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Just Because It’s “Obvious” to You, Doesn’t Mean It’s “Obvious” To Me…

I can still remember the elation of passing my driving test here in the UK.  As is the case with many skills, I often say that I really learned to drive in the six months after passing my test—these were the times where I found myself in unexpected situations that you just don’t encounter during driving lessons.

I still have a very vivid memory of going to a petrol (gas) station for the first time. This is something that they just don’t teach you how to do when you learn to drive. I’d seen people fill up thousands of times before, how hard could it be?  Well, after trying to work out which of the confusing array of variants of ‘unleaded’ would be the best one to pick (Regular? Premium? Performance?), I eventually put the nozzle into the fuel tank and pulled the lever. There was an empty clunking sound. Nothing happened, and certainly no fuel flowed..

I tried again, and again a clunk followed by nothing. I could see the queue of people behind me getting increasingly irate as I tried to operate this baffling pump that just didn’t want to work (while simultaneously trying to look like I knew what I was doing). Eventually, a kind fellow-motorist whispered to me from the opposite pump: “You have to press the button to say whether you’re paying at the pump, or paying at the kiosk”.  Right! Got it! This was one of the (then) new-fangled pumps that accepted credit cards. I was back on track.

To this day, I think it’s weird that you can pass a driving test without ever having to have pulled up onto a filling station forecourt, but I suppose there’s an assumption that it’s ‘obvious’ and everyone can do it.  If you’ve been driving for a few years, it really is second nature. You probably know which side your car’s fuel tank is on, roughly how much it costs to fill up, and exactly how close you like to pull up to the pump.  These things are “obvious” to you, but to a new driver they aren’t “obvious” at all, even if they’ve seen the pump used a million times before.


The “Obviousness” Trap

There’s a similar pattern in business analysis and projects. Stakeholders will often omit to say things, not because they are deliberately trying to hide something, but because it’s just so obvious that they don’t even think of it!  This is sometimes referred to as ‘tacit knowledge’ and it can prove a real issue in change initiatives if it is not teased out.  Not least because these ‘tacit’ areas can stop entire processes working if they are not addressed (much like the gas pump example above).

As business analysts we are tourists in the processes and situations that our stakeholders live in daily. We ask questions, we elicit information, but rarely do we know the finite detail —for that we rely on the talented Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).  However, in our role of process-tourist, we need to remain curious, ask probing questions while observing and listening carefully. We need to watch out for the ‘obviousness’ trap—where stakeholders skip over something that is actually important.

A particularly good way of overcoming this can be to observe and shadow stakeholders, gently interrupting them when necessary to ask what they are doing and why.  Observation itself is not enough, as we’re unlikely to understand the nuance, so interjecting when appropriate to ask follow up questions is crucial. Of course, this needs to be done with prior knowledge and agreement of those involved, and it’s important that they are briefed on the nature of the project or initiative (and the role of the BA, else they might worry about why they are being observed!).

Additionally, sitting with relevant stakeholders and creating process models or business use case scenarios can be extremely helpful. These help us to elicit and capture the flow of work, and ask questions about anything that is missing. It can also be helpful to ask what exceptions occur, or whether there are any other alternative flows.  When combined with observation, it is a very powerful technique.


Whatever techniques are used, being aware of things that are obvious to one person but not another is key. Tapping into the tacit knowledge is key!

Adrian Reed

Adrian Reed is a true advocate of the analysis profession. In his day job, he acts as Principal Consultant and Director at Blackmetric Business Solutions where he provides business analysis consultancy and training solutions to a range of clients in varying industries. He is a Past President of the UK chapter of the IIBA® and he speaks internationally on topics relating to business analysis and business change. Adrian wrote the 2016 book ‘Be a Great Problem Solver… Now’ and the 2018 book ‘Business Analyst’ You can read Adrian’s blog at and follow him on Twitter at