Using the Brainstorming Technique in Business Analysis

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What is Brainstorming?  

At first blush the definition of brainstorming may appear to be commonly understood. Merriam Webster defines brainstorming as “a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group”[1] —pretty basic. It’s also generally understood to be a technique where every idea, no matter how outside-the-box, is encouraged—and the more ideas that are generated, the better.

But it’s worth taking a moment to define what this term means as it specifically applies to business analysis. For business analysis, we define brainstorming as:  

  • An activity done in a group, not individually. Though some authors advocate that individual brainstorming is more productive because it enables people to think without filters or judgment[2] , here we’re focusing on the more common practice of group brainstorming where multiple stakeholders are pulled in. BABOK[3] advocates that brainstorming is “best applied in a group as it draws on the experience and creativity of all members” (9.3.2).

  • Having a completely different purpose than the focus group technique, although both may be similar in their structure and number of participants. A brainstorming group is normally composed of organizational stakeholders who are generating ideas that will be refined later. A focus group is normally composed of customers who are giving their feedback about the already-refined ideas. For a fuller perspective on the differences between brainstorming groups and focus groups, see Difference between a Brainstorm and Focus Group.

  • Specifically defined for one stated purpose. BABOK states that brainstorming aims to answer a specific question, such as how to resolve an issue, what factors are holding a group or organization from moving ahead, what may be causing a delay in a development, or what may be done to solve a problem (9.3.2). Brainstorming is most effective when it seeks to focus on one specific topic, rather than covering a broad spectrum.

The Benefits of Brainstorming in Business Analysis

Using the Brainstorming Technique in Business AnalysisAs BABOK states, multiple stages of a project can benefit from brainstorming, from identifying your stakeholders (2.2.5), to eliciting requirements, to enterprise analysis (5.1.5). In UML for the IT Business Analyst, Howard Podeswa describes brainstorming as useful “during the Initiation phase and whenever the project is ‘stuck’”.[4] However, there are truly few developmental parts of a project that cannot benefit from brainstorming. As BABOK states, “The aim of brainstorming is to produce numerous new ideas, and to derive from them themes for further analysis” (9.3.1)—making brainstorming a potent tool during nearly any evolving stage of a project.

Further, the process of brainstorming can be a great way to get quieter or less imaginative stakeholders to think outside the box and to elicit their creativity. (Once brainstorming is well underway, a database analyst, for example, can bring insights about information storage that no one else could.) Therefore, if a diverse, representative group of participants is chosen, brainstorming can ensure that a broad range of ideas and expertise are included in the ideas that result.

Finally, since it is virtually impossible for an analyst to uncover every consideration during discovery or any other stage of a project, brainstorming takes some of the research pressure off the analyst. It also enables other stakeholder groups to feel a degree of ownership of the project’s resulting direction. As one author notes, “It can help you get buy in from team members for the solution chosen—after all, they were involved in developing it.”[5]

How to Facilitate a Brainstorming Session

Once you decide that brainstorming is the right approach for the stage your project is in, follow these steps to get the most out of your brainstorming session. 

  • Select your facilitator, idea recorder, and participants, and reserve your place and time. One writer advocates including five to seven people (http://www.mindtools.com/brainstm.html). According to BABOK, six to eight participants are ideal. Try to choose a representative from each stakeholder group, and try to choose personalities that are both vocal and cooperative. 

  • You will want to be sure everyone is on the same page regarding the process. Set expectations about the format and objective—explain that in brainstorming no idea is off the table, and there is no such thing as too many ideas. Participants must agree to withhold judgment of ideas during the brainstorming process. Also, help everyone agree on a method for evaluating the ideas—to be used only once the session is over. (As Wiegers noted, “Brainstorming and imagining the possibilities is a separate matter from analyzing priorities, feasibility, and the constraining realities.”[6]) 

  • You may want to give participants a small amount of time (five minutes or so) to brainstorm on their own before bringing their ideas to the group, especially if you have some more introverted participants. As one business analysis blogger noted, “When individuals are given an opportunity to think about a topic for a bit in advance, they might be less intimidated to then contribute their ideas to the group.”[7] You may even want to encourage them to write their ideas down and hand them to you or the facilitator to mention. 

  • Once the group session has started, keep everyone on topic. Remind everyone of the one objective you want to accomplish. “We’re here to try to figure out why product A is not working for customers, not to focus on any other problems they may be having, or to wander into comments on other products.” 

  • Do not limit creativity, free association, or the number of ideas! The goal is come up with as many solutions as possible. Encourage participants to build on each others’ ideas if they wish. Do not censor or edit ideas as they flow. As one writer cautions: “Valuable but strange suggestions may appear stupid at first sight. Because of this, you need to chair sessions tightly so that ideas are not crushed.”[8] 

  • If the session is more than an hour long, build in some coffee break times so that people can mentally refresh. 

  • Write all ideas down in plain view of the entire group. Or, if someone is proficient with “mindmapping” software (such as Mindmeister [www.mindmeister.com] or Mindomo [www.mindomo.com]), this would be an ideal time to use it. If no one is proficient with this software and you still want to use the mindmapping technique, you can just try putting similar groups of self-adhesive notes together in logical flows and hierarchies. For more information on this technique, see http://businessanalyst.tarunchandel.com/2008/09/business-analysis-tool-mindmaps-for.html. 

  • Once the brainstorming session is over, begin the refining process based on the pre-established criteria. Condense groups of similar ideas into one thought. Create a list of what results, and distribute it to everyone for review.

As you refine your approach, you may find brainstorming to be one of the more lively aspects of your business analysis work. As BABOK notes, “Facilitated properly, brainstorming can be fun, engaging and productive.” You may see some quieter colleagues come out of their shells, and be surprised with innovative ideas from unexpected sources. Additionally, the collective nature of brainstorming can have the added benefit of creating cohesion among the various stakeholders, benefiting your team and organization as well as your project.

Author: Morgan Masters is Business Analyst and Staff Writer at ModernAnalyst.com, the premier community and resource portal for business analysts. Business analysis resources such as articles, blogs, templates, forums, books, along with a thriving business analyst community can be found at http://www.ModernAnalyst.com


[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/brainstorming. Accessed October 10, 2011.
[2] http://mindtools.com/brainstm.html. Accessed October 10, 2011.
[3] A Guide to the Business Analyst’s Body of Knowledge® (BABOK® Guide), Version 2.0, International Institute of Business Analysis, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, ©2005, 2006, 2008, 2009.
[4] Podeswa, Howard. UML for the IT Business Analyst: A Practical Guide to Requirements Gathering Using the Unified Modeling Language. Second Edition. Boston: Course Technology, 2010, p. 44.
[5] http://www.mindtools.com/brainstm.html. Accessed October 10, 2011.
[6] Weigers, Karl E. Software Requirements. Second Edition. Redmond, Washington: Microsoft Press, p. 115.
[7] http://www.corporate-training-programs.com/business-analysis-training/business-analysis-training-elicitation-technique-brainstorming/. Accessed October 10, 2011.
[8] http://www.mindtools.com/brainstm.html. Accessed October 10, 2011.

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