Author: Divya Kishore

Business Systems Analyst for a medical device company. Certifications: CSCP CPO

M_SSING Context

Have you ever had a conversation where the context was missing? Have you considered going the extra mile so that everyone has the same viewpoint?

Let us look at the scenario below:

*Person A and B are looking for the same flour brand at a grocery store.

At a grocery store:

Person A: Hello! Would you know in which aisle can I find ABC brand flour?

Store employee: I am sorry, we are out of that brand.

Person A: Thank you!


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*END OF CONVERSATION 1*

At a grocery store:

Person B: Hello! Would you know in which aisle can I find ABC brand flour?

Store employee: I am sorry, we are out of that brand.

Person B: Thank you! Would you know if there are other brands of flour? I need the flour for a craft project.

Store employee: Aisle 15 is where you can find all the brands of flour. Any brand would work since you need it for a craft activity. If you would like, feel free to check aisle 20 for craft supplies.

Person B: Thank you so much!

*END OF CONVERSATION 2*

One requirement yet different experience. For a fruitful conversation, all the participants must have the same understanding. The team must work based on the same set of assumptions. How can you ensure the team is on the same page? Start by asking questions. It is second nature for a business analyst (BA) to ask questions. Asking questions merely to extract information does NOT help uncover the detailed requirements. As a result, lack of details could often lead to misinterpretation and miscommunication.

Here are a few ideas that can get everyone on the same page and their benefits:

1. Provide a brief background about why you are asking the questions.

E.g., Instead of asking the stakeholder what is the current billing process? You can ask, “I would like to understand how is billing done? What are the pain points? What are the components of the process that would need to stay in the new application? Comprehending the as-is state will help understand the gaps and offer solutions.

2. A Business analyst (BA) can ask contextual questions to stakeholders. Stakeholders must reveal details without holding information.

Tip: Share these questions ahead of a conversation with a stakeholder. The stakeholders can organize their thoughts and come up with a list of questions if needed.

Bonus:  A BA can offer alternative solutions if they have the same background as the stakeholders.

3. Providing context paves the way for sharing real-world examples by stakeholders. These use cases aid, everyone, on the team in visualizing the user’s world. Based on the second conversation above, it is evident that there are more use cases to flour than cooking.

4. Let us change gears from the stakeholders and talk about the team. When team members have the same context, they can ask questions amongst themselves to strengthen their understanding.

Conclusion:

Next time around, be it any conversation, make a conscious attempt to explain why you need what you need? That helps the other person understand your perspective and intent. After all, one term can have multiple meanings depending on the context used. The context can change the entire landscape of the conversation.

“For me, context is the key – from that comes the understanding of everything.” – Kenneth Noland.

How to elude the congruent mishap?

It is summer! Time to get home improvement projects done. I came across a social media post that caught my attention. One of my neighbors shared pictures of their recently painted cabinets. The posting included before and after images plus the contractor name (XYZ Company). Impressed, I reached out to the same contractor and requested a painting estimate. In the interim, I reached out to my neighbor to check if I could look at the painted cabinets in person.

Me: The backsplash looks great!
Neighbor: Thanks! XYZ Company did a splendid job!
Me (Surprised): The contractor mentioned to me that they do not do a backsplash.
And the conversation kept continuing. More discrepancies popped up between services communicated to both of us. Nevertheless, we kept discussing the details like the colors, rates, and such.

Light bulb moment:
Me: Is the XYZ Company located in suburb A?
Neighbor: Oh no, they are in suburb B.
There you go! We were talking about two different contractors that have the same name (XYZ Company)!

Bringing this together in the business analysis world:

There are numerous instances when one term may have different meanings. The meaning of these terms can vary depending on the project/stakeholder/organization. Here are a few steps we can take as a business analyst (BA) to avoid going down a rabbit hole in a conversation:

1. Never make assumptions: At the start of a meeting, confirm the facts gathered are accurate. Take this a step further to define the terms or acronyms within the project context.
Example: Part and Product might mean the same for a project. A Part might be a component; A Product might be a finished product in another instance.

2. Ask the right questions: You hear a term come up multiple times in meetings. You know what this term means. Do not stop there! Ask questions. Use your BA skills to draw out contextual details during conversations. Build a complete picture of this term and its significance.
Example: Is this a term that is popular in your organization? Is this a term used in discussions relevant to a specific system? Is this a term used in day-to-day conversations?
In my scenario above, if only I had asked more questions at the beginning. If only I had confirmed the name of the contractor plus the address! It would have saved some time for both of us.

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3. Check-in: Introduce checkpoints to ensure all the team members are on the same page.
Example: Say you see a demonstration of new functionality for a system. A new term has emerged during the meeting. Add this to a dictionary with a definition (definition does not have to be perfect!). Encourage the stakeholders to validate this dictionary at regular intervals. Reviewing these terms towards the end of the project is too late.

4. Highlight it: When sharing meeting notes, include a section for terms and definitions. Add another section for acronyms and their abbreviations. Color code any new terms/words. Highlight updated definitions. Create a list of slang phrases used within the team.
Example: Who knew GOAT did not mean an animal but “Greatest of all time”? Same term but different meaning.

Conclusion:
Have you encountered a situation where the communication was relating to 1-2-3? But the team understood it as 3-2-1? What steps did you take to clear the confusion and get everyone on the same page?

Paraphrasing a quote based on my experience stated above:
XYZ Company was like two sites in the same business, but with different services. So different, yet so similar in their offering

Oblivious or Attentive

I was once demoing the specific functionality of an application. I was looking forward to my favorite part of the meeting: Q&A, but to my surprise, no one uttered a word.  My mind was racing with questions: Was my delivery crystal clear that there were no questions?  Was no one paying attention? Why the silence? Should I have approached the demo differently? I earned great accolades relating to the demo. Yet, the silence was bothering me. When an attendee is quiet, does this translate as unplugged from the conversation? Or are they employing active listening? Let us analyze why the disconnect happens in the first place. Here are a few reasons:

  • Lack of a meeting agenda
  • The facilitator is over-communicating
  • Right people not in the meeting
  • The facilitator is deviating from the scope of the meeting
  • Attendees double-booked at the same time
  • Attendees distracted by things unrelated to the meeting
  • An email could have sufficed instead of a meeting
  • Topic covered in a previous meeting

 What would I do when I am not engaged in a meeting? I may:

  1. Multitask
  2. Stay quiet during the entirety of the meeting
  3. Browse on my smartphone
  4. Turn off my camera

 What would I do if I am engaged in a meeting? I may:

  1. Ask contextual questions based on the topic
  2. Volunteer to work on the action items
  3. Share one-off use cases or exceptions
  4. Assist in decision making
  5. Turn on my camera

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What next?

The cues listed above are not a perfect indicator of engagement during a meeting but watch out for them. What strategy can you adopt during the next demo/meeting? As business analysts, we are Change Agents, experiment with the ideas mentioned below to lead the change:

  • Use virtual whiteboards and invite attendees to collaborate by sharing their ideas
  • Co-present instead of having one team member presenting through the meeting
  • Ask an open-ended question and ask every attendee to articulate their responses
  • Ask for votes from every attendee or create a survey with many options so that everyone can pick one

Conclusion:

Next time watch for those subtle or clear clues during a meeting. Lead meetings that best fit the target audience and are within the scope of the meeting agenda. It is motivating when attendees are not forced but are looking forward to the rendezvous.

“One of the greatest gifts you can give to anyone is the gift of attention” – Jim Rohn.

Resources for the Investigative Analyst: Take your pick!

Being a Business Analyst (BA) is a lot like being an investigative journalist.

You often must dig through lots of seemingly useless information to find the truth that can set you on the right path for your project.

Here are a few frequently overlooked items that you can utilize as resources and analyze to help uncover useful information:

1) Meeting Recordings: What can I gain by listening to a recording? Well, it gives you an opportunity to pause and think through:

  1. What a stakeholder quoted?
  2. What a developer suggested?
  3. What a tester recommended?

These meetings can be analyzed and translated into process flows or current state diagrams. At the very least, by hearing a recording, you are now caught up with what was missed!

2) Presentations: I like to observe how slides are presented and structured during meetings. When slides have an organic progression of a topic, it is easy to follow along. When slides have too much information, I can get lost. Revisiting the slide deck after the meetings can help gain a better understanding of the topic or prompt you to jot down follow up questions. Analyzing the style or format of the slides that the author applied can trigger ideas or suggestions for your next presentation!

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3) Email: Checking your inbox is like a daily chore in our professional and personal lives. What kind of analysis could I perform? Watch for those long email chains that includes all the back-and-forth conversations, they could be a potential input for Responsibility/ RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed) matrix. Yes, it is exhausting to scroll all the way down, but it gives you an understanding of all the stakeholders involved and can provide a fuller perspective.

4) Notes: Missed attending a meeting? Missed recording a meeting? Notes can come to the rescue. Raw or clean notes, they are extremely helpful to get a coworker caught up or can be a memory refresher. In addition, notes can be a powerful input to build decision logs or can feed an action item tracker. Tada, now I know why we did what we did!

5) Chat conversations: I was working on a project one time and there was some confusion about the scope. I recalled I had a casual chat conversation a long time ago relating to the same project with the developer. I searched my chat history and bingo! I was able to pull up what we had chatted about. Fast forward…six months later, this back in the day chat helped the developer and I comprehend what was discussed in the past, what was missed in the previous release and perform a comparative analysis to identify the scope.

6) Artifacts: Grab a document or a diagram that was probably created by a team member or your peer. Study their style and how you can improve your next set of deliverables. Perhaps, it could be an eye opener to how one of the artifacts that you had authored in the past could have been trimmed down by replacing the written content with diagrams instead. 

Conclusion:

Next time, when you are wondering, how to make information gathering more productive, I hope the above ideas can lend a helping hand and prove to be beneficial in your next investigation journey. Remember, it is the little things that can make a big difference or rather the little clues that can lead to the ultimate truth!

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