In the world of aviation, there’s a stage that pilots pass through that it nicknamed “the death zone”. Who do you think falls into this stage? New pilots, skilled pilots, or very experienced pilots? If you guess skilled pilots, you are right. The death zone occurs when a pilot’s confidence level exceeds his capability level. Think that this is strange? Read on.

When pilots first learn how to fly an airplane, they are accompanied by a flight instructor who assists them with every move an decision. Eventually, they are signed off to solo, but the student pilot is still learning as more and more responsibility and management of the flight is turned over to the pilot. Student pilots will eventually gain enough experience to pass an FAA exam and a check-ride. This occurs around 50-hours of flight experience. Pilots are still cautious and don’t take as many risks. Then, something interesting happens around 200 hours of flight experience. Accident statistics go up and then start to decrease around 500 hours of experience. It is this zone in which pilots feel that they have more experience than they actually do, and start taking more risks. Around 500 hours, accident statistics go down because pilots (who, morbidly you can say, have survived) have become instinctive regarding their actions. That, and the repeated training that they go through helps them stay safe.

How do BAs fall into the death zone? By letting their confidence level exceed their skill level. It’s when they start making decisions for the business without asking the business to make those decisions. If you have ever caught yourself thinking that you know the business better than the business people, you might be in that “death zone.” And that behavior may lead to missing requirements or generating the wrong requirements. While it’s helpful to know the business domain, your role as a BA is to be the liaison between the business and IT, not to be the SME. And while you may be consulted on the business, ultimately, you, as the BA, are not the one making the decision for the business. Doing so puts you in the death zone.

How can you stay out of the death zone? Parallel what aviation has done in order to keep the skies safe:

  1. Aviation requires bi-annual flight reviews with an FAA instructor. Every two years, you have to prove to the FAA that you are able to fly a plane. This flight review occurs with a senior pilot who will watch you fly and quiz you about any aspect that you are required to know about aviation. In the BA world, this means partnering up with a more senior BA who can watch you go about your business, peer-review your work products, and watch your style. Think of it as having a mentor.
  2. FAA requires pilots to pass health exams every so many months based on your level of responsibility (don’t worry – airline pilots have the most stringent regulations and have to get checked out every 6 months). How often do BA’s in your organization get a “health check?” Management should be looking at the status of what the BAs deliver – are they full of assumptions? Was the business consulted when the requirements were created? Do the developers need to make a lot of assumptions or question the BA many times after the requirements were delivered? And how about the organization? Does it give the BAs enough time and resources to complete the requirements effectively? All of these items could be examined to determine the health of both the BAs and the organization.
  3. Aviation safety seminars. While these are not required, they go a long way to help pilots stay fresh. For instance, every pilot has had to learn how to land in a crosswind (when the winds are blowing perpendicular to the runway direction). A safety seminar will cover this subject in detail. We already learned it, so why attend a safety session to teach us the same subject again? Simple. We forget things that we don’t use every day. Or, there may be some new techniques to use when landing in a crosswind that makes it easier. In any case, we can all benefit from recurring and refresher training.

While not all BAs fly planes, it’s important to remember that by letting your confidence level exceed your BA skill level, you start to head into the “death zone.” While it may not cause actual mortality for the BA, it could be a way to kill the project

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