Working with Remote Stakeholders? 3 Tips for Using Your Elicitation Skills Online

Welcome to the global economy.  Companies are leveraging widespread resources to bring about new strategic capabilities. As a result, many business analysts are finding themselves collaborating with distributed teams and outsourcers. This introduces a tricky new space to traverse when eliciting and validating stakeholder requirements.  Within an 8 hour span of your “normal workday” you are expected to elicit and cross-check information, orchestrate problem solving and decision making, conduct planning, training, and focus groups.  But when it’s normal business hours in Bangalore, few of us in the US are alert and business focused, leaving a seemingly daunting question.

How can you bridge the gap if your collaborators’ schedules don’t align?

I once worked for a US business entity with an extensive partnership of sales and distribution channels around the world.  As my analysis grew to be more of a group effort, we encountered delays trying to meet up via phone conference, and critical participants were often absent.  I had a target date looming and we still had a requirements review and sign-off stage to go through.

Our project turned to the practices of social media for the solution, using asynchronous -“different time” rather than “same time” – techniques to promote independent work:

  • Create a dialogue map of the conversations we wanted to have in sequence
  • Use threaded discussion tools to gather answers and deliberate
  • Leverage visual images to break the language barrier

Cycles of concurrent on-line discussion threads allowed us to explore specific topics as small-group assignments. I produced images representing the collaborators’ input with context, use case, and activity diagrams, then exchanged topic assignments to correct the initial models and broadened the insights. With committed individual efforts we set the stage for the final rounds to synthesize, prioritize and make decisions (on time). In this article I’ll dip deeper into this on-line approach to elicitation and validation.

Creating Asynchronous Project Agility

How can you lead your time-zone challenged team to an elevated level of mutual understanding and consensus? Try these 3 tips:

# 1: Modularize the discussion.

Begin with an analysis plan for time-boxed cycles of eliciting input then synthesizing the results. Frame your analysis questions, then consider the sequence in which they should be presented while mapping these elicitation phases to your project target dates. Determine the duration of each elicitation cycle, allowing sufficient time for stakeholder answers and your own confirming and clarifying text responses as Moderator of the discussion.

Let’s focus on the Moderator role for a moment.  You want to help your collaborators raise issues and discuss them candidly. To do that, create an on-line space (see # 2) in which you will host the conversations; this means posting your analysis questions, synthesizing answers and taking on issues and questions that are raised, all the while channeling requirements for later stages of converging and ranking.

Explore all sides of an issue by setting up concurrent conversations for sub-groups to address, and then rotate assignments so that each small group is expanding the earlier work of the others. For example, by using this “unbundled thinking” with DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats®, you create a simple, effective process to draw out the impacts of a decision from a number of different points of view.

# 2: Leverage tools for threaded discussions and decision making.

How we share our work-in-progress is worth some reflection.  You don’t want to manage requirements with e-mail chains and Word doc versioning.  That isn’t requirements management, that’s requirements chaos.

Introduce on-line collaboration features to engage your stakeholders on their own time.  Internal tools like SharePoint and Lotus Notes offer a vehicle to support threaded discussion, or there are a variety of cloud-based options like Adriana Beal’s Wiki solution.

When you’re ready to move from discovering concepts to delivering requirements, incorporate mechanisms to winnow and prioritize your distributed analysis work, getting your virtual team to agree on requirements.

# 3: Incorporate visualization into your communications strategy.

Tony Heap got it right when he wrote about the value of graphical specifications. Visual representation and simulation can extinguish language differences and other factors that impede clarity when working at a distance.  Working from visual representations of your collaborative analysis helps ensure requirements completeness and comprehension.

In the absence of an enterprise requirements management tool, you can simply share an image slide as the basis for your new discussion thread.  VoiceThread is an innovative alternative, enriching on-line discussion with voice and other media.

On the horizon

The inter-dependencies of a distributed project team call for a coordinated, central source of the truth.  Manual approaches to overseeing iterative cycles of elicitation, review and acceptance fall short as our efforts become more geographically widespread.  The digital disconnect between requirement conversations, decisions, and published results makes our BA job even more complex when working on a distributed project.

Enterprise requirements management tools are bringing about new efficiencies with collaborative visual authoring, workflow-driven review cycles, and direct interfaces to downstream QA systems.  As the business case grows for investing in these tools the BA’s job as builder of bridges will be much simplified.

The Spirit of Global Cooperation

Our goal has always been to conduct business analysis in a cohesive, logical manner.   As it becomes more difficult to bring stakeholders together in the same time and place, our collaboration tactics must adapt. Working with remote stakeholders is a matter of dynamic balance: synchronizing independent activity to achieve broad and robust input, while engaging as a group to deliberate, prioritize, and decide.

When you create an on-line space that invites quality communication and honest discussion, you begin to lift the barriers to global cooperation.  Imagine all stakeholders feeling heard regardless of their location – that may be the secret to success in distributed business analysis as it is for world peace.

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  1. Hi joan davis,

    could you kindly provide your email to me for future conversation regarding BA .




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