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Author: Kelly Burroughs

Eliciting Requirements: It’s Not Just What We Ask That Matters!

A lot of times when we meet with a subject matter expert to elicit requirements, the focus is on the questions we ask, and the answers they provide.  We ask them what they do when this happens, or what they do when that happens. We ask them to tell us the actors involved and what the process is when something goes right, or what the process is when something goes wrong.

We guide them as we need to – nodding our head in agreement when they have hit an important point, or raise our hand to stop them and ask for more information.  Or sometimes, we may just sit and record notes – typing away on our laptops or quickly jotting down answers in our trusty notepad.

But one aspect of eliciting requirements that seems rarely touched upon is the non-verbal side of these interviews – in other words, how we ourselves present ourselves to our subject matter experts – and in return, how they perceive us.

In everyday life, how do you carry yourself?

Well, you might answer that there isn’t just one answer – and that how we carry ourselves often depends on the situation we’re in.


At home watching TV? You’re probably slouched in your favourite chair, arms behind your head,  a large yawn escaping your tired jaws  – probably relaxing after a hard day on the whiteboard mapping out an overly complicated business process.

Outside talking to your neighbour? Well if it’s one you get along with, you’re probably hunched slightly forward, wildly gesticulating as you talk about your exciting day getting sign-off on your most recent functional requirements document. Or maybe if you don’t quite get along with them, you’re standing stiffly with your arms instinctually crossed, sternly asking them to please keep their dog off your lawn.

Point being that we often forget that communication is a lot more than just verbal, but it is largely non-verbal as well. It’s how we hold our arms, hold our posture, sit in a chair, express our faces, hold our poise, or move our hands that can actually communicate the most.

 And that’s why when we’re meeting with our subject matter experts that we need information from in order to successfully do our jobs – we should not only be good at verbal communicating, but also non-verbal communication. Remember, that people are largely visual when assessing a situation – so how we present ourselves and conduct ourselves during an interview is just as important as the questions we ask in that interview.

So what types of non-verbal communication can be used when interviewing subject matter experts?

Eye Contact

Eye contact can be tricky – give too much and you can come across too aggressive or  like you are trying to have a staring contest, but give too little and you can come across disinterested. Finding a balance is key, because maintaining eye contact is key to keeping the person talking. Eye contact lets the other person know you’re interested in what they are saying and encourages them to stay engaged in the conversation.  If you want to maximize the time you have with the interviewee, be sure to lean forward into the conversation, establish eye contact from the beginning, and maintain it throughout the meeting at a comfortable level. Remember that it’s important to take notes, but it’s more important to maintain eye contact and display your interest – you would be surprised how much more information people are willing to share when you do so.

Express Yourself

Have you ever sat and spoke to someone who just sat there motionless staring at you? It’s not a good feeling, and worse – it does nothing to invite you into the conversation. Facial expressions let the other person know how you feel about what they are saying – a smile lets them know you agree, whereas a furrowed brow might let them know you don’t.  Be aware of the expressions you are making during the meeting and try to keep them positive – and don’t be afraid to use your hands either. Gesticulating is one of the strongest forms of non-verbal communication and can be used to bring a dull conversation back to life.

Watch Your Posture

When I was younger, my mother was constantly telling me to sit-up straight and pull my shoulders back – and now I see why. Posture is one of the most telling signs that a person is interested in something or not.  Start to slouch, and your interview may quickly follow.

Stay Poised

Staying poised can be hard to do if you’re not prepared – which is why it’s so important to do your research ahead of time, know the questions you’re going to ask, and have a plan in place for how you want the meeting to proceed. Being poised means being confident, and being confident means that the other person is going to feel more relaxed talking to you. Have you ever been in a meeting where the person leading is nervous, unorganized and seems unsure about what to say? It’s uncomfortable to watch. Keep your poise, keep your interviewees confident in you, and you’re more likely to get the answers you need.

Having said all of this, we need to recognize that non-verbal communication and the levels to which you display it, are different for everyone. Extroverts for instance might gesticulate a lot more naturally, but perhaps introverts come across more poised since they are more likely to research and prepare endlessly before the meeting.  The important thing is to be aware of non-verbal communication and the effect it has on the people you are meeting with. Sometimes we only get one or two meetings with our subject matter experts to get all the information we need – so it’s important to remember that not only do we need good verbal communication, but also good non-verbal communication. Doing so will help you keep your actions positive, keep your meeting attendees engaged, and help you to get the information you need. 

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Change Management; What Exactly is Buy-In?

When it comes to change management, the term ‘buy-in’ is tossed around the office like a baseball around the diamond in a pre-game warm-up. It is a term used to indicate the need to convince everyone to get on board the change train, as it is destined for great things. But I find this term funny, because it indicates the change has already been decided, the train is leaving and I better get on or…well stay behind. And then we wonder why there is resistance to change.

But what if change was not something that was imposed on people, but was something they themselves came up with?

So many times I have worked on a project where a decision is made at an executive level, and then announced to the business with a fancy PowerPoint slide show, a few bullets about what the benefits will bring, and the overall concluding message of “we are doing this regardless, so you better get on board”.  And then we wonder why there is resistance to the change. But the fact is, if you make the decision to change without first asking the people the change will affect most, chances are pretty good there will be a defensive and resistant reaction.

One example that comes to mind is a company that decided to reorganize the entire organization without telling the employees until a company wide meeting was called one morning. Employees shuffled in, took their seats and found staring back at them, a man dressed up in a bear costume and fireman’s helmet, there to put out the ‘fire’ (and make the PowerPoint presentation). Needless to say, the reaction from the employees was not a good one (and going into the many reasons why might just be another article all on its own). In the end the meeting was not a productive one and, in fact, put many employees on the defensive about their job security and their role within the company. Everyone left more confused than when they had  arrived, and nobody remembered any of the benefits listed within the PowerPoint presentation (but will probably remember the bear costume for life!).

But what happens if you skip the fancy PowerPoint slide show, and get the non-IT folk to come up with the idea in the first place? Would there still be resistance?

People have a tendency to want to own things – whether it be their house, car, yacht, or the job they perform on a day to day basis. Because to many people a job is a set of daily routines and procedures they have become accustomed to doing on a daily basis; and more than that, have become very good at.  To then introduce change into that daily routine without consulting or involving them, is the equivalent of stealing their car from their driveway and trading it in for something new, without asking them. Now some people might be happy with a new car, but many people would resist the new car and want their old one back. Maybe they wouldn’t like the colour because they didn’t pick it, or maybe they didn’t really want the upgrade to a sunroof because they once had a bad experience sticking their heads through one. Maybe they just did not like the fact that the decision to get a new car was not theirs. And there is no difference with change in the workplace.  If you just suddenly take something away from somebody and replace it with something that you may think is better, you can almost be guaranteed they will find something wrong with it, and NOT think it better.

So then, how should change be introduced?

How about driving the change from a lower level? With so many change initiatives coming from the top of an organization, you constantly have a top-down channel of communication, which often puts those on the bottom on the defensive. How many times have we heard in reaction to a change: “Why do we need that? What is wrong with the way I do my job now?’ But what if what if those who would be most affected by the change were approached at the start and asked things like:

  • So what currently holds you up in your job?
  • Is there anything you do now that is completely manual?
  • Is there anything in the current process that you think should be changed which might make it easier for you to do your job?
  • Would you like to be involved in looking at new software for what you do?

Would they then see it as change, or would they maybe see it as something they can own, or do, to improve their jobs?

To me, getting others in the business to see the issues, own the issues and then, because of it, want to be part of the solution is the key to incorporating change into a company. It is surprising how often people are willing to be a part of projects, if they are just given the chance to get in at the start. But to be just told they are on a project, which ultimately affects their job, is often times a setback right from the beginning.

There will always be those who think making the decision and then showing the fancy PowerPoint presentation with the benefits of the solution is the answer to introducing change. But to me, change should never have to be introduced to the business – it should be generated upwards from the business. Getting people to realize the problems themselves, and come up with the solution themselves, will almost always work because people take pride in what they own and want to make their ideas work. Because remember; there is very little difference between ‘change’ and being ‘creative’. The only difference lies in where the direction comes from. You tell somebody to do something and they cringe at ‘change’, but if you get them to come up with the idea themselves they are ‘creative’, and will take pride in being so.

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Kelly Burroughs is a Business Analyst/Project Manager for Halsall Associates, a professional services engineering company. She has several years experience in implementing larger scale technology changes into businesses, as both a business analyst and a project manager. She can be reached at [email protected].