Requirements Elicitation

The Obviousness Trap: Double Yellow Lines And The Danger Of Unrecognised Misunderstandings

Progressing change is an inherently human endeavour.  It doesn’t really matter how slick a change ‘process’ is, if people aren’t on-board with a common understanding of what needs to change then the initiative is unlikely to be as successful as it otherwise could have been. One challenge that we face when working with others is… 

What An In-Flight Meal And The Cookie Monster Can Teach Us About Business Analysis

Cookie which says "Anytime Cookie" on the labelI’ve always thought that one of the ‘fun’ parts of travelling by air is the in-flight meal.  When packed in economy, there’s a real art to opening the foil or cellophane wrapped food items without showering the contents over yourself or a fellow passenger.  This is made even more problematic if, like me, you enjoy the occasional beer in the airport before the flight…

 

On a recent trip, I was given the usual choice of chicken or pasta, and alongside the main course there was a cookie.  After ravenously demolishing the main course (I always seem to sit in an area that is last to be served) my attention turned to the cookie—which was curiously labelled as an anytime cookie. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw this as it immediately triggered an image in my mind of the Cookie Monster saying “All cookies are anytime cookies! Me eat cookies all day!”.  But, being the self-confessed BA geek that I am, my thoughts then immediately came back to business analysis and logic

 

As BAs and professionals that help enable value to be created and captured, we deal a lot with logic.  We use models and other ways of communicating that allow us to convey complicated concepts concisely and precisely.  Yet when eliciting information we typically have to rely on everyday language—and if we are not careful these conversations can be filled with tacit assumptions and misunderstandings when we play them back.

Two Useful Additions to a Requirements Package

Expanding Folder

When implementing a new solution within an organisation, communicating and gaining a common understanding of the requirements is crucial. One way of achieving this level of common understanding is to put together a requirements package. The content and style of that package may vary dramatically depending on the organisational context, the nature and size of the problem being solved, and whether the initiative is being delivered in a predictive (waterfall) or adaptive (agile/evolutionary) fashion. Either way, the requirements package is crucial as it helps communicate what the organisation needs.

 

The focus, quite rightly, when putting this together will be on capturing, analysing and validating the needs of the organisation’s stakeholders. The focus will be on articulating these requirements precisely and succinctly – and it is very tempting to focus purely on the requirements. Yet there are other useful items that we might choose to include that can help to remove ambiguity and create clarity.

 

In this article we’ll examine two other items that we might choose to include in our requirements package to help aid understanding. Both are relatively simple, but are easy to overlook:

Always check your blind spot…

Car mirrorEven though it was a long time ago, I can still vividly remember passing my driving test and earning my licence.  I can recall driving back to the test centre, parking up, and receiving the good news.  I can still remember the examiner’s name, the fact that it was a sunny day, and I can even remember which parking bay I pulled into.  It was a significant day for me– especially since I didn’t pass the first (or even second) time, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I had what seemed like hundreds of hours of tuition before I finally passed.

 

Although my memory of each individual driving lesson has faded, I can still vividly remember my driving instructor drumming into me the importance of checking your blind spot before making a manoeuvre.   A quick glance out of the side window, followed by a glance over your shoulder helps avoid accidents.   Every driver and every car has ‘blind spots’ and if you rely on looking in mirrors and the windscreen alone, you might end up ruining the paint job on your car, or worse….

 

This idea of ‘blind spots’ can be applied to other areas of life too.  Incidentally, I’m told that fashion is one of my personal ‘blind spots’ – apparently the Hawaiian shirts that I wear on the weekend are so last millennium (who would have known?!)  More importantly, these blind spots can cause real problems in projects and in purchasing decisions.

 

A common project ‘blind spot’: Full Function Focus

Picture of runway with sign "danger aircraft"

The “obviousness” danger that kills projects

Picture of runway with sign "danger aircraft"

I was recently boarding a flight, and whilst I was waiting to climb the steps to the aircraft, I happened to look around the runway.    I saw, at the edge of the tarmac, what appeared (initially) to be a rather obvious sign.  The sign read “Caution Aircraft”.  I smiled – and I sensed others around me found the sign entertaining too.   In fact, I could hear a couple chuckling behind me – I mean, come on.  It’s a runway.  It’s obvious that there are going to be planes there.  Why on earth would we need a sign to remind us of that?

 

The couple behind me continued to chuckle about the “obviousness” of the sign as we boarded the plane.  As I climbed the steps and boarded, curiosity got the better of me and I looked down from the steps.  From this new vantage point, I noticed that the tarmac was buzzing with activity.  Not only were there planes, but there were trucks carrying fuel, buggies carrying luggage, food delivery vans and more.   When planes landed, these support vehicles rushed over to get them ready for the next flight.  Many of these support vehicles seemed to come onto the tarmac around where the sign was located, so presumably the sign was a ‘reminder’ for vehicles that were entering an active part of the runway. With this in mind, perhaps the sign was reminding them of something that might seem obvious from some vantage points – but something that is crucially important.  The sign only looked obvious from our perspective because we were looking from the tarmac outwards.  If you were driving onto the tarmac from a support road, it might not be clear where the road finishes and the airfield begins.   What’s blindingly obvious from one perspective might not be intuitive or “obvious” at all from other perspectives. 

 

The danger of “obviousness” on projects.

Figure at red intersection of arrows

More data doesn’t (always) mean more insight: The old chestnut of “MI Requirements”

Figure at red intersection of arrowsI hazard a guess that many of us have worked in organisations where data is, quite understandably, seen as the crucial “life blood”.  Data can be an important asset that not only keeps the operation ticking over but also drives informed decision making.  Not only can good quality data help us to benchmark organisational (and individual) performance, it also helps us to spot trends and anticipate future customer needs.  Managers and executives need reliable and accurate data to make tactical and strategic decisions—and in some cases this may lead to repeated requests for more and more data.  We might find that a mini-industry is created in crafting internal “Management Information” reports, often involving triangulating data from multiple, disparate systems, with an associated risk of error.   We may well initiate projects to automate the creation of reports so that we can get them to our stakeholders quicker, faster and in greater quantity.

 

This addiction to data is understandable – after all, organisations need to rationalise and justify the decisions they make.   Whether a company is multinational, mid-size or even a small entrepreneur, it’s vital to know how things are performing and where improvements can be made.   However, there’s a real danger that a dependency on misleading data can lead to delays, indecision and could even damage decision making.  Put simply, more data doesn’t always create more insight.  And this has a significant impact for businesses, projects and business analysis.

Drawing of people waiting in an airport

A muddy airport floor and the forgotten link: People and Process

Drawing of people waiting in an airportI don’t know about you, but one of my least favourite parts of travelling by air is the experience of queuing for security.  I understand that it’s necessary, but the queues always seem so long, and inevitably the process involves removing shoes, belts and other random items of clothing.  Not only this, I clearly must look suspicious as I always seem to get singled out for a more thorough ‘pat down’ – which is never the most pleasant of experiences.

 

I was travelling back after a business trip recently, and I entered the dreaded security queue.  I was travelling with hand-luggage only, so I knew I needed to separate out my overnight bag (which contained liquids, deodorant etc) for inspection separately.  I knelt down to open my bag to grab my liquids, and when I stood up I was absolutely caked in mud.  I couldn’t believe it – the floor was so dirty that if you touched it the mud would cling like a magnet!

 

I was extremely surprised.  Being a keen Twitter user, I thought I’d give the airport some instant feedback.  They probably weren’t aware – perhaps a cleaner was off sick.  I won’t mention the airport, but I tweeted:

 

“You need to clean the floor in the security queuing area. I kneeled down and my suit trousers are now caked in dirt!”

 

I forgot about this, brushed myself down, boarded my flight and got on with some work.  When I landed, my phone chirped as I’d received a reply.  However, rather than looking to resolve the issue, the airport staff tweeted me back to describe how “challenging” it is to keep the surfaces clear (!).  I would have assumed that they would have used the insight I provided them to provide feedback to the cleaners or the cleaning manager – but it seems they didn’t, they just offered an excuse. An opportunity for continuous improvement was missed.  What a shame!

 

What this means for business and business analysis

Now, you might think I’m being rather self-indulgent by blogging about my airport gripes…and you might well be right… but there’s a serious point to be made about business and business analysis here.

Picture of a magic roundabout ride with horses

The Magic Roundabout and the importance of the Glossary

It’s not often that printed driving directions grab my attention, yet it happened a few weeks ago.   I was planning a trip to Cardiff, and since I don’t know the area well, I decided to check out and the route online.  Although I have sat-nav, I always like to have a vague idea of where I’m going, so I print driving directions as a back-up.    I was reading through the directions, and I noticed the following step:

 

“Cross the Magic Roundabout, 2nd exit”

 

Wow – I’m going to be crossing the magic roundabout.  That sounds pretty exciting, right?  Well, maybe….

 

For me the phrase “Magic Roundabout” conjured up two images.  Firstly, a stop-motion animated children’s TV program from the 1970s, and secondly a rather famous and complex road junction in Swindon.  Assuming that the likelihood of this “magic roundabout” being related to the 1970s TV show was extremely low, I made the assumption that it must be a frighteningly complex junction.   You know the type – a busy junction that only locals can traverse, and visitors use at their peril.  A shudder went down my spine as I imagined having to traverse this seemingly increasingly complex junction after a long journey.

 

Picture of a magic roundabout ride with horses

Would it be like this?

Traffic sign: Magic Roundabout Swindon. A complex junction, with a central roundabout and many orbital roundabouts.

Or like this?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having set this expectation very firmly in my mind, the reality was somewhat more—well—glacial. It transpired that the magic roundabout in Cardiff was rather less ‘magic’ than I had been anticipating. It was nowhere near as complex as the ‘magic roundabout’ in Swindon, which was the benchmark I had been expecting, and in many ways, given its surreal nature, it shared more in common with the 1970s TV show!  In short, it was a normal roundabout with some interesting art on it.   My presumptions and expectations had been altogether wrong.  I later passed it on foot and took a picture:

Magic Roundabout Cardiff -- A traffic roundabout with artwork made from road signs on it

The *actual* magic roundabout in Cardiff

3 Elicitation Techniques You Can Do Without Stakeholder Access

I’m pleased to say that one of my recent blog articles has been published on “Bridging-the-gap.com”, where I have contributed as a guest author. I’d love to hear what you think, so please take a look and add a comment.   Excerpt: Imagine the scene: A significant project is underway, and you are leading the…