4 of the best “naïve” yet strategically probing questions you can ask in business

A list of questions: Where, what, when, why, how, whoOne of the things I absolutely love about my role as a business analyst is that I get to ask all sorts of naïve questions of my clients.   Being a business analyst creates the permission to call out the ‘elephant in the room’ and to ask those deepest, darkest political questions that others might be avoiding.  Clearly, this must always be done with respect, rapport and from an angle of curiosity – and when done well, those “naïve” questions can yield some extremely interesting outcomes and can create debates that help solidify and clarify organisational or project direction.  It helps avoid problems before they occur.

 

Even when working on projects, a group of apparently harmonious business stakeholders might suffer from invisible and insidious conflict bubbling away beneath the surface.  It’s just waiting to jump out – and if it isn’t exposed and dealt with early, it will grow and grow until it reaches an explosive proportion.  The conflict may have been festering for weeks, months or even years.  Naïve questions are a great way of exposing this conflict, ensuring everyone is on the ‘same page’ and pushing in the same direction.   Having some external challenge can be a great way of exposing this conflict and creating contentious yet productive debate.  In this article,  I’m going to share a few “naïve” questions with you that can help in these situations.

 

There are many questions that we could ask; here are just a few of my favourites.  These questions work in many situations – whether you’re working in a mid-size, small or multinational organisation.  They work when undertaking projects, as well as when considering business changes, challenges and business strategies.  They are useful for business analysts and business stakeholders alike:

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The importance of focus for projects: Avoiding the turkey, the zombie and the blimp

Man standing in front of confusing arrows -- represents lack of focusI recently saw an intriguing LinkedIN thread relating to quotable quotes – or more specifically, quotes or proverbs that sum up an individual’s business philosophy.   I have been thinking a lot recently about my work in my ‘day job’ and also my voluntary work at IIBA UK, and a phrase that has been really resonating with me recently is:

 

“You can achieve anything, but you can’t achieve everything”

 

Being a stereotypical analyst, I’d be tempted to expand this statement to make it clear that it’s possible to achieve anything feasible.  Clearly, however much we try we probably can’t achieve time travel, teleportation or perpetual motion (yet!). Although that might not be a reason to stop trying…

 

However, the main thing that I take away from this statement is the importance of focus.  And in my experience, focus is crucial in just about any business and is particularly important for businesses that are progressing change projects.   It’s an under-rated adjective that is easily overlooked in some small, mid-sized and even multi-national organisations.  There’s always another opportunity, another idea just temptingly around the corner. Perhaps someone sees a shiny new solution that they just can’t wait to go out and buy… without truly understanding or analysing why they need it.  It’s extremely easy to get blind-sided by the solution illusion.  I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of this pattern to some extent (I bet you have at least one ‘gadget’ collecting dust that seemed like a great idea to buy at the time!)

 

Sometimes the difficult thing is to pick a direction and stick to it until the environment changes (or until it’s necessary to make a conscious deviation). Laser-light focus, combined with the ability to read the business situation, get the data & know when to change direction is vital.

 

It’s better to do a few focussed things well than have 100s of half-finished products and projects.

 

A danger for project teams

 

There are a number of pitfalls here for project teams in this area, and I dare say that we’ve all seen instances of this.  Three patterns I’ve seen include the turkey project, the zombie project and the blimp project.

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Big Data and Projects — What changes?

Data -- Picture of stock exchange tickersI recently chaired an interesting webinar where Paul Gerrard of Gerrard Consulting spoke about ‘big data’.   Paul spoke about some interesting aspects relating to big data, but one particular item that resonated with me is the potential impact that an increased focus on big data analysis could have on projects.

 

Paul spoke about how the increased focus on data-driven decisions will lead to a renewed focus on organisations progressing smaller scale incremental changes to their systems and processes.  A focus on gathering insight, creating a hypothesis and testing that hypothesis.

 

This approach isn’t new – I’m sure that techniques like A/B testing and some of the statistical and continuous improvement techniques including DMAIC will be familiar to many readers.  Yet with many organisations now looking to embrace big data, it will be intriguing and interesting to see what this means for projects.

 

Here are five hypotheses of how it may impact projects in an organisation, and specifically what it might mean for the business analysis community and business analysts specifically.  However, I’d be extremely interested in hearing your views:

 

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“Would you like fries with that?” — The danger of scatter-gun approaches to cross-selling, and what it means for processes and systems…

BurgerI don’t know about you, but as a customer I’m increasingly noticing that just about every company I deal with is trying to “cross-sell” or “up-sell” to me.  They are either trying to make me buy something else from them, or they are trying to get me to buy more of the product or service I am already buying from them.   This is a popular strategy, and it’s easy to see why: Existing customers are already familiar with the brand and the ‘cost of acquisition’ is likely to be much lower.

In this article, I’m going to argue that cross-selling without insight is akin to a scattergun approach that can be improved.  This has a wide ranging impact on the processes and systems that organisations implement – irrespective of whether the organisation is multinational, small or mid-size. And for business analysts, it may have an impact on the data and process requirements for our projects.

 

Let’s start with a trip to the post office…

This might all sound rather abstract, so I’ll start with an example.   Last week, I went to my local Post Office to send a package by Special Delivery.   I was sending some documents to a client, and I needed them to arrive the next day without fail.  I took a ticket, waited for a counter-clerk to become available, and then completed the transaction.  As I was about to leave, the counter clerk asked me:

 

  “Do you have any outstanding balances on your credit cards?”

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