Are you wondering what concrete steps you can take to make sure you don’t overlook requirements on your next project? In business analysis, the set of techniques used to discover the requirements is called elicitation. For the most part, elicitation is a fancy word for asking a lot of questions and getting clarity on the answers. But it also includes techniques such as reviewing existing documentation, creating draft models for feedback, and observing people in their work to identify what they really need from a new solution.
This is one of my favorite parts of business analysis – it’s when the analysis meets the people part of the role. And while it can be really challenging, it also tends to be a lot of fun.
In what follows, I’ll share 53 tips for improving your elicitation skills. Use these tips to make concrete improvements to how you discover the requirements for your next project. I guarantee you’ll find something you may have missed otherwise.
Get to the Root of the Problem
#1 – Get Context. Before diving into the details, be sure you understand the purpose and scope behind the project. This gives you context for your requirements development effort and tends to surface new, related questions.
#2 – Ask Why. You will most likely not get a direct answer the first time you ask “why”. Often you have to ask why multiple ways to get to the real problem to be solved.
#3 – Ask Why with Finesse. Most likely, you won’t want to ask “why” directly anyway. Most of the best “why” questions actually start with who, what, when, where, or how. I call this asking “why” with finesse.
#4 – Use Provocative Questions. Provocative questions can encourage lateral thinking, which will lead you to assumptions, constraints, and business drivers you might not discover otherwise.
#5 – Explore All Facets of the Why. The “why” or the business need is actually not a singular piece of information. There are at least 3 facets of the business need to explore – the business objectives, the business problem, and the desired outcome.
#6 – Revisit the Problem. Revisit the problem at the beginning of every discussion. Or, on a large project, revisit the slice of the problem you are addressing in this particular discussion. This helps keep everyone focused and encourages creativity.
#7 – Talk About Solutions. It’s common for stakeholders to bring solution ideas to the table. Some BAs will sideline discussions of any solutions early on. This can lead to tense discussions. Another approach to getting your stakeholders to focus on business requirements is to ask questions about the solution to discover the problem behind it. This is another way to ask “why” with finesse.
(By the way, each one of the checklists in our Requirements Discovery Checklist Pack possible business rationales for each feature, so you can go into a conversion prepared to understand the potential value of any solution idea your stakeholders are throwing at you.)
Listen, Really Listen
#8 – Be Quiet. While there is a time and place to present your own ideas, keep the focus on listening to get more information from your stakeholders. If you are used to being an active contributor and making your opinions heard, this can take a lot of work.
#9 – Stop Thinking! Listening also means allowing stakeholder needs to drive the conversation. Many professionals that come to BA from a technical background find it difficult to turn their analytical “what’s possible” hat off long enough to understand what the real need is. Sometimes it really does help to stop thinking (not forever, just for a little bit!).
#10 – Use Active Listening Techniques. If your stakeholders tend to repeat themselves, in all likelihood they are not feeling heard. In addition to passive listening, be sure to use active listening techniques so they know you heard what they had to say.
#11 – Ask Follow-Up Questions. Following on the above, follow-up questions help you continue to dig a little bit deeper and not accept what your stakeholders tell you at face value.
#12 -Ask “Stupid” Questions. There is only one stupid question – the one you didn’t ask. Ask your questions. Avoid making assumptions, even ridiculously obvious ones.
#13 – Avoid Audio Recordings. Many BAs are tempted to create audio recordings of their meetings. I think this practice, while well-intentioned, encourages lazy meeting facilitation practices and lazy listening practices. Instead of recording a fast-paced discussion, a better practice is to slow the pace of the discussion down so you and everyone involved can keep up. Don’t let a piece of technology be your ears. If you can’t keep up, someone else isn’t keeping up either and so you are not getting all the input you need.
Use Different Elicitation Techniques
#14 – Consider All Elicitation Techniques. Many BAs rely on one elicitation technique or mix of techniques over and over again. While there is value in repetition, considering the full range of elicitation techniques can keep things fresh and interesting. It can also ensure you are applying the right technique for the right type of project, which will surface more requirements earlier in the process.
#15 – Create Deliverables. Elicitation is not just about talking and interviewing. It’s also about reviewing deliverables. I like to provide prototypes and draft use cases or business process models and even data models to kickstart the elicitation process. (We cover all of these techniques and more in The Business Analyst Blueprint® certification program, where you can earn your Applied Certification in Business Analysis.)
#16 – Conduct Walk-Throughs. As you are getting closer to finding all of the requirements, a requirements review can lead to the discovery of any remaining requirements.
#17 – Avoid Walk-Throughs When Appropriate. But requirements walk-throughs don’t work for all situations. Sometimes focused discussions, process walk-throughs, and selective reviews are better choices. Expand your elicitation skills by choosing a technique based on the needs of your project, not because it “must be done”.
#18 – Keep Moving Even Without Your Stakeholders. While you’ll undoubtedly be talking to stakeholders frequently and getting their input, there are many activities a BA can do in advance of stakeholder availability. Getting started can help you be more prepared when stakeholders are available and ask better questions. Here are 3 elicitation techniques you can do without stakeholder access.
#19 – Experiment With Less-Common Techniques. Don’t forget some of the less-used techniques as well, like brainstorming, surveys, and focus groups. In the right situation, any one of these techniques can engage your customers in the requirements process and expose your team to new ways of thinking about your solution.
#20 – Avoid Shiny Object-Syndrome. Never use a technique just to use a new technique. Focusing too much time on a new technique could leave you with too little time to implement the techniques that will actually work for your project. Always look at what technique will get you the best information given the time you have.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
#21 – Look Ahead. Always be thinking a step or two ahead in the project. Looking ahead will give you the context for what needs to be discovered now to get to that step and will make you more confident and efficient in elicitation.
#22 – Prepare Questions. As you get into the details of a project, use requirements questionnaires to think through a problem and go into a meeting with as many questions as possible thought of.
#23 – Analyze Documents. And remember that not all information comes directly from your stakeholders. Document analysis is an elicitation technique that can help you discover the questions you should be asking. Interface analysis works well too.
#24 – Prepare Possible Answers. Sometimes your stakeholders simply don’t have an answer to a question. Being prepared with possible answers or options can get the conversation going and encourage constructive thinking.
#25 – Accept the Unknown. While preparation is important, the whole point of eliciting information is to discover information that you or the team is not currently aware of. Accept the fact that elicitation, by its very nature, involves dealing with the unexpected. You won’t be prepared for every possible scenario. Sometimes you’ll have to think and act on-the-fly.
The “When” Behind Elicitation Matters Too
#26 – Elicitation Happens Throughout the Project. A common misconception is that all of the elicitation happens early in the process, before a requirements deliverable is drafted or anything is analyzed. In reality, elicitation happens all through the lifecycle of the project. It’s the BA’s job to discover as many requirements as possible as early in the lifecycle as is prudent (what’s prudent depends on what type of project methodology your team is using). This means that more elicitation tends to happen early in a project. But in general, be prepared to continue to discover requirements even after the initial sweep.
#27 – Be Critical of “Just in Time” Requirements Practices. Even in an agile environment, looking ahead a few sprints or stepping back and looking at the big picture can make a lot more sense than “just in time” requirements practices. Because elicitation involves discovering unknowns, getting just enough ahead can actually help prevent waste and minimize requirements risk. It can also help you avoid being rushed and overlooking obvious requirements that need to be dealt with later.
#28 – No Sweeping! Avoid any tendency you have to sweep new information under the rug. This tends to happen when information surfaces later than you wish (I know, I’ve been there) and what you really want to do is turn back time and ask another question at your kick-off meeting. This will lead nowhere good. Believe me, the information will pop up again sooner or later, and the sooner the better, even if it’s later than you like.
#29 – Be a Sounding Board. Be ready to have an elicitation conversation anywhere. I’ve had them while heating up my lunch, at an employee happy hour, and in the bathroom. I like to think of myself as a sounding board for new ideas. When new information is ready to come out, embrace it!
Know Your Stakeholders
#30 – Find Your Stakeholders. First things first, who are your stakeholders? What do they have to contribute? What do you need them to contribute? Creating a stakeholder list is a good first step to understanding who you will be working with on a project and make sure that you don’t leave anyone out of the elicitation process.
#31 – Build Stakeholder Relationships. Invest some time in building positive stakeholder relationships. Communicate clearly. Keep your commitments. And look for opportunities to prove yourself and demonstrate your commitment to the project and organization.
#32 – Customize Your Approach. Different stakeholders learn and provide information in different ways. Some like to prepare and give you specific answers. Some need you to talk through everything with them. Customize your approach to respond to your stakeholders and you’ll get the most possible information from all of them.
#33 – Avoid Playing Favorites. While there are differences, there is no better or worse. (That is, unless you have an issue you could raise with your human resources department.) All stakeholders have their advantages and their challenges.
#34 – Ask For Feedback. Get input from your stakeholders anytime you can. My stakeholders have given some great ideas that, once I implement, save us all time and energy. Get their ideas about sequencing, questions, deliverables, and how meetings are facilitated.
#35 – Deal With Withholding Stakeholders. When a stakeholder seems to be withholding information, take time to talk to them one-on-one to hear their concerns.
#36 – Deal With Stakeholders Who Aren’t Engaged. Take time to talk to them one-on-one about what you need from them for the project to be successful.
#37 – But if Several Stakeholders Are Not Engaged, Look For Other Problems. When several stakeholders are not engaged or not showing up for your meetings, it’s either something about your approach or an organizational issue. Sit down with a stakeholder and ask for feedback about how the project is going and find out where the distraction is. Confirm the priority of your project with your manager or project manager. See what’s standing in the way of their engagement and respond accordingly.
Increase Your Input with Effective Meetings
#38 – Prepare for Your Meetings. Many of the challenges that surface with elicitation can be eased with a little preparation. Take time to prepare for your meetings. I like to set aside about an hour for every hour I will be facilitating. (And it will be easier to get people to show up for your meetings if you are consistently prepared to run an effective meeting.)
#39 – Create Agendas. Create an agenda so that everyone knows what to expect and what they can do to prepare. Send out the agenda ahead of the meeting. Always. Even if it’s a one sentence description of what you hope to accomplish and two bullet points. Send it out.
#40 – Pay Attention to the Meeting Kick-Off. Begin the meeting by summarizing the project status, confirming the purpose of the meeting, and defining each attendee’s contribution.
#41 – Stay Focused. Many BAs complain that they can’t keep their meeting attendees focused. When a meeting heads off track, you risk missing important information. Everyone’s distracted and thinking about something new, not the requirements for your project. As a BA, it’s important you actively keep the meetings you facilitate on track, by addressing side conversations head on and engaging people where they are at.
#42 – Take Notes. Always, always, and I mean always, take notes. Capture the results of every elicitation session, whether that’s by taking a snapshot of the whiteboard or typing up your notes from the meeting.
#43 – Do Not Allow Bystanders. Avoid having bystanders at your meetings. Everyone should be expected to contribute. Non-contributors throw off the balance of the team and make contributors wary about giving all the information. People who don’t contribute could be withholding information that everyone needs to be aware of.
#44 – Go Small. Smaller meetings are easier to facilitate, keep focused, and get input from everyone. If you are having trouble facilitating an effective meeting, look for opportunities to limit the number of participants or shorten the duration of the meeting.
Don’t Let Virtual Meetings Be the Scapegoat for Lack of Productivity
#45 – Time Differences Matter. Pay attention to time zone differences and schedule your meetings at times when everyone can be awake, present, and engaged.
#46 – Require Contributions on Conference Calls. When facilitating a conference call discussion pay close attention to be sure that everyone has a chance to contribute so you don’t overlook someone’s good idea.
#47 – Give Virtual Meetings Special Attention. Effective virtual meetings require special preparation. Pay careful attention to the focus, duration, and how you’ll get everyone involved.
#48 – Take Virtual to the Next Level. As you get beyond basic conference calls, more advanced virtual meeting facilitation techniques can help you take things to the next level. Think virtual whiteboarding, virtual brainstorming, and break out sessions.
Don’t Forget About Scope
#49 – Break Up Your Sessions. There is only so much information one team or one person can deal with at a given time. Keep your elicitation sessions focused and break them into logical parts. Deal with one part completely and then move on. You’ll get better input this way.
#50 – Capture Out-of-Scope Ideas. In elicitation, it’s likely that new ideas and problems will surface that are out of scope for the current project. Be prepared and have a way to handle these ideas. Some BAs use a parking lot. Others use an issues list. Others will follow-up with stakeholders directly to get new projects in the pipeline. Capturing out-of-scope ideas keeps the creative process flowing and helps keep the discussion on track.
#51 – “In Scope” Can Have Many Meanings. Remember that scope means different things to different people. Use different concepts of scope to drive scope discussions. A business sponsor might see scope as solving a particular problem. A technical stakeholder may see scope as providing a specific solution. A subject matter expert might see scope as their slice of the overall project. A project manager may see scope in terms of timeline and budget. As the BA, you’ll have your own view (and just like everyone else, you’ll be locked into thinking your view is right). Use the different definitions as context for different conversations.
#52 – Avoid Implied Promises. Asking questions and listening to answers can be perceived as agreeing to deliver a solution to the problem being discussed. Take care during elicitation to differentiate between the discovery process and the planning process. This will help you avoid unwittingly making false promises, which degrades your stakeholder’s trust in the requirements process and impacts how forthcoming they are on future projects.
#53 – Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep. Unless you are also the project manager, you have no business saying, “that should be easy” or “we can commit to that”. And if you are also the project manager, it’s a good idea to revisit your plan before making promises. Besides, making promises like these can shift the discussion away from discovery and into the implementation plan.
So there you have it! 53 tips you can use to improve your elicitation skills and discover all the requirements on your next project. Take any one tip and apply it on your next project to find requirements you didn’t even know you were missing.
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