Getting Back to the Basics: Requirement Techniques

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This is the second installment in the Business Analysis - Getting Back to Basics Series

In our previous article, “Getting Back to Basics: Asking the Right Questions,” Cathy discusses the purpose of requirements, team alignment and asking the right questions to ensure that we are building the right solution for the business problem. Understanding the “Five W’s and “One H” gets us back to the basics on asking the right questions.

In this article, we discuss three of the basic elicitation techniques used in business analysis in order to obtain the requirements for the system being designed: Interviewing, Job Shadowing and Facilitation.

Interviewing

Interviewing - Requirement TechniquesSince our first job in high school or college, we’ve all experienced at least one job interview. The job interview is a common technique used to identify whether you satisfy the requirements of the role and are a cultural fit. Both the interviewer and interviewee ask questions so they can decide whether the fit is a win/win: Does the interviewer have an employee/contractor that adds value to the organization? Does the interviewee have an opportunity for new challenges and opportunities (along with a satisfying paycheck?)

Just like a job interview, the business requirement interview functions on the same basic principles: Understanding a role(s) in an organization and identifying how implementing a system (or new/enhanced functionality) adds value to an organization.

The Preparation

To obtain the most value out of interviewing, the Business Analyst needs to do some preparation. Consider whether the interviews should be performed one-on-one or in a small group and the select questions to be asked. Working with the key Business Leaders and the Project Manager, consider the following:

  1. Obtain a list of Departments and each of their key personal as participants.
  2. For each participant, learn a little bit about his or her role in the Department.
  3. Ensure the Department Leaders/Business Leaders communicate the need for the participants’ active involvement.
  4. Use open ended questions, instead of “Yes” / “No” questions.

Another part of preparation is logistics. Consider the following:

  1. Face-to-face meetings work best. However, understand if video conferencing or other meeting alternatives are available.
  2. Agenda and time. Whenever possible, prepare an agenda with suggested time blocks to help keep the meeting moving forward.
  3. Identify meeting ground rules. Consider points such as no interruptions and letting people have complete thoughts.
  4. Discuss the use of a “Parking lot” list. For topics that are unable to be discussed or fully discussed, notate them for future discussion.

The Execution of Interviewing

Now that your preparation work is complete, consider the following for the interview process:

  1. Start meetings on time. Setting the pace/tone of the meeting on day one leads to better participation and results. Consider making it a game. For each minute late, have a “Late Box” where people drop a quarter in. Use the money at the end to purchase something for the participants.
  2. Keep with the agenda including times. If a change is needed, ask the participants for permission for a change. This not only aids buy-in, it also makes people take ownership for the meeting process and encourages participation.
  3. As the Business Analyst, keep your input to a minimum. Remember that you’re there to obtain information and guide the discussion. (You are generally not a participant)

Asking the right questions is key to successful interviewing. That said, it may be necessary to customize questions based on the person/audience that is participating. One approach to interviewing is to ask ‘standard’ questions for each audience; e.g., Call Center, Marketing. For example, a question that is common to everyone is “For the system to add value to the Call Center, it should be able to do the following:” Use the answers to drive more detail questions within each Department. For example, “Does the call center system need to track duration of a call? Does it need track a call type; e.g., Billing?

Job Shadowing

Just as we have all participated in job interviews, most of us have learned how to perform in a new job by job shadowing or a buddy system. One of my high school jobs was working in a pizza restaurant. Part of learning how to make a pizza is the art of throwing pizza crust in the air to make it circular and fit the pan. I learned this technique faster by being buddied up with an experienced employee. He showed me the best way to stretch and throw the dough – making it look easy. When it was my turn, the dough got a hole and fell on the floor. With his support, I learned to toss the dough like a pro.

For Business Requirements, the same kind of job shadowing can be easily leveraged.

The Preparation

Once again, preparation is required to get the most out of this technique. Working with the key Business Leaders and the Project Manager, consider the following:

  1. Obtain a list of Departments and select one to three people to shadow. If possible, consider a Team Leader and Supervisor role as well as an individual contributor. This will provide depth of the role.
  2. Ensure the participants understand why they are being shadowed. Since this a usually a one-on-one activity, people can become nervous if they feel they’re being singled out.
  3. Department Leaders/Business Leaders need to allow the participant to be involved without repercussion. For example, if you are shadowing a person who is Team Lead in a Call Center, the participant should be given the flexibility in their call resolution for that day, as the participant will take longer for each call that is being shadowed.
  4. Use Open ended questions, instead of “Yes” / “No” questions.

The Execution of Interviewing

With your preparation work complete, consider the following during the job shadowing process:

  1. Face-to-face is a must.
  2. Be early. Participants usually have very limited time.
  3. Leave on time. Don’t put the participant in position of going over time allotted. If you absolutely need more time, ask their Manager.

For job shadowing to be successful, it hinges on quickly building trust with the participants. If participants believe or perceive their positions are going to be eliminated or that they are being evaluated/judged on their performance, then job shadowing is not as effective. Like interviewing, consider a standard set of questions/observations followed by a specific list of questions/observations based on a specific role.

With all the data collected, review and look for common themes or patterns. For example, if a customer is making a payment over the phone, and this process take over 15 minutes, then it is a good candidate for improvement.

Facilitation

The last basic elicitation technique for this article is Facilitation. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, facilitation is “to help (something) run more smoothly and effectively.” By definition, facilitation is one of the harder elicitation skills to master. That said, it is also one of the most effective to obtain business requirements or simply keep a meeting on track.

Facilitation is a harder skill to master because while it has techniques there are no ‘hard and fast’ rules. For example, in Interviewing or Job Shadowing, there are pre-selected questions that the Business Analyst can follow. In Facilitation, there is an overall goal(s), but no one path to the goal. It requires quick thinking and leading questions to drive to answers.

For example, the Business Analyst has one hour to define a User Interface for a Credit Card payment screen. This is the goal. The facilitator of the meeting needs to identify how to reach this goal in the time allotted.

The Preparation

To obtain the most value out of facilitation, look at dividing the topic into sections that naturally fit together such as Billing, Marketing, etc. Consider allocating those sections on the allotted time and pre-plan an approach.

  1. Agenda and key resources. The key is keep the group small (about six to eight people) when possible. The larger the group, the harder it is to gain consensus in a timely manner.
  2. Identify the areas to covers. In this example, it would be screen style, layout, color scheme, data fields, validation and data save and integration.
  3. Plan your time. Half hour for style, layout color and a half hour for data fields, validation save and integration.

The Execution of Facilitation

With your preparation work complete, consider the following to get to the goal:

  1. Visuals work! Start with a whiteboard drawing of a screen. This helps get to the layout and data fields quickly
  2. Parking lot. Use a parking lot approach for any topic that comes up outside of the goal. Make the necessary notes on a whiteboard and re-direct the group back on topic
  3. Engage. Jump start the discussion, but don’t add to the discussion. The participants will come to decisions on the style, layout, etc. of the screens to be designed for the system. Ensure to engage them to do so.

For me, facilitation is one of my ‘go to’ elicitation techniques. However, it takes practice to be able to direct a group to a goal while keeping track of the topics to cover. The good news is we can practice outside of work. Consider using your professional facilitation skills to decide on something as simple as selecting a restaurant for dinner. By applying your skills you’ll probably get consensus on a place in a matter of minutes.

As with each of these techniques, practice and experience aids in honing your skills. While no single elicitation technique works for all or all situations, levering pieces of each of may become one of your most valued best practices.

Our next article explores the benefits of using an appropriate template to deliver requirements and gain the alignment needed to move a project forward.


Author: Charlene Ceci, Senior Lead Business Analyst at Geneca

Charlene Ceci has over fifteen years of experience in all aspects of business analysis and project management. She is widely recognized for her talents in building high-performing teams, cross organizational communication, and complex problem solving. In her role at Geneca, Mrs. Ceci plays an influential role in the adoption and success of Geneca’s business analysis best practices.


Article image © Elenathewise - Fotolia.com

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COMMENTS

ryanmilligan posted on Tuesday, April 7, 2015 3:22 PM
I do like the idea of a "parking lot" - too often meetings deviate away from their original focus, and precious time intended for gathering requirements is lost. Everything that's discussed with stakeholders should be within the realm of the business goals. If the goals change during the course of a project, that's one thing, but I consider almost everything else to be a) detail that isn't necessary for the analysis phase, or b) scope creep.
cbceci posted on Thursday, April 9, 2015 9:35 PM
@ryanmilligan - I've used the 'parking lot' in many meetings. Once you get the group used to the idea/concept, they will self monitor. It will help in keeping your meetings on track with your requirement gathering.
lewsauder posted on Friday, April 10, 2015 8:21 AM
Great article. I think too often people equate business analysis with scribes, writing down what they hear in a requirements gathering session. Like an interview, done right, the business requirements process requires extensive preparation. Facilitation is also a skill that requires development. It's like throwing pizza dough, only much harder.
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