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Tag: Techniques

Lost in Translation: The Perils of Ambiguity in Business Communication

In recent years, I’ve traveled a lot less than I did before the pandemic. One thing this has led to is me seeing processes and practices with fresh eyes. When you travel regularly, the novelty wears off and a sort of ‘autopilot’ kicks in, and a period of not traveling means that everything is less familiar and more open to scrutiny.

I was recently thinking about the questions that are commonly asked when checking in bags before a flight. I can’t even remember if these questions are asked verbally any more, or if there’s some sort of sign or declaration, but there certainly used to be questions such as:


  • “Have you left the bag unattended at any time?”
  • “Did you pack the bag yourself?”


I suspect, like many people, if you were asked these questions a semi-autopilot would kick in and you’d say ‘no’ without thinking. After all, presumably these questions are aimed at catching smugglers or criminals of some other type. The questions almost seem redundant for ‘normal’ people.

Let’s examine one of the questions, as I think some of the patterns here are important for business and business analysis more generally….


What does “unattended” mean?

Let’s take the first question (“have you left the bag unattended?”).  This question is, upon examination, really quite vague.  In fact, I’m pretty sure the actual question airport staff is more specific, but humor me and let’s imagine they ask it in this way.

A first challenge is what the word ‘unattended’ means to one person might be quite different to another.  Take the following situations, do you consider them to mean that the baggage has been left ‘unattended’?


  • You’ve just taken a connecting flight and have had to re-check your bags. Your bags have been handled by baggage handlers, and have been left unattended in the hold of the plane
  • You traveled to the airport by bus. The bags were in the baggage compartment of the bus and you didn’t have access to them during the three hour bus ride. There were several stops along the way where passenger bags were loaded/unloaded. Anyone could have accessed your bag at those times.
  • You drove to the airport. It was a long drive so you stopped for gas and a meal. Your car was parked in a car park for over an hour
  • You traveled as a group in two taxis. Your bag was in the other taxi, accompanied by your friends but not you


It’s tricky, isn’t it? Technically, if you’ve checked your bags into a previous flight, they have been unattended for a period of time. Yet, you’d likely say ‘no’ to this question… because you know that this isn’t a circumstance that actually counts as ‘unattended’.  I suppose as travelers we intuitively know what’s being asked and what matters. Or at least we think we do…

After all, if we were to literally interpret the question “have you left your bag unattended at any time?” then there is no way that ‘no’ would be a valid answer. Of course it’s been left unattended at some times… when it’s in the closet not being used!




Beyond Airports: Why Definitions Matter

You probably don’t work in an airport, so might be wondering why I’m obsessing over the wording of a check-in question. This pattern of ambiguity potentially leading to misunderstandings, confusion or (more usually) people making assumptions is rife in organizations and projects too.

Much like the term ‘unattended’ has ambiguity attached, other seemingly ‘obvious’ terms can be problematic. Take the word ‘customer’, it sounds clear, doesn’t it? Perhaps you’ve even written a requirement or user story which articulates what a customer can do.  Yet even such a simple-sounding word leaves room for ambiguity. For example:


  • Does someone have to have already bought something to be considered a ‘customer’? Or does the term ‘customer’ include prospects/people in the buying pipeline too? Or do there need to be two terms, ‘prospect’ and ‘customer’?
  • If the person paying for a product/service is different from the person using/benefiting from it, which one is the customer? Are they both customers?
  • Is the term used to mean internal as well as external customers?
  • Are there different customer types? Does a requirement or story apply to all types or only some types of customer?


Things can get even more complicated than this. Who is the ‘customer’ of the judicial system, the prison service, and so on. It very much depends on who you ask, which is why it is important to actually ask the question!


Definitions Make For Concise Requirements And Stories

This comes back to a key point that is (sadly) often overlooked: definitions matter. A glossary might not be considered a new or exciting artifact, but it can really help ensure people are on the same page. With a clear and shared understanding of key terms, requirements and stories can be more concise.

A small investment in a shared glossary can save lots of time in the long run. Starting early is the most effective way of doing this. And believe me, if you don’t create one, there will come a point in time where you wish you had!





Have You Considered “Customer Information Needs” In Your Process?

A while ago, I was sitting in an airport where all flights were delayed due to weather. As is quite often the case in situations like this, staff at the gate initially don’t have a great deal of information available to them. In my experience, airport staff will do everything they can to keep customers updated, but sometimes they seem to know little more than the passengers (and are probably every bit as eager to know what is going on!).

What has changed in the last ten or so years is that getting information from outside sources is a lot easier. While some people were lining up to speak to the gate staff, others were accessing apps to try to piece together what was going on.  For example:


  • Using a flight tracking app, I could see planes that were previously in a ‘holding pattern’ above had now changed direction (very likely they were diverting to other airports)
  • Looking at other airports’ websites, I could see flights destined for this location due to leave hours ago had not left (presumably as the weather had been forecast). I concluded this might cause a problem, as even if the weather clears, the aircraft and staff won’t be here to conduct the onward/return flights (and even if they are, perhaps the flight crew might have exceeded the number of hours they are allowed to work without a break)
  • Looking out of the window, I could see that the weather appeared to be getting worse, not better…
  • When I accessed a hotel booking app, I could see hotels in the area starting to sell out of rooms. I started to worry that if the flight was canceled, there wouldn’t be anywhere to stay


The airport and gate staff were incredibly helpful, to the extent that they could be, but the only information they could really give is “flight delayed: next update in an hour”.  The irony was that a consumer had access to more information via free smartphone apps than the airport representative was able to share.

I made a decision to stick with it, but assumed that I probably wasn’t going anywhere that day. My prediction came true, and after a mad scramble I thankfully did get a hotel room for the night and flew late the next afternoon.




Customers Need Information

It will come as no surprise that for customers to have a good experience of a service, they need accurate information at key times. If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, you’ve probably found most airports are pretty efficient at managing routine information flow. There might be hundreds of other flights leaving on the same day, but it’s usually pretty easy to know what terminal and gate you’re leaving from. Airports are usually also pretty good at getting people to the gate on time (even if they occasionally pretend they are ‘boarding’ long before the plane is actually boarding in order to get people moving…). Issues sometimes occur when things aren’t going as planned.  This is where you have to rely on someone announcing something over a loudspeaker system, often in a noisy airport, where everyone is desperately trying to work out what is going on…


What is perhaps less obvious is that someone has designed how and when information flows to the customer. The “happy path” (where things go well) is a well-trodden and well-designed path. Perhaps some other exceptional paths are less well-designed, meaning customers are less likely to get the prompt information that they need.


Consider Information Needs

This is an area where BAs can add significant value. Quite often, the focus will be on designing a customer journey or set of business processes. That is a perfectly good approach, but at each step in a journey or process it is worth asking “what information might the customer need here” and “how can we deliver it to them?” This applies as much to the exception flows as the main “happy path”.  Often exceptions are where those “moments of truth” happen where a customer really relies on good service.

Not only this, but if a customer’s information needs are preempted, this will likely prevent queries. Imagine an announcement at an airport:

“This is an announcement for people on flight BMXXXX to Southampton.  All flights are currently grounded due to weather conditions, and all incoming flights are being diverted. We currently hope to run the flights, but right now we can’t be sure. We will be updating you every hour, and a final decision will be made at 9pm.  If we don’t fly today, you’ll get a free place on a flight tomorrow, which will be automatically allocated (you won’t need to take any action, you’ll get it via email).  If you’d prefer to voluntarily change your flight, come and see us and we’ll explain how to do this, but please do be aware a fee may apply if you opt to change before the flight is canceled”.


This isn’t perfect but it would help a passenger make a decision. It has preempted the decision they might want to make and has provided them some context.

Of course, you probably don’t work in an airport, but you almost certainly work to define and design processes that are used by people. By considering what information those people want and need during the process, in both the “happy path” and in exceptional circumstances, we can enhance the experience. And surely that is worth doing!



Best of BATimes: 7 Warning Signs that You Are Too Soft

Simple question: Do you believe that you tend to be too soft at work?


What I mean by too soft is demonstrating behavior that results in being consistently less effective than what is otherwise possible—and needed—in performing responsibilities.

Whenever I ask this question at conferences, seminars or webinars, most people respond with a “yes.” From experience, I have found most project managers and business analysts, indeed, to be too soft—they are not willing to make the tough and unpopular project- or business analyst-related decisions, even though their instincts warn them that they are not taking the most effective action.

Being too soft harms your effectiveness, your career, the respect from others and your ability to make a difference and make things happen.

Examples of Too-Soft Behavior

Here are seven examples of too-soft behavior. Do you see yourself here? If so, this article may cause you to leave your comfort zone.

1. You behave as if you have the responsibility but without the authority

If you behave as if you have the responsibility but without the authority, then you’re too soft. I do face time with thousands of people each year. I frequently hear project managers and business analysts say that they have the responsibility but not the authority. This just isn’t true. You almost always have the authority; the problem is that you don’t take it.

Here’s an example. When was the last time you were called on the carpet—challenged—for exceeding your authority? Was it within the last week? The last month? The last year? Was it ever? My experience is that less than 15% of people in a large group—a statistically valid size group—have ever experienced being confronted for exceeding their authority. This is sad to me. But what is sadder is that, statistically, most people reading this article will never experience being called out on exceeding their authority across their entire career! My assertion is that you almost always have the authority—you just don’t seize it… you’re too soft.

2. You put off insisting on and driving good project management or business analyst practices

Whether I’m in a public setting or at a private company, it’s common for PMs or BAs to approach me for advice about their project problems. During the discussion, many times it’s relevant for me to ask about the project management or BA practices that they follow. I often hear them say that the practices they follow are weak and insufficient. They will state or imply that management in their organizations isn’t doing enough to provide and continuously improve the practices.

I’ll ask them what their role on the project is and they will tell me that they are the PM or a BA. If you are in either of these roles, then insisting on and driving good practices is your job. Not management’s. Not anybody else’s. It’s your domain of responsibility. You can seek help if you need to but the buck stops with you. If you do not insist on reasonable practices then you’re too soft.



3. You complain rather than constructively work issues to closure

I don’t believe that you should ever complain about anything—ever! Complaining is negative energy and adds no value to solving the issue at hand. People who complain are exhibiting too-soft behavior by averting truly getting the problem fixed. But make sure you understand what I mean by complaining. An example of complaining is when person A complains to person B about something that person C can fix. In this case, person A just wasted his time and person’s B’s time. However, if person A “complains” so-to-speak to person C—the person who can fix the problem—then this is not complaining to me. This is the first step of the solution by informing the person who can do something about it.

4. You evade taking a position on issues

If you evade taking a position on an issue, you’re too soft. A role of leaders is to help resolve conflict among team members. They take appropriate business-based positions on issues even if it doesn’t please all parties. Let’s look at an example.

I was mentoring Sarah who was a project manager of a sizeable project. We were walking through a hallway heading to a room where a meeting was soon to take place. We come upon two team leaders—Laura and Larry—discussing an issue in the hallway. Actually, discussing is too kind of description; they were angry at each other and loudly protesting the other’s views. Upon seeing this, Sarah leaned in to me and asked if I would mind if we join in on their discussion. Sarah said we have a few minutes before we must be in the meeting room. I said that that’s a good idea and we joined the two team leaders. After standing with the two team leaders and listening for a few minutes, Sarah turns to me and said we have to go; she did not want to be late for the meeting.

Once we were out of hearing range of the two team leaders, I asked Sarah why she didn’t say anything back there to help resolve the conflict. Sarah said if she had sided with one team leader then the other team leader would have been upset with her. I said that’s not how it works. Besides you now have both people upset with you because you did not assert your authority and help find an appropriate resolution. I went on to tell her if she sided with Laura and that left Larry upset with her, that’s not her problem—it’s Larry’s problem. I said never avoid taking a position because you fear that someone won’t like you. This is business, it’s not personal. Decisions are made based on what’s in the business’ best interest; not what’s in Larry’s best interest. Here again, Sarah was too soft in dealing with this situation which meant she was not as effective as she could be and should be.

5. You avoid or excessively delay making key decisions

Decision making is a critical action in any team, project or organization. We all have experienced instances where we felt decisions were being made far too slow. Make sure that you aren’t the problem. If you avoid or excessively delay making key decisions then this is another example of demonstrating too-soft behavior.

If you wait to make a decision until all data is known to ensure that you are making the very best decision, then you will lose all competitiveness. Better to make a decision and occasionally be wrong, then make no decision or excessively delay in making the decision.

6. You fail to perform your assignment as if you own the business

When you look around you for the people who you respect the most, they are likely folks who come to work each day with the mindset that they perform their duties as if they owned the business—and the business is defined by their domain of responsibility. If you have ever owned your own company, you will know exactly what I mean. You cannot put food in your belly or pay your bills unless you are successful. It’s this passion that helps people achieve their best. These are people who make things happen.

They believe—and their actions demonstrate—that the buck stops here and that they are fully accountable for the project or their assigned domain. Your boss and your senior management want you to take charge over your domain of responsibility with the passion that comes about when you behave as if you owned the business. If you hesitate or routinely pull back then, again, you are demonstrating too-soft behavior.

7. You require the personal approval of others to function

You are too soft if you personally require the approval of those around you to function from day-to-day—and without it you feel inadequate—then you will likely find their behavior to have an immobilizing effect on you; it can stop you in your tracks. Don’t ever give that kind of power to another person. What other people think of you should never be more important than what you think of yourself.

In Closing…

I have revealed seven examples of too-soft behavior. If you routinely exhibit these too-soft behaviors, then you’re clearly too soft—you tend to take the easy way out rather than do the right thing by demonstrating the most effective behavior. If you only occasionally slip into this behavior, then that may not be a serious cause for alarm.

If you fear that not being too soft will cause you to be “too hard” and therefore you will be seen as being rude, insensitive, abrasive, arrogant or a bully… don’t go there. You are a good and decent person and will not give way to these behaviors.


You might be asking yourself if an upside of demonstrating too-soft behavior is that you might win friends and respect? After all, if you are consistently too soft, those you work with will see you as very easy to get along with and passive—you’re always rolling over and abdicating to others. The problem is that if you’re a leader and are consistently demonstrating too-soft behavior, you will lose respect from those you lead, and from your peers and from your superiors. Being too soft will also have a negative effect on your project’s outcome because the best business decisions are not always made or made in a timely manner. All this can lead to your career becoming stagnant or even shortened.

Now, go become your imagined self!


Published on February 28, 2017.

Back To Basics: Excellent Elicitation

Elicitation is a core business analysis skill, and one that BAs typically utilize daily. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that elicitation is so basic that it doesn’t warrant talking about. Yet, just because it is a core skill doesn’t mean it’s easy, and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Not only this, but elicitation usually involves working with stakeholders, and whenever people are involved there can be inadvertent conflict and contradiction.  Achieving  clarity is rarely easy!  In this article, I’ll address three perspectives of elicitation that you might find useful.


Elicitation As A “Trawling” Activity

In their book Mastering the Requirements Process, James and Suzanne Robertson use the metaphor of trawling to describe elicitation. The idea is, much like a fishing boat with a net trawls for fish, an analyst ‘trawls’ a business area for relevant pieces of information.


Ever since I first heard this metaphor I’ve liked it. Building on the Robertsons’ work and extending the metaphor, we might also say:


  • Where you trawl matters: If you trawl in an area with no fish, you’ll end up with an empty net. The same is true of requirements—ask the ‘wrong’ people and you’ll get very little.
  • The type of net matters: I’d imagine that the type and size of fish you are trying to catch will affect the type of net used. There’s a comparison here with elicitation—the techniques need to vary depending on the context and the types of requirements that you’re looking for. Detailed observation might yield very in-depth requirements, so might be considered a ‘small net’. A high-level conversation with an executive might yield high level outcomes and be considered a ‘big net’. Both are important, but it’s important to know which you are looking for.
  • There will always be stuff to throw back: Sometimes, it’s tempting to plan elicitation activity in a straightforward, linear way. As if you’ll be able to speak to person A, person B, do some observation and then everything is done. Of course, it never works exactly like that, as people will throw in curve-balls, there’ll be discussions which take you in unknown directions and so forth. I suppose this is a bit like trawling for fish: there will always be some fish to throw back if they are too small, too big, or the wrong type. In requirements terms, this shows that elicitation and analysis go hand in hand. As soon as elicitation starts, there will be filtering and prioritization happening.
  • Ethics should be built in to the process: I gather that fishing boats may throw back fish that are endangered, or are below a certain size. In terms of requirements, there is perhaps a lesson for us as analysts: If we come across a requirement that we believe is unethical, we should question it.  This might sound like an odd thing to say, after all, who would raise an unethical requirement? Yet, with proposed technological transformation there might be an underrepresented group that is disproportionately affected, and perhaps this hadn’t been considered. It might be that the requirement owner had never considered the ethical consequences, and is very happy to amend or remove it once they think about the broader unintended consequences.




Elicitation Relies On Stakeholder Analysis

Much as elicitation and analysis are inextricably connected, there is a clear dependency on stakeholder analysis. Sometimes we might be led to believe that stakeholder analysis is a frivolous activity, after all, who has time to sit down and create stakeholder lists and models?  Yet, the reality is that it’s one of those activities that will likely save time in the future.


I can still vividly remember a time, very early in my business analysis career, when I was assured that a particular project I was working on didn’t require compliance sign-off. I took this at face value, didn’t do any further stakeholder analysis and went ahead. Cutting a long story short, we got to testing and found that we absolutely did need compliance sign off. That was a scary revelation, but luckily our compliance colleagues were friendly and pragmatic. With some late nights and minor changes we got the project over the line. But for me, it was a lesson learned: Proper stakeholder analysis could have avoided it entirely.


I’m a particular fan of the stakeholder rainbow, and the stakeholder interest intensity index. I discussed a number of stakeholder techniques in a presentation that’s available on YouTube, feel free to check that out if you’d like to know more!


Context And Scope Matter

Finally, it’s worth noting that elicitation which doesn’t consider context and scope is really just a Santa’s wishlist. Imagine asking everyone in an organization “what is it you want?” or “what could save you time?”. You’ll get lots of ideas, many of them actionable, but you won’t get a coherent set of ideas.


This probably sounds so obvious, but it’s an easy trap to fall into. As analysts, it’s easy to be so familiar with the scope and context of a project that we assume everyone knows it. Yet that’s rarely the case, so spending a few moments to outline the core objectives and outcomes can really help.


This also highlights another key point: It’s absolutely crucial to understand the business objectives and outcomes being sought. Trying to elicit and prioritize without knowing the outcomes is virtually impossible. How can anyone say requirement A is in scope (or not), and whether it’s more important than requirement B if there’s no clear agreement over the ultimate outcomes being sought?


Conclusion: Shine The Light On Elicitation

It’s easy, particularly as an experienced practitioner, to let elicitation become second nature. That is completely natural. But perhaps it is worth spending time now and again reflecting on how we elicit and whether it is still effective. Although it might not be a headline-grabbing topic, elicitation is absolutely crucial to what we all do!