Monday, 16 May 2011 14:48

Asking the Right Question – “Chicken or Egg” Answered

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One of the fundamental skills of a business analyst is asking the right question to the right person in order to get to the bottom of an issue. The method of getting to this point is a case of breaking down the issue to an elemental level. To prove this concept we shall attempt to answer the age old question: "Which came first the chicken or the egg?"

Chicken? Or Egg?

The three basic factors in this question are the time, a chicken and an egg.

First, let's validate our assumptions about all three using an expert source, in this case we shall use a universally accepted authority, a dictionary:

  • Time: the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole
  • Chicken: a common domestic fowl
  • Egg: an oval or round membrane laid by a female bird, reptile, fish, or invertebrate, usually containing a developing embryo.

While the Time and Chicken are defined to a reasonable level, the egg definition contain, challenges to our assumptions; i.e. to lay an egg, you don't have to be a chicken.

Since an egg can be laid by another species other than a chicken (e.g. a dinosaur or crocodile) the answer to our original question would clearly be the egg.

In order to avoid any ambiguity we might then ask our stakeholder, does the original question regard a chicken egg? If the answer is "Yes", then we need to look more closely at the definition of a chicken egg. We could ask the stakeholder: "Does the egg need to be fertilised to count as an egg?"

Once again, we would refer to a medical definition;

"An animal reproductive body consisting of an ovum together with its nutritive and protective envelopes and having the capacity to develop into a new individual capable of independent existence"

The egg is defined as the membrane that has the capacity to support the growth of a chicken embryo and therefore it does not require a fertilised embryo of a chicken to make it a chicken egg. Therefore, because a chicken egg can be made with out a chicken laying it or emerging from it the chicken does not yet exist.

As a chicken egg can exist without a chicken, it must be concluded that the egg must have come first.

To summarise the process above, you need to break down the question to its core components:

  • Identify the contributing stakeholders/factors
  • Agree definition of factors
  • Identify assumptions
  • Challenge assumptions
  • Define key questions
  • Answer key questions in order to validate the assumptions

Once the smaller/simpler questions have been answered, an overall answer or solution may be built. It is important to note that the more critical you are of your own assumptions the more creative scope the solution has. In other words, it results in 'out the box thinking' that will get you a reputation as an ideas person; this is someone everyone wants on their project team.

The basic premise of breaking down problems is not new or revolutionary, but applying structure gives the process scalability so any problem can be solved regardless of size and complexity. The above can be used with challenges you are currently facing, but also with challenges, you believe you've overcome (did you really overcome them, or was the issue only temporarily dealt with?)

As business analyst, it's our job to find out what the business needs and sometimes the needs are in contradictory. Plato once said "Necessity is the mother of invention". Since the business analyst must identify the necessity, the business analyst must have a hand in the invention.

Don't forget to leave your comments below.


Michal Mintowt-Czyz is a Business Analyst for the Principality Building Society. He has worked in the financial sector as a BA for 6 years and has conducted analysis throughout Europe and South East Asia. 

Email: Michal.Mintowt-Czyz@principality.co.uk

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