Three ways to make requirements-gathering more fun

Are your requirements-gathering interviews and workshops a pleasure, or a form of torture? When you make the process enjoyable for participants it becomes more effective – as well as making you more popular!

It has long been recognised that one of the leading causes of project failure is having poorly-defined requirements. Remember the old “project cartoon” with the different versions of a tree swing? And the problem is still very much with us. Systems keep on being delivered which just don’t do quite what the business needs them to do: the “real” requirement has been missed somewhere along the line.

It’s all about effective communication.

The most experienced and sought-after business analysts have highly-developed consulting skills, as well as technical domain knowledge. Employers increasingly recognise, and hire for, this kind of skill. And yet many analysts have not been taught interviewing and facilitation to even a basic level – these skills are supposed to be picked up along the way.

So, how can you improve your own approach? Here are three ideas which have worked well in many contexts. One analyst even claims they saved a €34.8m project from disaster, when they helped him discover that the two national banks driving the project had differing understandings of a key requirement.

It begins with your own attitude. Even if requirements capture may be seen as a relatively junior task in your organisation, the truth is that it’s absolutely crucial that it’s done well. It’s your job to capture the stakeholders’ interest and enthusiasm, and to keep them engaged in the process. If they experience the process as a grilling, in which they are made to feel inadequate by questions they can’t answer wrapped in layers of jargon, they aren’t going to enjoy it.

Don’t expect people to be able to describe, off the top of their head, exactly what they want or how it drives business value. People just aren’t made that way. It’s up to you, as the analyst, to discover what they really want and how it will benefit the business. Do it well, and the users/customers will be delighted to be learning something they didn’t know they knew.

1. Make sure you set a positive tone from the start. Plan a clear agenda with adequate comfort breaks – not everyone is used to concentrating hard for long periods.

If you have any control over the environment, use it wisely. Research has shown that most people do their most effective “big picture” thinking in high-ceilinged spaces or outdoors, while they focus more effectively on details when they are in a small, low-ceilinged space. Hot drinks will help people feel “warm” towards you.

As the organiser, explain clearly what your expectations of the meeting are – don’t expect people to have read the paperwork! You might consider asking each person present to say what they want from the meeting, too. The answers are often very revealing – but more to the point, the process helps people to feel that their desires are at least being acknowledged and considered.

2. Be genuinely curious about what the stakeholders have to say, and how they say it. This project may initially seem just like the last one you worked on – but the people are different, and so the project will be different. Listen to the words they use to describe things.

Language is a wonderfully flexible tool: it’s as if everyone thinks they’re like Humpty Dumpty, and can use words to mean whatever they choose them to mean! For example, if you ask two people to think of a tree, then check the details of the tree they thought of, you’ll discover that no two people’s trees are ever exactly the same. It’s not that one is right and one is wrong – it’s just that they are different. The more novel or complex the topic, the greater the scope for differences of meaning – even when you think terms have been carefully defined in a written project glossary.

If someone says something which surprises you, investigate with a question or two. It’s possible you misheard – but it’s also possible that you’ve just detected an important detail that might otherwise have been missed.

3. Use your participants’ language, jargon and metaphors throughout. You are probably well aware of the effect of unfamiliar technical jargon – it leaves people baffled, their eyes glazed over. The effect of paraphrasing is less well-known.

People’s own words are important to them: they capture unique shades of meaning. If you paraphrase, the original speaker may feel you have misunderstood and rush to offer another explanation, whereas if you use their specific words, they will feel “heard” and allow the meeting to progress. One team who experimented with this found that writing speakers’ actual words, rather than paraphrases, on the flip-chart halved the length of meetings.

Two great questions to ask are:

  • What kind of X (is that X)?
  • Is there anything else about X?

where the “X” represents one or more of the words they have used.

These questions are great for getting clarity about anything that’s been said. They don’t reveal your own opinion of what’s been said, so that the person doesn’t feel judged or criticised. And if necessary, they can conceal the fact you have no idea what they person is talking about!

Human communication is a vast subject, and I could go on with dozens more ideas. But I’m confident that using just these three tips will make a difference to the results you achieve, immediately.

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