It is funny how seemingly unrelated events can trigger thoughts and reflections on very different topics. I recently experienced this when setting out for a fairly short journey in my car. It was an ordinary Saturday morning, cold but sunny, and I took the short walk from my house to where my car was parked. As I suspect happens to most of us in these situations, I was lost in my thoughts—thinking about the errands I had to run that day, thinking about plans for the evening and mulling over a few other projects that I’m involved with. I was enjoying the fact it was sunny, even in December.
Suddenly my attention was drawn elsewhere, and my mind focussed on the car. As I approached it, something didn’t look right. As I got closer, my instinct was confirmed and I could see that a window had been broken.
This is not a sight that any driver wants to see, but my reaction to this situation surprised me. I wasn’t particularly angry or shocked (I think that came later)—I went into full-scale analytical mode, figuring out how I can get this issue sorted, run my errands and minimse the disruption to my home & work life. I suspect that this will resonate with many BA practitioners reading this blog—we are nothing if not pragmatists in times of crisis! Then suddenly, before taking any action, my mind wandered again. I got distracted, I started to wonder why somebody would do this and my mind switched to overdrive. I was writing imaginary stories about why my car was targeted, stories that were based on no information and no data, until my attention was drawn back to the issue in hand.
With this myriad of thoughts whizzing round in my mind, I decided I needed to plan my next practical action. Clearly, I needed to get this fixed ASAP, and if it couldn’t be fixed immediately I would need to get it patched up. I felt slight anxiety—uncertainness of how and when the issue would be resolved was playing on my nerves. Perhaps you have had the same feeling in similar situations, things which are both unknown but also unknowable at that point in time can be very unnerving indeed—it is almost as if the human race craves a level of certainty and feels anxious when that illusion of certainty doesn’t exist.
So, I took action. I rang an auto-glass specialist, and got through to a very friendly and knowledgeable operator. I explained the situation and described the damage as best I could. Very quickly, it became apparent that we lacked a shared vocabulary. I found myself struggling to describe the window that was broken:
“Umm… it’s sort of the left hand side window, at the back”
“Right. The back. So the rear windscreen?”
“No, not right… left! And not the rear windscreen—kind of like the back door window, but there isn’t a door (it’s a 3 door hatch-back)”
“Right. You mean the passenger-side quarter-light. Is it privacy glass?”
And so the call continued.
Fair to say I’m not a car enthusiast. I am rather embarrassed to say I had no idea what a quarter-light was. I could guess what ‘privacy glass’ is, but I wasn’t sure. But the operator was very understanding, asking a series of questions (right down to “OK, is it a window that goes up and down? No, right then it’s definitely the quarter-light! It’s sort of a semi-triangular shape at the back, right?”) until we converged on the right answer. In many ways you could say that she was eliciting information. And with a healthy dose of patience, empathy and understanding.
What This Means for Business and Business Analysis
When we are parachuted on to projects, we often need to elicit information from stakeholders. We might be eliciting outcomes, objectives, business or solution requirements, or something else entirely. Yet, the broken glass and the phone-call are useful metaphors. Whenever we are eliciting and collaborating with our stakeholders, it is crucial that we remember:
1. Our stakeholders may be experiencing a ‘broken window’ moment: The project might be impacting their teams, departments or jobs. They may be seeking to understand the impact, and what the change means for them. They may be experiencing the anxiety of the unknown and the unknowable. Helping them to understand the why of the project is crucial—in fact ensuring that there is a clear and communicated rationale for the project (explaining why it is both desirable and feasible) is fundamental. If we haven’t yet got the why then we should place our efforts there before proceeding. And remember, if they’ve just noticed that “broken window”, the emotions might be quite raw. We might end up experiencing resistance, anger or shock, all of which is entirely understandable, as they contextualise what the project or change means for them. We should be empathetic and give them support and space if they need it.
2. Shared Vocabulary: They may not know what a ‘quarter-light’ is: OK, so it’s unlikely that you’re going to use the phrase “quarter-light”, unless you happen to work for an auto company… But you will almost certainly use some of our industry lingo. In reality, our stakeholders might not know what a business analyst is. Or a process. Or a requirement. Put simply, they might not be familiar with the language of projects and analysis—and we are unlikely to be familiar with the nuances of the language of their role either. Finding shared vocabulary, and working collaboratively (perhaps drawing and building models) can be a great way of fostering this shared understanding. And don’t be afraid to put things in plain terms. Our stakeholders will thank us for it!
I’m pleased to say that my car is now fixed—and if nothing else the experience has spawned this blog post! I hope you have found this perspective interesting/useful, and would love to hear your comments.
What are your views and perspectives, do you have anything to add? I’d love to hear your experiences and tips. Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!
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About the author:
Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.
To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com