas (e.g. Which is the capital of France?) and many more. System 2 is engaged and takes control when difficult tasks are requiring a solution: complex calculations, intense attention on something, check the validity of a logical argument and many more.

See Daniel Kahneman - Thinking, fast and slow

What has all of the above-mentioned to do with critical thinking?

In simple terms, critical thinking can be defined as "Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness." (Definition by the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, 1987 - Source: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/defining-critical-thinking/766)

Considering the core skills of a Business Analyst that have been defined over and over again by numerous trainers and blogs, when referring to a qualitative thinking, analytical thinking might not be enough. While analytical thinking refers to the abstract separation of a whole into its constituent parts in order to study the parts and their relations, critical thinking is the disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.

In other terms critical thinking is an attribute of System 2. In order to be sure that an individual (in our situation a business analyst) takes the decisions that best fit the client's needs and require the optimum amount of effort and cost, one must engage "System 2". By thinking with "System 2" you will increase the quality of your analysis.

How and why can someone engage "System 2"?

According to Daniel Kahneman, when an individual is required an answer or a solution "System 1" will offer one based on previous experiences. In some cases the quick connections can fit to the current situation, but most of the times they require further analysis.

As a business analyst, one must always be prepared to think critical in any situation. Take for instance the job interview. From all the questions that can test a lot of different skills, a business analyst should not be surprised if he is asked a question like: "How many cars pass daily through a certain crowded crossroads?"

Maybe the first reaction is to get up and leave the interview or to question yourself if you are at the right interview. In fact, the question is as plausible as any other. Using this question, the interviewer is actually testing more than one ability. Most of us are tempted to google it, since Google is a big part of our lives nowadays, but what would you do if you can't access the internet? The answer is far from any mathematical formula. Let's see: "How many cars pass daily through a certain crowded crossroads?" First of all, you must identify the city/region. Then approximate the number of people that live in that region. From that number, you must assume that only a part of them have cars which they use regularly. From all the people that have cars in that region and use them regularly, only a part of them use that particular crossroads to get to work, shopping or any other point of interest. Of course you can add or reduce the result by an error percentage that is most common in statistical calculations. In the end, it is almost obvious that you won't get the exact number. In fact, the right number is not even important. What is important is the algorithm of thinking, by which you proved the interviewer you can think statistical, you can analyze the problem on several dimensions and can follow a logical argument. The problems may vary and can extend to more complex algorithms (for details look for Fermi problem).

Further on, a lot of the daily tasks of a business analyst are related to collection of requirements. The process of elicitation requires the business analyst great focus in order to collect and understand the needs of the client. Applying a critical thinking demands not taking all the statements of the stakeholders for granted. Moreover, collecting requirements can also mean a challenge in finding arguments in things we hear and not taking for granted the statements we hear just because we respect the person who issues them. A stakeholder may put forward a requirement that's not necessarily tied to any business value but rather to their own increased convenience. Being critical allows the business analyst to distinguish between requirements that add value to the business and those that should be given a lower priority. For example: "I need a report on the number of products I sell every month". Being critical implies questions like:

And so on. By the end, you might find out that the report is already implemented and that the frequency of use is low so the requirement can be assigned with a lower priority.

How can you train critical thinking?

As any other skill, critical thinking can be trained. It is not easy, because you must be aware at all times of what you think and how you handle a challenge, but it pays off to have this as a skill. A lot of the universities around the world invite their students to discover and train the critical thinking skills. Anglia Ruskin University, a large university from England, defined a guideline which helps its students to develop critical thinking. This can easily be used by anyone, especially by a business analyst:

Ask a lot of questions: we heard a lot that as a business analyst you must ask a lot of questions, but that doesn't mean that all the questions are good ones. The 5w's (who, where, when, what, why) and how are the basic and required questions to identify requirement is indeed needed.

Think logically

Be open minded



So, why is critical thinking so important to a business analyst? It's a quality assurance check. Although critical thinking does not guarantee accurate requirements and the elimination of biases, it comes very close in doing that. The more accurate and real the requirements are, the greater the chances that the results of the project meet the true needs of the stakeholders. The key takeaway is to be investigative in your approach; you never know what you may find.




  • Accenture
  • BT Code Crafters
  • Accesa
  • Bosch
  • Betfair
  • MHP
  • BoatyardX
  • .msg systems
  • Yardi
  • P3 group
  • Ing Hubs
  • Colors in projects