Writing a book is hard work. One of the best things about this podcast is that so many guests reveal the brilliant, extraordinary, sometimes hilarious strategies that got them through the hard yards of planning and writing and out the other side.
This is one of those podcasts.
From smart public transport hacks to testing concepts out on her mother, Helen Winter tells us exactly how she turned her idea for The Business Analysis Handbook from a twinkle in her eye to an award short-listed book – and how she came out of the the 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge with a proposal that had three publishers calling her up within a week!
Business Bullet: http://www.businessbullet.co.uk/
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This Book Means Business – the mentorship programme: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/this-book-means-business-mentorship/
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2020: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/
Gift the 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge! https://alisonjones.com/christmas-offer/
Alison Jones: I’m here today with Helen Winter who has over 20 years’ business analysis experience and has worked as a consultant on all stages of the project life cycle on large scale transformation programmes within financial services, regulation, insurance and utilities. She has the BCS International Diploma in Business Analysis, is recognised by the British Computing Society as a Certified Chartered IT professional, and she was shortlisted as a potential BCS nominee for the 2017 Karen Burt Memorial Award. She’s been a guest speaker sharing her knowledge at IIBA UK events, and she chairs the Midlands chapter of the IIBA UK branch. Welcome to the show Helen.
Helen Winter: Hello.
Alison Jones: What it doesn’t say in your bio there, is that you’re also a graduate of the 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge.
Helen Winter: That’s true. Maybe I should add it.
Alison Jones: You should totally add that. It’s right up there with all the other grand stuff.
Helen Winter: Absolutely. It is. It’s what helped get me started.
Alison Jones: Well tell us a little bit about that. It’s great actually because I’ve just opened the proposal challenge for January, so if somebody’s going “What is it all about?”, what’s it all about, Helen? How does it work?
Helen Winter: So basically it tells you how to put a book proposal together so that you can get a book published with a publisher. Because I would have had no clue how to put one together myself, and Alison takes you step by step through each day of the challenge and gets you to populate different parts of the book proposal, which she also gets you to think about what you want to achieve from it as well.
Alison Jones: Thank you. Couldn’t have put it better myself. I could just transcribe that and put it as my marketing copy. And what I love hearing about actually when I interview graduates of the proposal… I mean obviously your book was published then by Kogan Page, The Business Analysis Handbook. What did you come into the challenge expecting or hoping, how was it for you personally?
Helen Winter: I just think I just expected some help because I’d started off writing a blog and somebody said, “Why didn’t you ever write a book?” And I didn’t really have a clue where to start with it or who to approach or anything. And so I really just wanted to get out of it what I needed to do really. And I think one of the huge benefits is that you know at the end of it you also give advice on who to write to. Because that was one of the other things was, is like, “I don’t know what to write and who would be interested,” and you give that additional information of contact details and that was kind of how I ended up with Kogan Page and I had some other offers as well. So it’s great to get like a list of publishers that would have had an interest in my book.
Alison Jones: Yes, because you did the boot camp afterwards as well, didn’t you? That’s part of the boot camp.
Helen Winter: Yes. So yes in boot camp as well, and that was to give you a start on how to actually then write the book, which was brilliant. I found that really valuable.
Alison Jones: So business analysis. It’s one of those phrases, everybody’s like, “Oh yes, business analysis, of course I know.” And actually if you challenge people to say, what does a business analyst actually do? I bet half the people you ask the question to would not really be able to give you a good answer. So Helen, what does a business analyst actually do?
Helen Winter: So if we take into account what business analysis is first, because you don’t have to have the title Business Analyst to do business analysis.
Alison Jones: Well, absolutely. I very much wanted to pick up on that because that’s one of the points you make very strongly in the book, isn’t it?
Helen Winter: It is yes, absolutely. Any change in a business or at a project level incorporates business analysis. That’s the thing. So you know, if you want to analyse what’s required in order to incorporate change or manage it, for example, if you want to do change, you need to understand what the vision is, what problem it is you’re trying to help resolve, who you’re doing the project for, who needs to be involved, what changes need to happen, who needs to understand those changes, what success looks like… all of this involves analysis.
So any kind of company going through any type of change, which quite often has to happen for them to stay competitive and keep up to date with technology and customer trends, they need to incorporate change, and business analysis is a way to understand those changes and to help incorporate them and to make sure everybody understands what the change is and what needs to happen.
Alison Jones: Because I remember when we were talking about the potential audience for this and one of the things that became really clear was there’s an awful lot of people who needed this book who wouldn’t have called themselves business analysts. I guess it’s a bit like project management was 20 years ago. You were just doing it and you didn’t really quite realise there was a whole science behind it and as soon as somebody gives you the tools you can just make such a better job with it.
Helen Winter: Absolutely. I mean as you can imagine, what I’ve just described can be quite huge and complicated and so there are actually business analysis techniques that can help you understand how to manage it. And so that’s kind of… I guess my book ended up being like a bit of a reference book as well. So you can look up different parts of it in terms of managing change and things like that.
Alison Jones: I think the reference part of it is really interesting actually because one of the things I love that you’ve done is there’s quite a chunky section at the end of templates. Talk us through why you did that, how they work, how you hope people will use them. You know, how they fit with the rest of the book.
Helen Winter: Okay. So the templates I wanted to write because I knew it was the biggest request I get from my blog. I always get so many people asking me for templates. And they’re really important for business analysis because you have to have the ability to write things down. It isn’t just about communicating and chatting to people unless you can write it down. You have to make sure that all your stakeholders agree to the same things. So having that ability to be able to document stuff in a standard format that is like being proven that people can then start understanding, hat’s where the templates come in useful and there’s different types of deliverables that you can use depends what part of change you’re working on.
So you could be working like a business case to prove that the change is worth doing. You could be documenting business requirements, understanding what the business wants. You might be level of detail in terms of system requirements of what’s needed. So there’s lots and lots of different audiences you might need to write documents for. And there are standards and standard techniques that can help. And it also can help ask the right questions as well. And it just helps make it more clear and unambiguous. That’s kind of why I wanted to include the templates really. Because I just thought it’d be really helpful for people.
Alison Jones: And Kogan Page obviously agreed. Because as I say, it’s quite a significant chunk of the book at the back. I’m guessing these are available online as well?
Helen Winter: They’re not available online yet, but I do send them to people on request when they’ve contacted me about it.
Alison Jones: That’s brilliant. So actually it’s a good way of bringing people to you as the expert as well.
Helen Winter: Yes. Because also there are, I mean I’ve put… Because of the book, I’ve been asked for a variety of different templates, but also there’s different types of methodologies that people can use. So it’s easy if people contact me so I can direct them to what the most appropriate template is. Or if they read my book then there’s like a whole list and criteria in it to help direct them. You know you’ve got traditional type templates, then you’ve got new methodologies and frameworks like Agile or you’ve got a very structured way of working such as use cases and I explain all about those techniques and how to use them and the different templates that can be used.
Alison Jones: I’m guessing that was the kind of the easiest part of the book to put together because you had a lot of them already. Just talk us through, I know you were in the bootcamp and I was forcing you, I was holding your nose to the grindstone on the table of contents and getting the whole book scoped out. How did you find that process and did you come up immediately with the… I can’t remember now. Did you come up immediately with the idea of having the templates as an appendix or did you initially think about putting them all the way through? How did you structure it?
Helen Winter: I kind of saw them… What was brilliant and what I loved about the course I did was the starting off with the table of contents because it enabled you to make sure your thoughts were structured clearly before starting. And I think it was because you made me start with the contents, that’s where it became very natural to have a list of templates at the back. So I think it helped shape the book really.
Alison Jones: And were you one of those people who when you were doing the in the book stuff – and we’d get to the structure of the first few weeks and then there’s the second block, it’s the writing – did you kind of leap into the writing with a grin on your face and your sleeves rolled up or did you find it hard? What was it like?
Helen Winter: What I did is… One pieces of advice that you gave was to find where you write best, I think it was one of the exercises. And at the time I thought, “Oh this is crazy. What does it matter?” And actually it was probably one of the most important lessons I learned really.
Alison Jones: That’s so funny. So where do you write best?
Helen Winter: Well, this is why my friends used to sort of laugh at me and people at work used to laugh at me because I thought I wrote best on trains, so I would actually buy train tickets so I could go down to London for the day on the train and I’d just type and write. And I didn’t want to but that’s what worked best because it kept me focused. I couldn’t get distracted and I’d find it quite relaxing.
Alison Jones: And then you’d just literally turn around and come back.
Helen Winter: Yes, or sometimes I look for places to… best places to study London. I’d spend the day in the great British Library or various different places and I’d do that and then I’ll get the train back at the end of the day.
Alison Jones: That is absolutely hilarious… I did read once about a guy who discovered that he wrote best on a plane because I guess no WiFi as well. And bought a flight to Japan and back, literally sat in the airport in Japan, had a coffee and came back and pretty much finished his manuscript. Very expensive way to do it. At least you could probably get off-peak when you were doing yours.
Helen Winter: Yes, but it works for me. And you know what? I think because it’s such a big commitment, writing a book, I think you have to try and find ways of making it enjoyable doing it, otherwise you’d never finish it.
Alison Jones: I couldn’t agree more. And you almost have to… You have to carve it out of your day. And it’s really hard carving time out of a day that’s already over full. So if you make the place different and you set a whole set of different cues, somehow it’s easier. I don’t know why it is, but it’s really powerful.
Helen Winter: Yes. Oh, yes. I mean, one of the things I used to do was I used to get the tram into Birmingham in the mornings for work. And I’d get the tram in the wrong direction so I could get a seat. So then I’d have an hour of typing before it got to work and I’d do the same on the way home as well.
Alison Jones: That it’s genius. I mean, did you do that by accident the first time and then realised that it was a real winner or did you just come up with a strategy?
Helen Winter: It is a strategy I worked out over time. I’d love to think that I’d worked it out straight away, but it took me a few attempts to suddenly realise that that was the best way of doing it. Because I thought it would be great to type on the tram but I could never get a seat. And then I suddenly realised actually if I go the wrong direction, I can get a seat.
Alison Jones: It’s a brilliant bit of lateral thinking that only a business analyst, I reckon, could have come up with. I love it.
Helen Winter: Yes, it works for me, so that’s good.
Alison Jones: And what did you want for the book, Helen? You know, when you were planning it and writing it, what did you hope it would achieve for you and has it?
Helen Winter: Absolutely. What I wanted from the book really was… Well what started out was I realised the importance of writing down the important lessons I’ve learned, because years ago I was doing some consultancy and they used to get really, they’d say to me every time I went, “You will use the exact same techniques you used last time, right? Because they worked so well.”
And it really made me realise you’ve got to sometimes focus on what works well. Because I used to sometimes think about, “Oh what went wrong?” And then I suddenly realised, “Okay well what am I doing good that people are really, really liking?” So it started making me think of those things and that’s why I’ve written the book from a very practical point of view in terms of techniques I’ve used that have worked really well. And so then that’s one of the things that’s started my blog off in terms of, why do people turn up to meetings? What did they like about this? And then the book enabled me really to expand on that and give more examples and go into more detail. Because what I realised was that you could sort of benefit people from a sort of wide variety of areas really in terms of whether they’re starting out in business analysis or where they want to use as a reference book or just want to understand what it is.
So I wanted to focus on a very wide area really because I think business analysis has a lot of benefits and I know a lot of books just focus on one part of it. So that’s kind of where I saw my book standing out and being different in terms of, it includes the whole piece across change, across everything and also from using lots of practical examples throughout it.
Alison Jones: And now you can work at scale there, can’t you? So you don’t have to be sitting in front of someone. You can give them the book and they’ve got what they need to do. But it’s interesting because you are so used to training people face-to-face in a room. Did you find it hard to abstract that and put it in a book so that it would work even when you weren’t there to hold their hand or had you kind of nailed it to the point where it was actually fairly straightforward?
Because I think people could fall into two camps here. They’re either like, “I absolutely knew it, I just put it down,” or it’s like, “I actually I had to translate what I do face-to-face and think about what’s intuitive and make it explicit.”
Helen Winter: Yes, for me I had to certainly to get feedback because some of the things was where I would think it was obvious. And then I realise when I sort of explained it to somebody or showed somebody what I’d written and then I realised that, there was lots of additional stuff because it’s very difficult not to do assumed knowledge.
But I think because I’d spent quite a few years before writing the book writing to a blog and I’ve got lots of feedback on that, it really helped me understand. Get pitching at the right level and making sure that there are people that with no knowledge could still read it and understand it.
One of the things I did is actually got… I used to test on my Mum because she had no knowledge of it whatsoever and I thought if my Mum can understand it, then that means I’ve pitched it the right level because I don’t want to have assumed knowledge. I want to pitch the book so that even the complete beginner can pick it up and understand it.
Alison Jones: So is your Mum now qualifying as a BA?
Helen Winter: Oh, I had this really funny moment where I was in a coffee shop with my Mum and then she started explaining to me when companies should and shouldn’t use Agile. And I spilled my drink all over myself with shock.
Alison Jones: Go Mum.
Helen Winter: And I was going like, “Oh okay….”
Alison Jones: That’s hilarious, bless her.
Helen Winter: Yes, but I’m so proud. It was sort of like “Oh it means I’ve actually written it, she actually has understood it.” It was just brilliant that she could explain it all back to me and she was so confident as well. So it was great.
Alison Jones: That is an endorsement that you’re just never going to go on the cover, but it’s probably the best endorsement you could get, isn’t it? How wonderful.
Helen Winter: Yes.
Alison Jones: And I want to pick up Helen on your, you call it a blog. I mean I suppose technically it is a blog, but actually Business Bullet, it feels more like a magazine. Just tell us a little bit about when you started it, how it works and how it fits with the book I guess.
Helen Winter: Yes. So I started it about three or four years ago, I think now. And I do call it an online magazine rather than blog. And what, was quite unique about it, is that it has actually got a table of contents because you now-
Alison Jones: Oh this is just music to my ears.
Helen Winter: Yes. Because it’s sort of that way, it’s easier just for people to then see, look at the bit interests them most. So it’s quite structured. But where the book’s different is I took that to another level. I made sure I included all the subject areas from what I wrote on Business Bullet, but what I did is I was able to go down into more detail and put more examples and diagrams in. So I just really sort of built on it, opened it with lots of new stuff really.
Alison Jones: And of course then Business Bullet was there to promote the book as well. Has that worked as you hoped?
Helen Winter: Yes, I think so. I mean, I don’t know what they book sales are yet or anything like that, but I get a lot of… I think about 200 people a day at the moment to Business Bullet. And there’s certain articles that are always really, really popular, month after month. So my biggest most popular article’s all about how to create a target operating model. And then there’s a whole section on the book all around how you can use business analysis in more of a strategic level, not just at a project level. So it’s really interesting seeing what articles people are interested in.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s a great argument, isn’t it, for building that platform while or before you’re writing your book because it gives you real time feedback on what’s landing and what people are really interested in as well as being a platform to promote it and let people know about it. That’s really interesting.
Helen Winter: Yes, absolutely.
Alison Jones: Now, I always ask guests for their best tips. So for a first-time author, somebody listening to this who wants to be, where are a year from now, what would you tell them?
Helen Winter: Don’t be scared of putting yourself out there. It’s sort of like go for it. One of things is that I was almost too scared to start writing for Business Bullet. I was terrified. In fact, I wrote 25 articles before I even told anyone about it and it was only-
Alison Jones: Oh my goodness.
Helen Winter: Because my friends said to me, “Helen surely, some feedback’s better than no feedback.”
Alison Jones: Which is quite good mantra actually.
Helen Winter: Yes, so I think that’s it.
Alison Jones: Why do you think that was?
Helen Winter: I think it just gets… I suppose it’s trying to get your… You get terrified of the feedback and people not liking stuff. And then I think what I realised was, when I started posting some of my articles in Business Bullet on LinkedIn, is actually yes, other people give you feedback and it’d be good in that you mitigate that fear that you wouldn’t realise people think it was good or if they mentioned something that they didn’t like, then it gives you a chance to think of, “Oh is it because… Do I agree with them or is this something else I can add to the article to help them understand it better.”
And actually I realised that it wasn’t feedback… good or bad it was okay because you either agree with it and you can do something about it or if you don’t you can like have a chat and you agree to disagree. But you know, all the feedback I’ve had has been, has been really good so I’m just not scared of it anymore now because you just… It either can help you add to the article or have a conversation about a different viewpoint you might not thought of. So it’s good.
And the other thing that nearly scuppered me was, I nearly didn’t even send a book proposal at all because I thought, “Oh well, will people… will I hear anything back?” And then I realised if I don’t even send it, then I’m definitely not going to hear anything back.
So it’s just little things? It sounds silly, but I’m sure that I do talk to other people that do the same sort of thing sometimes. I know it isn’t just me. So it’s just, don’t be scared, just giving it a go and trying it. You never know what might happen.
Alison Jones: It’s fascinating isn’t it? And I think there’s a little bit of, “As long as I haven’t sent it, nobody has rejected it.”
Helen Winter: Yes. Maybe it’s all to do with fear of rejection, yes.
Alison Jones: And as long as I haven’t finished writing this book, nobody can judge it. There’s something that holds you back, isn’t there? And I guess it’s trying to keep you safe, but it’s not terribly helpful.
Helen Winter: No it’s not. I mean the fact that I nearly didn’t send the book proposal off and within a week I had three big publishers all ring me up, so it’s such a… We would never have expected that and I think I can’t believe I nearly didn’t send it off –
Alison Jones: I’ve got to tell you, I’ve never heard of anybody, three publishers within a week. That is insane. They really wanted this book. That’s, I mean that’s really funny.
Helen Winter: Well, I think what happened was I think because I’d already got a platform, it’s like you said to me, I think that made a huge difference because they could say my writing style, and I did say to them, “Well, what is it you like about it?” And they just said, “Oh, we just like the way that I wrote and the way I explained things.” So that was really quite of nice to hear.
Alison Jones: And they also really liked the fact that you had got out there and built yourself a platform and had a route to your market. I mean, I don’t know if they said that in so many words, but that’s really, you know as a publisher, you want an author who’s going to get right behind the marketing, is going to be able to reach people, because the author’s the brand, really, it’s not the publisher. And if you have an author who’s terribly shy and retiring and never really sort of puts themselves out there, it’s flipping hard work for the publisher to then promote the book.
Helen Winter: Yes.
Alison Jones: So yes, get over yourself and get it out. That’s actually a really great tip. Thank you. I also ask people to recommend a business book and clearly The Business Analysis Handbook, you’re allowed to promote that I guess, but in addition to that, what books should everybody listening read in your opinion? In terms of business books ideally, but it could be anything.
Helen Winter: Well the one… I read it along time, it’s a really old book, but it’s the one that always stands out to me that I found really interesting. It’s a really old book. How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Alison Jones: Which is an old one, of course. Dale Carnegie.
Helen Winter: That’s the one, Yes. But yes, I just found it a really interesting book because it’s just got loads and loads of… He does loads of case studies of following people around and what are the characteristics and characters of winning friends and influencing people. It’s just I found it really interesting. That one sticks out.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. The old ones, you can’t beat them, can you? Those ones. They’ve stood the test of time for a very good reason.
Helen Winter: Absolutely. Yes. And it’s just the fact that he… because he builds it up and follows those people that are known to be good in those areas and their characteristics. It really kind of gets you enthralled in the story and getting interested in it.
Alison Jones: And do you know, I’ve not read it for years. I should go back and read it again. I think next year might be my year of rereading the classics, how about that? And Helen, if people want to find out more about you, more about The Business Analysis Handbook, more about Business Bullet, where should they go?
Helen Winter: They can either contact me through businessbullet.co.uk. Or if they were interested in buying the book, The Business Analysis Handbook’s available to buy from or major book retailers, Amazon, Kogan Page is the main publishers website, but it’s pretty much if you Google-search it, there’s lots of lots of different… all the major retailers come up really.
Alison Jones: It’s just one of those ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’ titles, isn’t it?
Helen Winter: Yes it does. Yes and yes, so the exciting news is The Business Analysis Handbook has been shortlisted for Project Management Literature Award as part of the national PMI awards. So I get to go to-
Alison Jones: That is brilliant.
Helen Winter: Yes, I’m really excited. So I get to go to this big award ceremony next week in London to see whether the book’s won or not. So down to the final three, so it’s exciting.
Alison Jones: Well, do you know whatever happens, it’s fantastic that you’re there. That’s brilliant. I feel oddly proud of this actually. I’d like to take so much credit for this.
So we’re recording this at the beginning of November. So it will be going out in a couple of weeks. So we’ll know by then. I will make a little note on the show notes too to see what the outcome of that was. But right now, good luck Helen because that’s really, really exciting.
Helen Winter: And it just goes to show, the Project Management Awards and it just goes to show how wide-reaching business analysis is. It’s used in lots of other professions, not just, you know… It just go to show, it doesn’t have to be particularly just business analysis. It covers other areas such as project management.
Alison Jones: Yes. Well it’s just at the heart of business though, isn’t it? And every business is constantly having to change and adapt and be aware of itself in a way that it didn’t have to 20, 30 years ago. It’s amazing.
Helen Winter: Yes.
Alison Jones: Yes, brilliant. Well thank you so… It was such a joy to talk to you. I love picking up the story again, of somebody, I’ve worked within the challenge and through the boot camp and then the book’s out, and it’s just brilliant to see that the whole thing come together and particularly when it gets so much success. So yes, huge congratulations and thanks so much for your time today.
Helen Winter: Great. Thank you Alison.