Tuesday, 22 January 2019 07:11

Business Analysts…Quit Asking Questions

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I won’t take full credit for this article, as I got a reminder while reading an IIBA Whitepaper authored by Kupe Kupersmith on Empathizing with the Real Customer.

In his whitepaper, Kupe proposes a few newer, non-traditional elicitation techniques, not covered in the BABOK®, business analysts should work into their BA toolkit…one of which is Story Prompts.

What Are Story Prompts?

Story Prompts is an elicitation technique used as an alternative to asking a series of clarifying questions or the 5-Why technique. Instead of questions, prompt your stakeholder to tell you a story about…

As a business analyst you are taught to ask a lot of questions; however, there is a time and place for asking a lot of questions and a time to listen to a story. There is a tendency for stakeholders to feel that you are controlling the conversation when you ask a series of questions; have them follow your train of thought. As an alternative, allow the stakeholder to tell their story in their words and in their train of thought. This may help you to better understand the needs, desires, pains and wants of your stakeholders.

In the whitepaper, Kupe sites the book Business Storytelling for Dummies by Lori L. Silverman and Karen Dietz, PhD:
“Story Prompts have two parts: the front end of the statement and the closing to the statement. The front end starts with a phrase such as, ‘Tell me about. . . ‘. With certain individuals, it may help to say, ‘Tell me about a time when. . .’, or “Tell me about an experience with…”. The word ‘about’ is key in this statement. If you leave it out, all you’re doing is turning a question into a statement (as in Tell me how you . . . or Tell me what you . . .).”


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“The closing portion of a Story Prompt is as critical as the front piece of the statement. Avoid being general. Phrase it in such a way that the person recollects only one or a few memories. This will make it easier for the person to select a story to share with you. For example, instead of saying, “Tell me about that new project you’re working on”, rephrase it as “Tell me about an unforgettable situation that happened to you recently on that new project you’re working on.”

When to Use Story Prompts

There really isn’t a bad time to use Story Prompts. It may be most useful during the early stages of an initiative when definition around the true problem is still vague. Stakeholders may be discussing the solution rather than the problem we are trying to solve or the desired outcome. Then you may want to try “tell me about how you concluded we need that solution.” Or if no solution is being discussed yet, try “tell me about how this problem was identified.”

Making it Work

The key is to listen intently once you have prompted your stakeholder for their story. There are two things different about listening to stories and asking questions:

  • Focus on listening to the story, not taking notes. This may go against your natural instincts as a business analyst, but can you recall any great stories your grandmother told? Did you take detailed notes while she was telling her story? I am guessing not. It is amazing how much you remember by just sitting and listening to a story. You can write down detailed notes after the stakeholder has left.
  • Never interrupt. Again, this may go against your natural business analyst instincts; but let the stakeholder tell the story in their words, without interruption. If you are listening well you will remember the important details of the story. Later, you can determine any follow-up questions you want to ask and schedule a follow-up session with the person.

Conclusion

There is still a time and place for asking a series of questions or using the 5-Why technique. However, every once in a while, try prompting your stakeholder for their story instead of asking a lot of questions. It is a way to show the person that you value them and their point of view. Prompt your stakeholder to tell their story…hard telling what you may learn.

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Aaron Whittenberger

Aaron Whittenberger, CBAP, CSPO is a business analysis consultant in the Cincinnati, Ohio area. He has over 28 years of business and IT experience, including 16 years of business analysis and 15 years of consulting experience. Aaron is an avid Business Analyst, Business Process Analyst, Project Manager, Blogger, Mentor, Trainer and Presenter.  He is a champion for the IIBA®, business analysis as a profession and the recognition of its practitioners.  You may connect with Aaron on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @TheWittyBA

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