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How to Plan Your Next BI Project

A Three Step Guide for BI Professionals

Launching a new business intelligence initiative or project can be tricky: while we’re staunch believers in agile BI and quick wins, it’s important for both the BI person and the business executives to first align their needs and expectations, and to understand what the organizations hopes to achieve. The good news is, an efficient business analyst can get it done in a day or two.

After all, it makes sense that before you dive into schemas, calculations and charts, the first thing you’ll want to do is actually understand what the business hopes to achieve. This might sound bafflingly obvious, but you’d be surprised how many times I’ve seen organizations skipping this step and going straight to building their KPI dashboards, without stopping for a second to think whether these KPIs are even relevant to the current project.

Often this happens due to an executive or analyst who has some preconceived notion of the end result, acquired from a previous company or project, which does not necessarily apply to the matter at hand. Remember: The process should always start with the business and serve the business. The metrics need to fit the organization, and not the other way around. You have to be flexible enough to accommodate the BI solution that the business actually needs, rather than the one that’s easiest for you to create.

So without further ado, let’s start planning your next BI project:

Step 1: Interview Key Stakeholders

What you’ll need: undivided attention

Time to completion: 1-2 days

Deliverables: summary of business requirements

The best way to understand what the business hopes to achieve through the BI project at hand is through face-to-face meetings with the relevant stakeholders (or, less preferably, via phone or Skype). These would include whichever executives, managers or analytical users who will actually be looking at the data on a regular basis.

Don’t skip this step or make do with written specifications! These few hours of meetings will make your job that much easier down the line and will greatly increase the chances of the project being a success.

Questions to ask during the interviews:

The wh- questions: Why is a particular dashboard needed? Who will use the dashboard, and who will receive its outputs? Where (and on what device) will they do it? When will the dashboard be used?

Current and desired decision processes: How are decisions currently made? How would they like to make decisions in the future? Which data is currently missing, or hard to access, and how would it affect the decisionmaking processes?

Pain points: What did they always want to know but couldn’t find out? Why is data too difficult to find or analyze? Where are analytical IT resources currently going and how could they be used more effectively?

Step 2: To the Drawing Board!

What you’ll need: a whiteboard and markers, pen and paper, or Powerpoint Visio

Time to completion: 2-3 hours

Deliverables: list of crucial business questions to answer

Once we’ve finished interviewing our key stakeholders and understood what they expect the business intelligence project to look like, we’ll want to start visualizing — not the data (yet), but the processes themselves. What we’ll be drawing here is not graphs, widgets or visualizations, but a flowchart of sorts.

Build a diagram illustrating the business process workflow for each relevant process. It is at this stage that we understand whether we need multiple dashboards, schemas, etc. By the time you’re done, you should be able to describe the way in which the organization make decisions, and how it measures the quality of these decisions (e.g.: Marketing is focused on campaign performance, whereas Customer Success is concerned with account health, the CEO wants to see ACV, etc.)

Tips for creating your business process flowchart

Top-down approach: start from the most high-level KPIs, the ones that might concern the most senior decision maker – ACV, growth, recruitment, etc. The lower level metrics should be derived from the way you measure the high-level ones.

Keep it simple: Even for bigger projects, you should aim to end up with a number of metrics that you need less than two hands to count. Your guideline should be: more information, less indicators: try to identify the one measure that matters (e.g., weighted average is always better than 5 different numbers).

Step 3: Mock Things Up

What you’ll need: same ingredients from Step 2.

Time to completion: 2-3 hours

Deliverables: draft of your first dashboards; list of facts, dimensions and filters

For simpler projects this step might be considered optional: if the business questions are relatively few or simple, you can go ahead and fire up your business intelligence tool and start modeling your data and dashboarding. However for bigger projects I always suggest creating an initial draft of the dashboard first, so you’ll remember what the finish line looks like (your plan for how to get there is the deliverable from step 2) – and also to ensure you get sign-off from the relevant stakeholders.

It’s at this stage, after we’ve identified the business questions, that we’ll want to start getting our hands dirty: where is the data coming from? What are the data sources, how will I connect to them. Will you need to connect to unstructured data sources? Which data is not currently available and will need to be calculated?

The answers to these questions should give you a clear idea of your dimensions, facts and filters. Then you create a mockup of which widgets and data visualizations you’ll want to apply in order to best present the data.

Once you have a mock-up you’re happy with, go back to the stakeholders and get their approval: after all, they’re the ones who will be regularly viewing these dashboards, so they should understand why they look like they do and how they represent the relevant data. And for you, getting early feedback will save the time you would spend making adjustments and changes after already building the dashboard. Once you have approval – congratulations, you’re good to go!

Closing (and a disclaimer of sorts)

Needless to say, no two organizations or BI initiatives are created equal. For some this entire process can take an hour or two, and for others it might take weeks. However I would strongly recommend following this framework for each and every BI project you embark on, whether there is already a business intelligence system in place or not – because when you go in with a plan, you’re that much more likely to come out with a win.

This post was originally published by Hila Kantor, here. It has been republished with permission.