The Mentalist Guide to Requirements Gathering


If I said Mentalist to you, I expect you would either think of a mind-reader of the David Copperfield ilk or the TV series of that name. In fact you would probably take it as an insult as neither of these images is particularly comfortable, but both would have a voyeuristic attraction.

The Mentalist Guide to Requirements GatheringThe reason I bring this up is that there has always been a fascination with trying to guess what is going on the minds of the people in front of you. This is particularly apt when you are trying to understand what the in-duh-vidual in front of you really wants (aka requirements gathering).

Most people do things because that is how they have always done them. At some stage they probably had to learn how to do it, but the training would have been incomplete and the system changed so many times since then that they have ended up doing it in the least painful way, whatever the dusty quality manual on the shelf says. So when asked to describe their requirements it will be in the context of what doesn’t currently work for them.

So when you come along to understand and document their requirements, you will have wasted your time reading the terms of reference, business case and talking to their manager. You will sit in bewilderment as the member of staff in front of you describes the random process they want to deliver their output.

You start panicking as the realisation dawns on how difficult just understanding what this earnest but seeming vacant user is on about, let alone the crazy spider’s walk use case you will end up drawing that no one will believe. And any hope of authoring an elegant requirements document is in tatters, as you try desperately to remember what an efficient process looks like while you are rapidly losing the will to live.

However, it needn't be like this. Good business analysts are effective at empathising with their subjects (sorry, users) to understand why people behave the way they do. Really good analysts can use a variety of observational skills to identify the roots of the behaviour and are able to work out what their users are thinking. They observe the individuals, their desks, the working environment, the colleagues in the office, the interactions with their managers and other staff either side of the process step they deliver. They listen to the words used, the tone of voice when describing specific pains, and the subconscious body language that tells you the state of mind behind their conversation. They can then start synchronising their own thinking with that of the other person, supported by alignment of posture and gesture so that they start to also physically mirror the other person.

For those lucky/unlucky (*delete as appropriate) enough to have been in the early stages of dating, you may recognise this technique from various dubious 'advice' books written for the gullible & naïve first timers. Not that I ever read any… Anyway, the point is that subtle alignment of body position, gestures, and voice modulation creates a more relaxing and engaging conversation allowing you to get on the same wavelength. In this situation you can reach a higher level of shared understanding of the topics you are discussing. This also increases openness and allows you to get closer to the truth (at least as seen by the other person).

One of the most useful techniques for requirements gathering is to work out how best the other person relates their story in terms of a primary sense, i.e. feel, sight, sound, taste or smell. You can calibrate what their preference is by asking a series of open questions and see what sensory words or phrases they use to describe their feelings on a topic. For instance, look, see, focus, bright, etc. are visual cues. Hear, sound, 'rings a bell' are all auditory. Feel, grasp, hold, 'get a grip' are obviously feel (sometimes pompously called kinaesthetic). People are less likely to ‘smell sweet’ or 'taste bitter', but you may want to hold your breath or hide your doughnuts in these cases. I am personally a more visual thinker so I tend to communicate in pictorial language (this look terrible, I can see you are to blame, etc.) and awful movie clichés.

If you can do all this, you are in the Mentalist category, to be respected by the impressed management, and feared by the superstitious staff who will truly believe that you can read their minds. Ruling out psychic powers, you can acquire these impressive skills either through improving your attention to detail or getting trained in the specific portfolio of techniques that are required.

Those wishing to taste the dark side can enrol on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) courses, where you will learn the sinister arts of manipulation. But beware! You will never be the same again and may wish to become a salesman or life coach...

Author: John Moe is Principal at J Moe Associates and writes and presents widely on SOA and BPM. With over 25 years experience delivering application development and business transformation programmes, John has made most of the mistakes you will ever make and is keen to pass on this knowledge to help you avoid them yourself. In return he just expects undying gratitude and free drinks wherever he goes.

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zarfman posted on Wednesday, August 17, 2011 1:39 AM


I fear that I may fall into the in-duh-vidual classification. I can only speculate as to what point you're trying to make.

You mention Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) from my readings one may contend the NLP is a pseudoscience.

Are you suggesting the NLP and requirement gathering as well as BA etc. are in fact pseudosciences?

I await further enlightenment.

undrkvabrtha posted on Wednesday, August 17, 2011 3:59 PM
NLP may or may not be a pseudo-science, Zarfman.

I figured John meant that the better you understand your 'user' the better the chance of your getting the requirement right.

and of course, the reference to NLP, I thought, was resignation or sarcasm in the context of the average office-worker's apathy/brainless answers.

But now you've gotten me curious too - let's see what John has to say...
zarfman posted on Friday, August 19, 2011 3:22 PM


I consider it inappropriate to refer to users as vacant or brainless. By what standard do we judge someone as vacant or brainless?

There are reasons a user may not be able to answer a question. Among those are; the BA is talking the wrong person, user lack of training, user has memorized a process and has no understanding of the underlying process/rules. Or, god for bid the fault lies with the questioner and/or the form of the question.


Peter McLarty posted on Sunday, August 21, 2011 10:36 PM
I do agree that labelling is a problem however perhaps Johns purpose was to raise a discussion about the way we do handle people when they for the myriad of reasosn out there have difficulity describing the processes they follow in getting various tasks done. His ideas of mirroring the person to open communications are great and can lead to a person feeling that you are empathetic to their cause and they will help you in obtaining the info you need. I am sure there are no shortage of organisations out there with very poor and convoluted processes. These are the BA's greatest nightmare and also their greatres opportunity. Some of the language was either written on a bad day or was deliberate to provoke the discussion that seems to have started. Personally the described scenario my dream site as it is likely in need of so much that it would be difficult to not find lots of low hanging fruit to collect.
David Wright posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011 6:44 PM
I am still trying to decide if this is tongue-in-cheek...
Cableguy posted on Friday, September 9, 2011 8:04 AM
In the US "Mentalist" might make you think of David Copperfield or the TV series of that name, but in the UK it only makes most people think of one thing (and it's not someone you want gathering your requirements)...
Maureen Brown posted on Friday, December 30, 2011 7:49 AM
John, nice article that touches only the surface of how NLP can be used to enhance the client and BA experience in requirements gathering!

I am a seasoned BA (some 20 years now) and am also an NLP Master Practitioner and coach - I have used NLP with great results for a while now. You mentioned the BA developing sensory awareness to elicit the clients internal processing system (visual, auditory or kinaesthetic) to allow rapport between the BA and the client - this enhanced the experience an two way communication - too many BAs go direct to use cases without first gaining rapport/trust with the client.

NLP has a wide range of techniques that a BA can utilise - well formed outcomes to tie down objective and ultimately requirements (needs not wants!) and negotiating for conflicting requirements to name but a few.

I am in the process of developing a training programme for BAs to use based on NLP to allow for eliciting better requirements - regardless of which SDLC / methodology is used - I would love your input/experiences on this.
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