The scene: Southwest, 1990’s. Two men ride side-by side on horses through a tumbleweed-filled plain. One is decked out in full cowboy regalia, the other in a plaid shirt and Yankees baseball cap. It is apparent that the one clad in the baseball cap is looking to the other one for advice, and asks him about why he is the way he is. The cowboy says, “This” as he holds up his index finger.
The other one says, “Your finger?”
“One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean [anything]”
“But, what is the ‘one thing?’”
“[smiles] That’s what you have to find out.”
The scene is from the movie City Slickers, and the conversation takes place between Jack Palance and Billy Crystal. While they are talking about life, I use this scene as an allegory for BA communication. I have often been in the role of a mentor to other BAs when they express their frustration at not being able to obtain the information that they need from stakeholders. BAs explain that they just can’t get the stakeholders to answer in time. I respond that they have not found the “one thing” that will help the communication with that stakeholder.
There’s a recent discussion going on at LinkedIn regarding key strengths of a BA, and out of 104 responses, at least 25-30 discuss communication. From my opinion, the BA is the lynchpin of communication on a project, and needs to be able to find that “one thing” that enables effective communication. As a BA mentor, here are some tips to facilitate effective communication and find that “one thing”
- Make it about the stakeholder. Remember, your role as a BA centers around the bridge between business and technology. Talk to your audience about what is important to them, not to you. Don’t start off talking about what you need from them, start off by finding out what they need. Talk to them about their business problems and their “pain points.” They understand the difficulties that they face in their line of work, but may not necessarily be aware of all the aspects of what it takes to do your job as a BA. It’s your job to facilitate that discussion.Example – when I train BAs, I ask two questions: “What do you want to get out of this training?” and “What are the problems and ‘pain points’ that you experience in your job?” When I ask about which question is easier to answer, they always tell me that it’s the second one. I explain that it’s logical because the first question targets the instructor and the instructor’s needs while the second question targets the students and their needs. By making it about them, they can answer the question much easier.
- Switch to their best mode of communication. Not everybody prefers the same mode of communication. Some like the phone, others prefer face-to-face interaction, and still others like e-mail. When trying to elicit information from stakeholders, and it’s not working, try switching to a different communication method. If you cannot get someone to answer your repeated e-mails, try a different technique. Try a phone call instead – that channel is considered more personal than e-mail, and it may just work better. Or try a face-to-face meeting with them. The important thing is that you are contacting them in the way that they need to be contacted. Sure, sometimes it may seem like you are stroking their ego, but ultimately remember that your mission is to facilitate the conversations and communications. Doing it in whatever way that you can to make the project successful will only ensure your success as well as the project success.
- Look for that connection that makes you a trusted agent. Since you are in a position to elicit information from stakeholders, you need to get them to open up and see you as someone who can help them get their job done. How do you do that when they see the statement “Hello, I’m from IT and I’m here to help” as ironic? Well, aside from making the communication about them, you need to establish trust as quickly as possible. So I suggest that you look for something that has nothing to do with the project, and open up with a connection that you can find with the stakeholder. How do you know what they are interested in? One way is to look at what they have hanging on their wall, or a picture on their desk. If they put something like that on display, that is what is important to them.Once, I had to elicit information from a high-powered commercial real estate broker. This was not the first time that he was involved in CRM elicitation, and the time that he would spend with me would take away from his sales time, and I was only allotted a 30-minute meeting. So, I expected a very negative session. Upon walking into his office, I saw a large photo on his wall of a tropical island that I recognized as Trunk Bay in St John. Instead of getting into the elicitation, I told him that I recognized the photo. He asked if I had ever been there, and I said yes, and I asked him the same. Well, for the next 20 minutes, we discussed his scuba diving experiences there and I talked about my snorkeling. Instead of the 30 minutes that I had been promised, I had 90 minutes with him. By talking about his needs and his interests, I became someone that he could trust. We had opened the line of communication from what I initially expected to be a negative session.
As BAs, we have to constantly be on the lookout for that “one thing that helps facilitate communication between you and your audience, and establishes you as a trusted agent with your stakeholders.