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Stephanie Famuyide
Stephanie Famuyide

What Every Business Analyst Can Learn From Journalism: The Art of Intelligent Questioning

"Garbage in, Garbage Out" - To elicit accurate requirements, the business analyst must learn to ask the “right” questions “the right way”. The manner in which questions are delivered and the composition of these questions have a direct impact on the usefulness of the responses we receive.
If your questions are properly and thoughtfully framed, not only will you get the appropriate response, your stakeholders will also go away with a feeling that you indeed understand and empathize with them. They should come out of an interview session feeling “understood” not “interrogated”.
According to Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous (but accurate) quote in 2002 regarding the Iraq war:
“There are known knowns - things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns – things we know that we do not know
And there are also unknown unknowns – the things we don’t know we don’t know.”
The known knowns and known unknowns are easier to manage – by asking confirmatory questions to test the accuracy of existing knowledge and asking direct questions to elicit information on grey areas. How then should Business Analysts handle what they don’t know they don’t know? The answer is pretty straightforward:
By opting for open-ended questions.
Open-ended questions are more appropriate where you have limited knowledge on stakeholder issues or expectations. Questions that start with the 5 Ws and H: who, why, what, where, when and how tend to elicit more thoughtful and insightful responses when compared with those that start with: Would, Should, is, are, do you think, and the like.
For example, instead of asking: Do you open physical files for the different documents you receive? It’s better to ask: "How do you manage the documents you receive?"
Using the 5Ws and H also implies that you want to know what your stakeholders' opinions are and you're not just looking for an opportunity to state your own opinions through a leading question.
More examples of open-ended questions:
•What happened to the old filing system?
•How did this project come about?
•Tell me what happened next?
•What do you think of...?
This is not to say that closed questions shouldn't be used at all. In fact, when you're looking for direct answers (usually after asking open-ended questions) and you need specific details, then it's more productive to use closed-ended questions. Also, if your stakeholders are in a remote location or your intention is to perform a quantitative analysis of stakeholder responses, sending out surveys containing closed-ended questions tend to be more effective.
In asking questions, be guided by the old saying – Garbage in, garbage out. If you ask the right questions the right way, you’ll get the right response.
Stephanie Famuyide is a business analyst blogger that blogs about all things business analysis. Visit for practical business analyst tips you can apply on the job.
This entry was published on Mar 02, 2013 / Stephanie Famuyide. Posted in Elicitation (BABOK KA), Soft Skills. Bookmark the Permalink or E-mail it to a friend.
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Phemmy posted on Thursday, February 20, 2014 5:54 PM
Nice one, Stephanie. Just a quick addition- it is very important to also understand what need(s) each of the questions is there to meet. Then, you can link the responses/ answers to the business objective appropriately
Stephanie Famuyide posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 1:19 PM
Dear Phemmy, thanks for the insightful comment. A wonderful observation. Keeping that link between the questions, the response and the business objective is certainly key.
Stephanie Famuyide
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