The Courage to Scribe Part 1


At a recent conference I overheard a conversation that went something like this:

Participant #1: “How can we get organizations to use business analysts (BAs) more strategically?” Good question I said to myself. I began thinking of ways to encourage organizations to use BAs as trusted advisors when the other participant spoke up.

Participant #2: “You’re absolutely right. I’m so tired of being nothing but a scribe in my company. I could be doing so much more.”

Recognizing that I was not only eavesdropping but in jeopardy of interjecting my unsolicited and unwanted two cents worth, I got up and left the table, silently exclaiming, “I love scribing!” I was amazed that anyone could denigrate its importance. I wondered what it meant to “do so much more” when scribing required proficiency in so many skills.

Ancient Scribes in Egypt. Many ancient societies valued scribes. In Egypt, for example, scribes were at the center of activities such as government, defense, and religion. “In truth very little happened in ancient Egypt which did not involve a scribe in some manner. ” Today effective scribes are –or should be--at the center of requirements activities.

The Courage to Scribe - Part 1What do scribes do? Ancient scribes were considered artists, able to draw and create. Scribes today certainly create—they create structure from chaos by documenting the important results from elicitation activities. However, creating an alternate reality is not part of the job. Filtering information to skew the meeting results does not serve the organization well and should be avoided. We need to use our scribing skills to accurately reflect what occurred during the workshop, not what we wished had happened.

I often say that the person with the pen has the power. Over the years I have seen many scribes take over facilitation during an elicitation activity. These scribes start asking questions and the next thing you know they are “running” the meeting. As scribes we can reinvent history. We can emphasize what we think is important. We can influence outcomes to promote our own agenda. We can do all those things, but we never should.

When is a scribe needed? If the meeting is small and if the objective of the meeting is to relay information to others, we probably don’t need either a facilitator or scribe. However, when we elicit requirements from various stakeholder groups, there are bound to be different opinions, viewpoints, requirements, and issues. If stakeholders agreed on everything, there would be no need for requirements workshops. We could just interview one person and be done. But it is in the best interest of the project to have stakeholders articulate their differences. The sooner we are aware of these issues, the sooner we can resolve them and achieve consensus. Having a neutral facilitator helps ensure that all ideas are expressed and that consensus is ultimately reached. Having a neutral scribe helps ensure that the results are documented and confirmed, preventing the “amnesia syndrome” where people forget what was said and agreed to.

Facilitator or scribe? If I had to choose—not that I want to make such a choice—but if I had to choose, I’d take a scribe over a facilitator. I can almost hear a chorus of “You gotta be kidding!” No, I’m quite serious. How many meetings and workshops have we all attended where there was a weak facilitator or none at all? Such meetings are by no means pleasant for participants. They can be pretty painful. Excruciating, even. But what happens when there is no scribe? Can any of us remember, let alone agree on, what happened? On which decisions were made? On who agreed to do which action items? Probably not.

Complex skills. Being an effective scribe is hard work and requires a set of fine-tuned skills including these:

  • A consultant vs. order-taker mentality. Order-takers are often good note-takers. They are able to document conversations and requirements. However, order-takers take what’s given to them. Consultants provide advice to the facilitator without disrupting the meeting. They do the necessary prep work, such as discussing roles and responsibilities, how they will work together, and how to manage the facilitator/scribe “dance.” They know when it is OK to ask questions and to whom, so that the facilitator continues to work with the participants and the scribe continues to work with the facilitator.

  • Critical thinking skills help us sort through what is important and what is not. Scribing involves taking in a great deal of disparate, sometimes contradictory information, synthesizing it, and presenting the results back to the participants so that they are easy to read and confirm. We need to actively listen while writing. After the workshop or meeting we need to prioritize what we heard. Although we never decide which requirements to include or eliminate, we do get to choose how much of the conversation and back story is needed. In other words, critical thinking helps ensure that the proverbial wheat and not the chaff is documented, simplifying the results and making them both readable and understandable.

I have found that trying to capture every word that was said, the “he said/she said” back and forth of the elicitation activity is burdensome, time-consuming, and doesn’t add much value. It usually discourages participants from reading and confirming the results. In addition, although documented, the requirements are buried and there is not much energy around digging them out to see what was really said.

  • Analytical skills. An effective scribe will capture both the high-level and detailed requirements. They will break high-level requirements into the necessary detail and ensure that each detail is linked to higher-level requirements. A good facilitator will ask for this detail and relay it to the scribe. A great scribe will ensure that even if not discussed, the right level of detail necessary to develop the solution surfaces.

  • Written communication skills provide clarity which is so necessary in creating structure from chaos. Even if we have developed fine-tuned critical thinking and analytical skills, we need to communicate in a way that everyone can understand. There is an art to taking a random discussion and turning it into concise, consistent, well-organized results.

Courage. Many organizations do not understand the importance of scribing and view it as a waste of time. In those organization there is apt to be pushback about having a separate scribe role in requirements workshops and in spending the time needed to document the results.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in which I will explore why courage is needed in the face of pushback, as well as the benefits of having scribes and why they are critical to project and organizational success.

Authors: Elizabeth Larson and Richard Larson

Elizabeth Larson, CBAP, PMP, CSM and Richard Larson, CBAP, PMP are Co-Principals of Watermark Learning, a globally recognized business analysis and project management training company. With over 30 years of industry experience each, they have used their expertise to help thousands of BA and PM practitioners develop new skills. Their speaking history includes repeat appearances at IIBA and PMI Global Congresses, chapter meetings, and professional development days, as well as BA World conferences.

They have co-written the acclaimed CBAP Certification Study Guide and The Practitioners’ Guide to Requirements Management. They have been quoted in PM Network and CIO magazine. They were lead contributors to the BABOK Guide® Version 2.0, as well as the PMBOK Guide® – Fourth edition.

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Tony Markos posted on Monday, December 10, 2012 10:06 AM
I have seen it more than once where the primary skill of a BA is to be a high speed secretary. The problem is that those who excel at high speed scribing often lack the ability to perform complex analysis. They are two different types of people.

I don't get it, why not just record everything with a thirty five buck digital recorder? What am I missing?
O'Rourke posted on Wednesday, December 12, 2012 1:13 PM
I get it....when I scribe that action/role focuses my listening, puts me into a neutral agenda, makes me seek clarity about what people are saying, ensures that I review my notes as I have a duty to get that information out to others in a timely fashion with quality.. and helps describe a path forward for myself and others.

Where I can I make sure there are two of us scribing, or if I'm facilitating 2 others are "scribes"... or I may simply notice that someone else is operating in that way during a session and I'll make sure I touch base for a compare when I can. 2 brains, 4 ears, 2 hands focused on getting the optimum value of the discussion

I've done the recorder thing.. and with me I lost focus as I left it do the work, and lost the opportunity to clarify at the time.. and got bored listening to it again/struggled to get others enthused to listen again when trying to recap and get the info out to others... but yes for some it works :-)

For me whether I'm a designated scribe or not I'm taking notes... and its been practise that lets me do this successfully and be delivering on the analysis required.
Cathy posted on Wednesday, December 12, 2012 2:14 PM
Great article Elizabeth! So often I hear BAs complain that they are "just a scribe" as if scribing is a bad thing. At Genecaone of hte roles of our BA roles is to be a scribe for our definition sessions. It is a high-level critical role, working in partnership with a skilled Facilitator to capture and record the business needs and work flows.

It is much more than just accurately capturing what was said in the meetings (though, as you mentioned, accuracy of what was is important), it is also about organizing the material to present back to the business users for review and capturing issues for things that were missed and still need to be defined.

Regarding @ajmarkos comments - just recording (or taking pictures of the board, as some of the information from meetings is visual) doesn't get the information into a presentable format for use by the team. Recording and taking pictures are just tools that can be used by a scribe to insure that the information they are capturing is accurate. They don't replace the skills that Elizabeth listed that are needed to make the information usable and valuable.
sbowling999 posted on Thursday, January 3, 2013 2:45 PM
Scribing and facilitating are both critical skill sets that I use regularly. I can't imagine not playing both roles in my most effective meetings. If the meeting is fast paced or includes a large number of attendees I switch my data collection method to real-time methods that the entire team can see. I quit using scribes when my notes as a facilitator were more detailed and accurate than the appointed scribe's. Admittedly, to do so requires speed and a high degree of accuracy while still facilitating the discussion and meeting flow. The best BA/TAs are multitaskers for sure. In my mind, this is the model we need to be employing as BAs.
Adrian M. posted on Friday, January 4, 2013 8:31 AM
@sbowling999 - I could not agree with you more! I call this "live note taking". I found out that documenting the decisions, action items, changes to requirements "live" - it allows all participants to review what is documented, provide feedbac, and leave the meeting with the confidence that the correct direction will be taken.

Without this technique, subsequent meetings need to be setup to remember and clarify what happend in previous meetings.

For an in-person meeting - I like to use a conference room with a projector. If there are virtual participants then I also use a screen sharing software.
Sarah posted on Thursday, January 10, 2013 8:56 AM
I cannot remember the last time I wasn't both scribe and facilitator.

The first skill I learnt was scribing, and by being a good scribe I naturally began to expand my facilitator skills. As in order to ensure that information was captured accurately I had to ask questions, provide a summary or clarify on decisions back to the meeting. I have also found that because I am the scribe and therefore produce the official meeting outputs I have become a source of knowledge on what is occurring, and that people keep me in the loop about subjects they wouldn’t have done otherwise. Therefore I’m never "just" a scribe, I’m a trusted advisor would also scribes.
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