The initial meetings with a stakeholder can be nerve-wracking. Oftentimes projects come to us for “analysis” with very little detail. It can feel like everyone else knows more and is better prepared. Yet we, the business analysts, own the next step. Especially as new business analysts or business analysts needing to learn a new business domain, a bit of fear and uncertainty can creep into these early days on a project.
As I’ve read about in a wonderful book called, The Introverted Leader, you can support your confidence in uncomfortable situations through preparation, presence, push, and practice. (This works even if you are an introvert like me.) Let’s look how to apply each of these practices to elicitation.
Step 1: Prepare to Elicit Requirements
The more you prepare, the more confident you’ll be. To prepare for an elicitation session, conduct as much research as you can to inform yourself about the problem and the existing situation.
- Talk to the sympathetic people first. This might be the person that hired you or your designated go-to person in the department.
- Learn the business and explore the system. Obtain as much insight as you can into how the business operates and the system works using the available information and tools.
- Start a list of key terms. If a glossary exists, use it as a reference to find the definitions of terms. Often you will find additional or alternate terms that are not included in even the most up-to-date glossary. Keeping terms straight can help you carve a more efficient path to real understanding.
- Start a list of questions about the system, about the process, the people, and about the project at hand. Think why, what, how, when, who. Keep this question list handy as you meet with people about the project and use it to guide your discussions.
- If system documentation is non-existent, create models as you learn about the business and the system.
Yet, the nature of an elicitation session means that you will encounter unexpected information. That’s why step 2 – being present – is so important as well.
Step 2: Be Present in your Requirements Elicitation Sessions
Presence relates to how you handle yourself with others. If you are prepared, you should be confident and 100% present in your initial discussions. To create presence in an elicitation session:
- Use your list of questions and agenda items as a guide, but go with the flow. Once your stakeholders start talking, let them speak through their thoughts. While later in the process you make need to practice guiding conversations and even interrupting, your initial meetings should follow the energy of the stakeholders.
- Focus on seeking to understand stakeholder perspectives. Avoid second-guessing the questions you have or what you do or do not know. Keep it top of mind that this is your opportunity to learn more about the project and the stakeholders’ opportunity to unfold their perspective.
- Be an active listener — summarize what you hear and ask intelligent follow-up questions. But don’t be so worried about your next question that you forget to listen!
- Be OK with momentary pauses. Collect your thoughts, review your questions, and continue the conversation.
Steps 1 and 2 will get you started with confidence. Steps 3 and 4 will expand your skills in requirements elicitation.
Step 3: Push Yourself to Become Better at Requirements Elicitation
By pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, you advance your capabilities and your leadership. You stretch yourself and improve your capabilities.
Some ways to push during elicitation include:
- Find gaps in your understanding and find ways to fill them. This might require involving an additional stakeholder or asking for a demo or observation.
- Seeking out the perspectives of higher level stakeholders. Drop by an executive’s office or take advantage of a chance meeting in the hallway and ask for what they value the most in the project.
- Use a new elicitation technique as part of elicitation. Learn a new way of modeling or a new tool and incorporate that into your elicitation activities.
Step 4: Practice Eliciting Requirements
As an analyst you want to grow into a professional who loses that initial feeling of fear when a new situation presents itself and become comfortable with the unknown. This happens through practice.
Practice is about repeating behaviors, even if they feel uncomfortable at first, until they become part of who you are. Through practice, elicitation will become almost second nature and you’ll be well prepared to handle a wide variety of new and unexpected situations.
Some ways to practice elicitation include:
- Practice asking your questions and listening to the answers with a friend or trusted colleague. You can practice elicitation techniques as a meeting attendee or in a 1-1 conversation.
- Anticipate the types of feedback you might receive and practice responses.
- Keep the momentum going by scheduling elicitation sessions. After every meeting, define the next step and make it happen.
With consistent practice, you will be able to spend less time preparing and more time being present in your elicitation activities. As your confidence grows, you will be able to handle more ambiguity in the initial phases and more dissonance among your stakeholders — i.e. more challenging projects.
Your Reward: Confidence!
By preparing, being present, pushing yourself, and practicing, that uncomfortable feeling will be replaced with excitement and confidence. As has been reinforced for me by Jennifer Kahnweiler’s The Introverted Leader: Building Your Quiet Strength, becoming a better leader is about continuing to invest in your own personal and professional development, increasing self-awareness, building on your strengths, and choosing new challenges.