When Requirements Elicitation Becomes a “Mad Tea Party”!


“Alice in Wonderland”: When Requirements Elicitation Becomes a “Mad Tea Party”! Episode 2

The madcap setting of Wonderland from Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is analogous to the chaotic environment occupied by the contemporary business analyst. Alice’s journey down the rabbit hole mirrors the journey of the business analyst into the often structureless world of big business. As the young Alice strives to establish some sense of conventional order amidst a world of disorder, so must the business analyst facilitate the transformation of troubling, unknown entities into something clear, concrete, and correctable. The modern business analyst has much to learn from Alice’s adventure and her sense of logic against the madness of an illogical, shape-shifting backdrop. In particular, the setting of the Mad Tea Party, found in chapter seven of Carroll’s novel, throws out some interesting lessons for the business analyst.

See Part 1: “Alice in Wonderland”: Business Analysis in the Midst of Chaos!

One necessary weapon in the arsenal of the business analyst is that of requirements elicitation, sometimes referred to as requirements gathering. Often the analyst must play the role of detective as they strive to identify unknown entities, clarify them, and push toward a solution. In the practice of requirements elicitation, the analyst must approach their “scene” just like Sherlock Holmes, with a sense of detached observation and hyper-awareness. When presented with a murky, Wonderland-esque environment, it is important that the analyst is capable of identifying both the known and the unknown entities before establishing which information is of value to their investigation.

There are a number of requirements elicitation techniques that have been traditionally employed by analysts as a means of obtaining the necessary information to progress their analysis. Some common techniques involve workshops, interviews, focus groups, brainstorming, and the analysis of documents’ content. These processes are pursued with the end goal of eliciting requirements from the sources involved in each of these techniques. These requirements will then serve as key components in the identification and solution of systematic issues. Of course, it becomes clear that establishing requirements becomes a tricky business when the human inclination towards storytelling is invoked.

In their role, the business analyst may investigate a business to establish cold, hard facts. Like Holmes, they observe the scene and establish those factors that are incontrovertible. Beyond these facts, they must pursue a more human exploration of the issues. Like the analyst in the focus group or the workshop, the detective must sift through the stories in order to identify the necessary information and establish requirements from their sources. The aforementioned techniques for requirements elicitation are based on the assumption of a clear, structured business ecosystem. In reality, this ecosystem, like Wonderland, can be chaotic, ever-changing, and built upon unpredictable human foundations.

The Mad Tea Party Workshop

The difficulty of gathering information and establishing requirements, owing to the chaotic nature of the business world, is clear to see. Every business analyst must overcome their own Mad Tea Party if they are to be successful in carrying out their mission. As Alice is confronted with the unreliability of the Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse, so too is the analyst faced with unreliable stakeholders. In her attempts to gain an understanding of the never-ending tea party, Alice’s use of elicitation is effectively useless in the face of endless riddles, an unconventional sense of time, and undependable characters.

Analysts find themselves in comparable environments with various degrees of chaos and unpredictability. Humans are unpredictable and incapable of merely providing facts without the embellishment of storytelling. It isn’t the fault of the workshop participants; it’s merely human nature, symptomatic of the working environment inhabited by the participants and their societally embedded behaviors. An ideal workshop would be built upon the transferal of exact information between the parties involved, with no uncertainty involved and no interpretation required on behalf of the analyst. Of course, with human communication, this mechanical exchange of information, or requirements, can be unrealistic in an organization that breeds chaos and unconsciously operates in chaos.

In chapter seven of Alice (“A Mad Tea Party”), Alice, the Wonderland business analyst, is confronted with a chaotic, structure-less workshop that defies all logic and flies in the face of her requirements elicitation techniques. Alice, entirely uninvited, takes a seat among her workshop participants: the Hatter, the March Hare, and the sleeping Dormouse. The disorder and chaos is evident immediately, even from the seating situation. Alice is told that there is no room at the table, yet she finds space to sit down. Immediately it is implied that this situation is illogical and unrestrained by any sort of conventional structure.

As evidenced in the previous article, Alice’s survival of her Wonderland ordeal hinges upon a number of character traits. Despite the subversion of all expected societal norms, Alice remains tenacious, graceful, and wise. With these three qualities, Alice embodies a number of key traits that would serve to benefit a business analyst in their own trip down the rabbit hole. In environments like interviews, focus groups, and workshops, business analysts will encounter difficult participants and muddled lines of communication. When faced with these obstacles, the analyst must persevere, trusting in their intelligence and communication skills to guide them towards the information they require. In her Mad Tea Party workshop, Alice is faced with endless rejection and a typically structureless Wonderland setting that is inhabited by rude, illogical characters. The difficulties faced by Alice may be cartoonish, exaggerated versions of those faced by business analysts, but the Mad Tea Party is an intriguing case study nonetheless.


Alice is immediately rejected by those at the table. Like school bullies, they tell Alice that there is no room for her, despite the fact that they are all huddled into one corner of the table. As mentioned previously, this indicates the illogical nature of the situation, and more than this, it gives Alice an opportunity to display her tenacity. She pushes past the blunt rejection and sits herself down at the table regardless of the objections of those already seated. This ability to overcome rejection is an important quality that could allow the business analyst to deal with their own workshop difficulties. The analyst may be viewed as a threatening outsider, but if they can overcome this difficulty and bring transparency, structure, and collaboration to the workshop, then they will be well on their way to success.

Finding Information in a Structureless Workshop

Alice’s Mad Tea Party workshop completely contradicts the expected flow of a typical workshop situation. The erratic changes in conversation and unpredictable topics defy Alice’s expectations as they directly oppose societal norms. When Alice is asked a question regarding the date, she answers correctly and is met with a reply about butter. This abrupt change of subject goes against the traditional role of the business analyst as the facilitator, and leader, of the workshop conversation. When the analyst, like Alice, is tasked with facilitating a structureless workshop, it would be folly to try to counteract the Wonderland-esque chaos. Instead, the analyst must adjust their own behaviors. Rather than guide the conversation, it would be wise to identify potential pathways back to the desired topic. These pathways may be followed by asking questions that pertain to the desired subject, drawing new information from the participants in spite of the lack of structure. It is impossible to add structure to a world as chaotic as Wonderland; instead, Alice must rely on her tenacity and adaptability. It is the responsibility of the analyst to remain curious, eliciting new information with questions that lead the participants to voluntarily offer it up.

People in Wonderland do not like direction. So a directional conversation would be a failure in a Mad Tea Party. The workshop participants would fail to remain within one subject. Hence, the business analyst is to keep constantly looking for paths in the conversations and then categorizing them. For example, subjects were raised randomly and in a different order at the Mad Tea Party. The participants discussed “time,” “butter,” and “three little sisters.” Each time you identify a path during the workshop, use the chaos to your advantage, and try to bring the audience back to the subject/path by asking random but meaningful questions. For example, I would ask, “What would be the ideal way to set up time in Wonderland?” and “What is wrong with the current method of setting time?” These are questions that generate further information for the business analyst to conduct further analysis.

The aim is, in the midst of the chaos, to identify paths and ask questions to bring participants to voluntarily provide information about the identified path (i.e., “time,” “butter,” and “three little sisters”). Whether the identified path is a business problem and/or a requirement, that’s an entirely different question, which can be addressed by exploring further in Wonderland. Answers in Wonderland do not come quickly. Just like Alice, one needs to remain “Curiouser and curiouser!”

The Mad Tea Party is one of the most memorable chapters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Far from mere entertainment, the setting serves as an important learning environment for the business analyst. There are myriad lessons to be learned from this chapter of the novel, although in this context, the lessons are primarily based around overcoming rejection and the inherent lack of structure in the exchanged information. The importance of requirements elicitation for a business analyst is undeniable, and through an exploration of the Mad Tea Party, it is possible to identify some key characteristics necessary for an analyst to overcome chaotic elicitation environments. Analysts are often confronted with the unpredictability of human communication, and it is important that they are equipped with the necessary tools to gather relevant information. Following on from this examination of the Mad Tea Party, the next article in the series will seek to discuss the key lessons that can be learned from this Wonderland workshop.

Author: Adam Alami, Sr. Business Analyst

Adam Alami is a seasoned IT consultant with over 18 years’ experience. Business Analysis and Project Management is his passion. His experience revolved around major business transformation projects. He is a versatile IT professional. He accumulated a wealth of cross industry experience with Tier 1 businesses in major projects in the areas of Enterprise Transformation, Integration, Migration, and Systems Modernization.

Adam has a passion for research. His research interests are IT Offshoring, Global Project Managements, Banking Technology, Business Analysis, Information Technology and Culture, Enterprise Innovation and Business Solutions.

Email: [email protected]
Website: www.adamalami.com

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Dave Ayiku posted on Wednesday, November 30, 2016 9:08 AM
Thank you very much for writing this article. I am faced with significant challenges.
One of my nigger challenges is how to approach discussion items after my idea has been rejected.
Dave Ayiku posted on Thursday, December 8, 2016 2:42 PM
Sorry, I meant to write "One of my bigger challenges is how to approach discussion items after my idea has been rejected."
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