Gathering and managing information is one of the most important responsibilities of an analyst. Without the collection of information, there can be no analysis. Collecting documentation and other artifacts is important, but existing documentation may be incomplete, inaccurate, or simply outdated. Generating new documentation can be critical to our understanding of a project and our ability to support our team. Using a process for gathering and organizing information will help you to be consistent, thorough, and effective.
Notes form the foundation of the documentation that project teams use to guide their work. Taking notes is also important because it helps us process information. Putting our thoughts into words forces us to apply a certain level of logical scrutiny that our ideas might otherwise escape. Writing things down not only helps us solidify what we know, it helps us identify what we don’t know. The following is largely inspired by David Allen’s Getting Things Done and Michael Descy’s Plaintext Productivity. Establishing a workflow involves some trial-and-error; expect to change it to fit your circumstances and working style. This process requires little more than a basic text editor, and could even be implemented using paper if needed. Your habitual use of the process is far more important than the tools you use.
The cornerstone of any productivity system is a to-do list. I think it’s important to have one place for all your tasks. This makes it easy to review and prioritize. To-do items should be actionable, but don’t let that prevent you from capturing a to-do item; just make it a goal to develop vague to-dos into more specific, actionable tasks as you refine the list. The Todo.txt method provides a simple set of rules that allow you to prioritize tasks, add due dates, associate items to projects, and add other metadata. Archiving completed to-dos can help you track what you’ve done and build a sense of forward motion.
The oft-overlooked complement to the to-do list is a journal. I frequently find myself working on something that never hit my to-do list. I find that keeping a journal helps me quickly answer questions about what I’ve been working on. This is very handy, for example, at daily stand-up meetings. When giving status updates, it’s easier to summarize your journal than to recall from memory. A journal can also help you stay on task by reminding you of what you were just working on before you were interrupted. Reviewing journal entries can help you see if your activities align with your priorities. A journal is not necessarily a timesheet; it should record significant events such as setting up a meeting or sending out a document. You will have to select a level of detail that works in your circumstances.
Information Capture (aka Taking Notes)
Capturing information can be very demanding. Taking notes during a meeting can feel like drinking from a fire hose, especially if you don’t type very fast. (I don’t type very fast.) Using some form of shorthand can help. Most of the people I talk to develop their own abbreviations. Capturing audio can be helpful, but be sure to alert attendees that the meeting will be recorded. It can also be challenging to filter out unimportant information. Revise your notes immediately and send requests for clarification if needed. Set an organizational scheme for your notes, such as one topic per file, and keep it up to date. Keep a list of sources – like a bibliography. This will help you answer questions about the origin of an idea. Your sources could be emails, documents, even conversations in the hallway.
Create and Maintain Documentation
As an analyst, you gather information on complex and, often, time-sensitive topics. The end product of your work is, in part, documentation that helps other people quickly understand these topics in a way that is useful to them. I try to keep a high-level document for each project I’m working on. This is basically a project charter with some additions. I find it helpful to review and refine this information on a regular basis. It helps me keep the project goals in mind over the long term, track important developments and milestones, and provides a nice resource for newcomers. Suggested sections include:
- Overview - What is this and why is it important?
- Goals/Objectives - What are specific things we want to achieve?
- Open Questions - What do we need to know and how might we find out?
- Next Steps - What do we need to do next and who is responsible?
- Who is involved - Team Members, SMEs, Sponsors
- Resources - Project or topic-specific references and bookmarks
I use markdown to format my notes. This helps to keep them readable and organized. It can also help you out if you ever need to convert your notes to another format. A utility like pandoc can turn markdown-formatted documents into HTML or a dozen other formats. There are a number of other lightweight markup formats like AsciiDoc and reStructuredText. Also, I use git to track changes to my notes and to keep them backed up. Keeping a history helps me, personally, to feel safe keeping my notes up to date because I’m not “losing” content that I remove.