UnderstandStakeholdersThere are a few essential questions a business analyst should keep at top of mind during discovery and solution definition. Among them are, “How will we define and measure success?” and, “How will we define ‘done’?”

If you’re not asking these questions or their equivalents for every project, you’re likely missing valuable information delivery team members will need to design and develop the most appropriate solution. However, simply asking the questions and recording responses leaves valuable, contextual information undiscovered.

When a stakeholder is flatly asked to provide criteria for measuring success or a definition of “done,” they generally do their best to provide what they think the analyst expects. They might respond with a dictionary-like definition, or data points, or describe the solution they think they need. While that information is useful, it doesn’t uncover the underlying reason for the prescribed solution or requirement, or how it ultimately puts the organization in a more favorable position relative to its strategic goals.

A foundational aspect of the art of communication is understanding that, as George Orwell once said, “There are no reliable words.” While the stakeholder and analyst may have heard and understood the same words of their dialog in a literal sense, their interpretations of the underlying meaning will vary – sometimes greatly.

Given the inherent ambiguity of language, and given we can’t see directly into the minds of others, we need mechanisms for calibrating, or aligning our understanding with others. Here are three simple, but effective techniques for expounding on elicitation questions to generate more meaningful discussion, and lead to a more sound and mutual understanding.

  1. Paraphrase the response
  2. Engage the imagination
  3. Calibrate understanding with visuals

Paraphrase the Response

Paraphrasing is, perhaps, the simplest way to ensure understanding isn’t rooted too heavily in the interpretation of specific words or phrasing. Paraphrasing, simply stated, is seeking to achieve greater clarity of understanding by restating the meaning of the original message using different words. Because the value of this technique lies in identifying differences in interpretation between parties so those differences can be resolved, a good practice is for the analyst to relate the meaning of the original message in his/her own words, instead of trying to repeat the original response verbatim, or in the syntax of the original messenger.

Using different words allows both sides to get a clearer mental image of the other’s interpretation and understanding, and often leads to a dialog to refine and clarify mutual understanding. Paraphrasing a stakeholder’s answers to elicitation questions can also be a tactful means for an analyst to steer stakeholders away from prescribing solutions and toward stating needs and objectives.

For example, when a stakeholder asks for a specific software module to be added to the existing system and for several other interesting services, fields, widgets and shiny objects, restating the request in the form of a capability can be an effective way to bring the conversation back to the desired level for requirements. For example, I might ask:

“If I understood you correctly, customers need to be able to pan and zoom the high-resolution images accompanying product listings so they can see potential product imperfections. Is that right?”

Certifying the need by restating implementation detail as a higher-level capability is a great way to get the discussion back to the appropriate level. Through gentle reminders and consistent use of this technique over time, I’ve found that I’ve been able to coax/train some stakeholders into providing needs and capabilities instead of implementation details.

You might notice the subtle use of the common user story construct “As a [actor/stakeholder], I need to be able to [capability] so that [objective/goal].” in the restatement. This helps the analyst not only to understand the capability, but identify the actor and the reason the capability is important.

Engage the Imagination

Before asking for general statements or specific measures of how we’ll define and measure success, I might lead with, “what does success for this effort look like to you?” or, “how will success in this effort make things feel different than today?” Instead of asking how we’ll define done, or as a follow-up to that question, I might ask, “imagine we’ve implemented the solution and met the objectives, how do things look (or feel) different now?” or, “How are our (or our customers’) lives easier or better now that the solution is in place?” To take a negative bent for variety, I might ask, “What do you imagine will happen if we don’t do ‘X’?”

Most often, I’ll appeal to this type of phrasing when I don’t have a good sense of the underlying purpose or vision for the effort, or if the stakeholder is struggling to articulate them. The goal is to pull the audience out of the rote question/response behavior that is so common, and coax them to think beyond bullets and truly visualize the future with or without the solution/requirement. Asking how things look or feel invokes a more thoughtful response from the audience, and helps to round out an analyst’s understanding of the context and underlying purpose.

Calibrate with Visuals

To build on the sensory theme, analysts that aren’t active white-boarders or napkin drawers are making their lives much more difficult than they have to be. Using visuals is perhaps the most powerful way to calibrate understanding.

Think of a book you read that was later interpreted as a movie. With the book, your interpretation of the words used to describe the appearance of the settings, characters and dialog is determined solely by your imagination, which is a product of your unique life experience. Every reader of the book comes away with similar, yet unmistakably different mental imagery.

In the movie version, with the addition of audio and visual elements, all viewers come away with the same idea of the appearance of the settings and characters, because the sounds and visuals have made them explicit and precise.

You’ve probably walked out of a movie based on a book you’ve read and heard or commented on how different things were from how you’d imagined them. Your interpretation of the words in the book is as valid as anyone else’s, it just didn’t match those of the producer of the film, and quite possibly, the author of the book.

By simply sketching my interpretation of a stakeholder’s response on a board or on paper, an analyst can literally begin to see and meaningfully discuss differences in interpretation.

As with the movie, visuals, such as pictures, diagrams, process flows or other types of models can get us to a more precise mutual understanding because they take much of the “imagination”, or ambiguity of words out of the equation, and make meaning more explicit. With the visual, it is much easier for two parties to compare their relative understandings and iterate with the visual until they reach agreement and shared understanding.

These are just three of many communication techniques an analyst might use for framing or re-framing dialog to gain a more complete understanding of business needs, requirements and valuable context.

What techniques do you use to get “on the same page” with your stakeholders? Please leave your comments below to get the dialog started!

– Jonathan

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