We ask a whole variety of types of questions throughout the business change lifecycle—some help us understand why a particular change is necessary, others help us understand the nature of problematic situations and potential causes, others help us better understand stakeholder needs—and of course there are many more besides. Stated like this it sounds easy. After all, what could be easier than just asking a few questions? That sounds like trivial work, surely?
However, as I suspect most people reading this would attest to, it is anything but trivial and in some contexts it can be very tricky indeed. This can particularly be the case when we are dealing with a group of stakeholders who have a greater depth of knowledge of a particular domain than we do. Of course, as business analysts, it’s important that we have or gain sufficient domain knowledge for the particular assignment, but there will always be domain subject matter experts who have in depth knowledge that we don’t. We might have a good understanding of how a financial services company operates, but there will still be many specialists (including actuaries, compliance, legal representatives and many others) who have deep knowledge that we will need to tap into. This can lead to a nerve-wracking situation where we want to ask questions that we fear will seem so obvious to our stakeholders. Particularly if we are faced with a group of senior experts, we might hear our internal voice saying “You can’t ask that! You’ll lose all credibility”.
The Importance of Being Prepared: Research
Credibility is an important consideration, and it is crucial that we do our homework before engaging in these types of situations. If we’re parachuted into a new domain, spending time reading through everything that we can get our hands on can help us to get up to speed. This might involve scanning through existing project document, intranet sites and also broader internet research. Personally, I find it very useful to put together a personal ‘glossary’, highlighting terms that are relevant for the particular project, and also those terms that seem problematic. This is also a great place to capture department-specific acronyms that might cause confusion.
A broad desk-based fact-finding exercise can often help shape the questions that we ask. We start to get a sense of the context, the goals of the projects and the stakeholders. We start to uncover ‘unknown unknowns’ (things that were completely off our radar), and we can better prepare for workshops and interviews.
Having the Courage to Ask
It is far easier to feel confident with this type of adequate preparation. As the old adage goes “to fail to prepare is to prepare to fail”, and it is amazing the effect that quick, targeted preparation can have. In particular, having created a ‘rough and ready’ personal glossary (which may end up forming part of a project glossary), it can be easier to spot when people are using a particular term differently than we expected. This might mean that we have misunderstood the meaning or that different stakeholders have different understandings. This is one example of where asking the obvious can be very beneficial. Take a term like “customer”. I mean it’s obvious what we mean by customer, isn’t it? Or is it…?
In reality this is one term that is often used very loosely in organizations, and there can be inadvertent clashes in communication. Imagine a hotel that hires meeting rooms to a training company. Who is the customer? Is it the person that makes the reservation (the administration team at the training company), the person that is invoiced (the accounts payable team at the training company), the person who runs the training (a freelance trainer) or the people attending the training (independent delegates). Depending on your perspective it could be any—or all—of these. If different stakeholders were using this term it would be important to determine which they meant! This is anything but obvious.
Of course, seemingly ‘obvious’ questions are not limited to clarifying terms and stopping crossed communication. Sometimes asking seemingly simple questions (“Can you tell me who uses that output?”) will uncover that certain tasks can be optimized for efficiency (“Turns out nobody does, let’s not produce it!”). When these types of questions are asked sensitively—with a foundation of domain knowledge and research—it can help increase our credibility as we add clarity to the situation and help co-create improvement.
So, whilst some of us might find it nerve-wracking to ‘ask the obvious’, it is absolutely crucial that we do so. We might just prevent a major miscommunication and help facilitate a much better collective understanding of the situation!