How to Keep Your Elicitation Session From Going Off Track

Picture yourself leading a requirements meeting early in the project. You show up 5 minutes early, get yourself settled, spread out your notes, and fire up your laptop. You review your agenda so it’s top of mind.

The clock strikes the top of the hour. The first attendee of three wanders in, checking their smartphone and quickly looking up to say hello. They obviously didn’t bring print outs of the documents you sent ahead of time. You are glad you brought back-up copies.

At three minutes past the hour, your two other attendees come into the room talking animatedly about the meeting they just left, in violent disagreement with the decisions that were made.

You have a big agenda and the meeting is already running late. You decide to get started.

You pass around printouts of your prep material. You open the meeting – explaining why you are here and what you hope to accomplish. One of the latecomers chimes in right away.

“Oh, we can’t talk about that now. In the meeting Bob and I just left we decided this project needed to go in a completely different direction. I think you’d better talk to Amy before continuing on with this meeting.”

If you could have a picture of your face at that moment, you wouldn’t want to see it. That’s an extreme example, but I’ve had it happen to me. Let’s go through a scenario that’s even more common.

Going Off Track a Minute at a Time

Everyone is settled in to the meeting about 5 minutes past the hour. You introduce the meeting topic, why you are here, the research you’ve done to get to this point, what you think about the project so far, and begin talking through your document. About 5 minutes in, you see Bob checking his smartphone. Jessica is reading ahead in the document you gave her. Emily looks bored.

You pause for a moment to get feedback on a particular part of the document. No one says a word. You move on.

Five minutes later, Bob looks up from his smartphone and starts whispering to Emily about an email he just got. You have a lot to cover so you keep talking through your points. Soon Bob and Emily are talking about how Bob should respond. They catch Jessica’s attention. She disagrees and pipes in with a different idea. You’ve officially lost control of the meeting.

What do you do?

I don’t have a silver bullet answer for you, but I do have a few practices that have helped me keep busy, distracted professionals engaged in my requirements meetings.  (In fact, someone once told me that one of my best traits as a business analyst is that I could make boring work fun. I found this interesting as I simply never thought of it as boring! But I digress.)

Engage People Where They Are At

If someone comes into the meeting talking, engage in the conversation. Ask a question and listen to the answer. See if you can’t make a connection between their topic and the discussion you are about to facilitate.

People don’t just switch their attention from one topic to another automatically. We can help create a shift of attention that gets our meeting on track early.

Ask a Question Early

When people are distracted or reading ahead, they aren’t listening to you. To continue talking is pretty much fruitless, even if it matches up with your vision of how the meeting should have gone. Stop talking and ask a question. Listen to the answer. Realize the answer could mean that you need to make mid-stream adjustments to your agenda or your elicitation plans.

The irony is that the more prepared you are for an elicitation session, the more intellectually able you are to reframe the meeting on the fly, but the more emotionally difficult it is to do so because you are attached to your plans. Be aware of these emotions and allow yourself to detach from the outcome of the meeting.

Address Side Conversations Head On

If a side conversation pops up in your meeting, stop until everyone can have one discussion. One of the easiest and non-confrontational ways I’ve handled this is to simply say,

“Bob and Emily, I realize something important has probably come up. I just want to make the best use of everyone’s time and ensure we’re having one conversation. Is what you are talking about something we can talk about as a group?”

If the answer is “yes”, then ask the group for input on the importance of the topic relative to the topic at hand. If the answer is “no” then ask Bob and Emily if they’d rather reschedule this meeting until they have had a chance to address their urgent issue.

Often this tactic reveals the issue wasn’t all that urgent in the first place and the side conversation is ended. This can seem like a risky move – after all your meeting could be derailed completely. But you are actually setting the stage so that your future meetings are less likely to run off track.

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9 thoughts on “How to Keep Your Elicitation Session From Going Off Track”

  1. Pingback: How to Get Your Stakeholders to Stop Repeating Themselves - NLP for Business Analysts

  2. Pingback: 53 Tips For Discovering All the Requirements | Learn Project Management

  3. @Esme
    A conversation on the sidelines could result from a range of reasons including but not limited to possibly other more important issues at hand (as Laura has suggested), a long day at work, some personal problems or just attitude! There is also a chance that the BA’s “speech” is not keeping them engaged. Talking to a completely wrong stakeholder is also possible, but I feel happens only rarely.

    Setting a restriction of having only 7 people is also not always practical. I provide services to government sector, and I have been in several workshops that have had over 10 stakeholders. Getting an end-to-end process overview and understanding how the responsibilities and data from the first stakeholder pass all the way thru to the last stakeholder is key to sound requirements gathering. If a project manager or coordinator can assist in taking notes then it is a big help in such cases.

    1. @Bini, Great points! If we don’t engage, we can lead a “boring” meeting and allow less essential but urgent items to distract our stakeholder attention.

      @Esme, Sometimes it is the case that the BA is working on what becomes a non-important project. That’s why the question I suggest asking is so impactful – it gives you new information to work with. When I have the option, I also prefer smaller meetings and dividing up the meetings to best leverage stakeholder time. But like Bini says, it’s not always possible or the best approach.

  4. Don’t you think that if people get completely sidetracked by things that are unimportant and does not have any bearing on the meeting that they are not invested in the project? And that you are probably speaking to the wrong stakeholders?

    Meetings can become boring quickly when only one person is speaking all the time. I suggest the BA starts the conversation and involves everyone by asking for their input and if they agree. That way they have to listen and they will feel important giving their input.

    Perhaps a good idea is also to only meet with 7 people at most at a time. Will be difficult to keep everyone’s attention and keep them involved if there are 10 or more people?

    I think the BA must have a relationship with the people which will help them to open up about subjects regarding the project. In the end its all about open communication right?

  5. Part of my introduction to any elicitation meeting includes two things: House Rules and Parking Lot.

    I have 3-4 House Rules on which I insist. I put them on a whiteboard or flip chart that is visible for the duration. One of them is no phone calls, texting or email during the meeting unless urgent. If it’s urgent enough to address during the meeting, it’s urgent enough to leave the room for. After I’ve reviewed my House Rules, the group is invited to add their own. They are now fully invested in following the rules.

    The Parking Lot is also visible for the entire meeting. This is the spot where we can take down any topic that comes up during the meeting that is important and worthy of attention but does not directly impact the topic of the meeting. Part of my wrap-up at the end of the meeting is to go back to the Parking Lot and help the group plan their follow-up for anything in the Parking Lot.

  6. Hi,
    A face to face meeting is somewhat easier to manage. What above conference calls? When you are talking to people you cant see? It is pretty difficult to gain acceptance

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