Tag Archives: business analysis

Key Questions for Breaking Through on a Difficult User Story

The Challenge

User stories that should be simple are frequently quite complex, written ambiguously, or have underlying needs that are hidden below the surface.  Some should be broken up in to multiple stories.  You may not know how best to write a user story and communicate needs.  Many developers are not trained in the techniques needed to break through in this challenging environment and quickly get a clearer understanding of user needs.

Break Through Thinking

Make this break through:  it’s not the designs you bring, or the solutions you suggest, that will clarify needs – it’s the questions you ask that determine how quickly a solution can be implemented.  Good questions showcase your understanding and build trust between you and the user.  Here are a few situations where a few great questions will help you deal with difficult user stories and difficult times:


Determining the success criteria

Here is a simple approach to clarifying user stories: attach your clarifications as acceptance criteria or test conditions.  The user story could be all about the user interface. The success condition in the mind of the user could be very different “A user can buy our product.”  By focusing on the outcome not only is the capability needed clearer, but you also now have a clear understanding of what to focus on with users during sessions.

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Determine when you are “done”

Four simple tests to assess if requirements are not done

These are Business Requirements level tests that work and will improve your requirements quality irrespective of delivery methodology:

If the requirements lack context: Requirements always exist to support “what” the business wants to do, not “how” it wants to do it. The “what” part of this is the context of business process. Lack of understanding of what business processes are impacted by requirements means someone has no idea of how requirements impact each other, the impact of removing requirements, or the ability to assure that the requirements collectively are complete or will meet a specific business objective. The way a company applies context in its documentation also creates the structure of the documentation.

If the interdependency is not evident: How do you look for proof that interdependency is documented? Look for a section in the material called “dependencies”, check the “issues list”, and look for an analysis technique called a context diagram (every line on a context diagram is an interdependency). Why is interdependency so important? There are two aspects to scope: internal to the system (e.g., its functionality, the workflow and information flow, etc), and external to the system (e.g., how this system needs to interact with other systems, how the workflow being automated hands off across other departmental units). In the absence of knowing the interdependencies, you only ever know part of the story on scope, so it becomes probable that you will encounter significant scope shift on any system of any degree of complexity.

Unclear business objectives: Objectives must be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-oriented, and Time-bounded (easy to remember as ‘SMART’). The absence of objectives eliminates the ability to assess solution tradeoffs, makes difficult the prioritization of functionality, and other problems. You can test if a particular function meets needs with user acceptance tests. You cannot test if the collective system meets needs unless you have clear objectives.

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What Is Requirements Discovery?

Requirements discovery is also often referred to as requirements elicitation, requirements gathering, requirements analysis, and requirements definition. We prefer to use the term because it’s a little less high-brow, more meaningful, and more appropriate to the activity it is intended to describe.

The Requirements Discovery Process

Requirements Process FlowThe typical process for requirements discovery involves the following six activities:

> Requirements Planning 
> Requirements Elicitation 
> Requirements Analysis & Documentation 
> Requirements Verification & Review 
> Requirements Validation & Acceptance 
> Requirements Change Management

Origin of the Term Requirements Discovery

Legal DiscoveryThe term was initial coined by Ross Little in the late 80’s. Ross, now a principal with IAG Consulting, adapted the term from the legal profession. As a practicing Business Analyst, Little was working to evolve methods, practices and standards from the worlds of structured systems analysis, software engineering, total quality management and business process reengineering. Little credits his father, a lawyer, introducing him to the legal discovery process – and the genesis of the idea to apply some of those concepts to how organizations should gather information to define requirements for business solutions and change.

In the legal community “discovery” is the approach used to determine the facts about a case. Legal discovery mechanisms may be traced back to procedures of the ecclesiastical courts in England as early as the 16th century in which litigants delivered pleadings and obtained answers by means of examination under oath. As legal discovery in American law is the pretrial phase of a lawsuit, requirements discovery is the pre-design phase of a business transformation, or application development project.

Requirements Maturity Checkup!

How mature is your organization’s requirements practices? Now you can find out!

IAG Consulting has just launched a new (free) online assessment tool that will evaluate your requirements maturity based on 40 questions. The assessment is based on IAG’s industry recognized Requirements Maturity Model and will give you a report with your overall maturity score and some recommended actions for improvement.

Take the assessment

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Outsourcing the Requirements Elicitation Job to External Consultants

What do you need the most when eliciting requirements? Face-time with Subject Matter Experts and their Managers.  As a Business Analyst employed in a typical organization, what is the thing you get the least of? Face-time with Subject Matter Experts and their Managers. Who will Subject Matter Experts and Managers make time to see? Outside Consultants.

Such is the way of the world, at least the one I have worked in for 30 years. Full disclosure: for about 20 of those years I was an employee Business Analyst. I am now an outside Consultant working in Requirements Elicitation, Analysis and Documentation. I have spent more direct time with SMEs and Senior Managers in the last five years than I probably got in those 20 years. Why? Because I have usually been brought in to work an important project, and I am a direct cost to the organization.

If you the reader are an employee working on projects, and not limited to Business Analysts, you know this true. Is it fair to you? Not really, but having been on both sides of this situation, I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

So rather than complain about it, how can you make this work for you? (And yes, what I will suggest should mean more work for me, but hear me out…)

Read the full article by David Wright, Sr. Consultant with IAG Consulting

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What Every Executive Needs to Know About Hiring Business Analysts

The ability to hire great people is one of those skills that differentiate hugely productive managers from the mediocre. When dealing with a specific project, it gets even tougher with the number of distractions, time sensitivities and need to fill head-count numbers on a project plan. It’s very easy to get sucked into short term thinking, and sometimes HR management practices get short-sighted as well. No, the probationary period of a new hire is not a generic safety net.

Here’s some fast thinking you can do in under 30 minutes to help you hire better:

Get away from hiring generalists

Rather than trying to hire people that are generally great at all things, focus on the areas of greatest value to the organization. Take a few minutes to jot down the services this person is going to offer the organization. Figure out where in the project cycle and which requirements definition and management processes will really impact your organization’s performance. Be brutal in your focus to get it down to one or two areas where this person needs to shine.

By getting ‘service focused’ (verb/noun pairs like ‘Facilitate Requirements Meetings’) you’re being blunt about the competency that is essential for success on the project.

List the Skills Needed

Most companies have defined templates used in their requirements definition and management approach. How many hiring managers look at that document and simply extract use cases, cross-functional swim lane diagram, etc from the template to get a list of techniques the analyst would need to know to be successful. How many people look at the services and say, what techniques would need to be known here to be successful? If you’re looking for requirements definition capability and “Facilitate Requirements Meetings” then you probably want someone who knows the techniques for facilitating a cross functional team.

Want a good technique for listing soft skills? Just list the things that annoy you as a manager.

Test Required Skills

I’m a huge believer in testing skills, before the interview and after the interview. It reduces your reliance on your first impression. It is way too easy to get caught up in thinking the first 30 seconds is the make/break part of hiring. I always end up reminding myself, I’m not hiring a politician. Put more weight on getting the person to do a pre-interview task, get them to do a post interview task and look at the judgment, work quality, and skills used in doing those tasks. Give a documentation focused person a requirements document and say, is it done? Have a facilitator run a simulated facilitation session. Nothing elaborate, just focused on the skills that are essential to success. You could even look to outside organizations that do skills testing (Inquestra, etc) if you’re not feeling particularly creative or need to hire dozens of people and don’t have time to administer the tests.

Get Away from Trying to Hire Industry Experts; Focus on Analyst Skill

Here’s a basic rule of thumb: your line of business managers are the subject experts that know the business. Analysts, need to know analysis. If the analysts are competent, they will function really well, regardless of the industry or position. Granted, if you want a systems analyst for SAP, you need to focus here a little more, but definitely not for business analysts. Let’s face it, the pool of candidates can get really small, really quickly. And chances are, if someone is emphasizing being an industry expert, I’ll bet they are not overly strong in pure analyst skills.

Be Happier

There is nothing worse than dealing with a bad hire. Well… I hate it! Not just the HR stuff, but also what it does to your good performers and the overall project. If your company doesn’t already have great role descriptions in place, try some of these techniques. Having a great team is just a happier place to be.

A Few Thoughts for Those of You Looking for a Job

Lots of folks are out looking for positions today. Here are a few thoughts on positioning yourself for something else:

  • Consider positioning yourself as a specialist. You do a few things really, really well.
  • Try putting more active tense “services” you provided to the organization in your resume. Hiring managers (and google) scan for keywords.
  • List proof of your skills as your accomplishments. (How about: ‘Lead analyst principally responsible for facilitating requirements meetings on over 50 projects’)
  • Make your expertise as an expert analyst come out

Trying these ideas means deliberately writing a resume that does not fit every opportunity for a contract BA. The idea is to position yourself for certain types of opportunities, and to be successful in landing a spot when one of those types appears. As an interesting side benefit, employers tend to pay more for someone they perceive to be a specialist than they would someone they see as a generalist.

I wish you all great success.


For more Business Analysis Resources, visit www.iag.biz

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The Pendulum Swing of Organizations

I wonder if organizations give out awards for surviving the most reorganizations in a single decade to particular business functions.  I’m thinking that most analysts get to experience this frequently as the pendulum of organizational design swings from housing analysts in the technology organization, in the business organization, centralizing or decentralizing.  As business reorganizes, technology changes alignment, and the moon aligns with various constellations, reorganization is triggered.  I’ve been asked to weigh in on this a bunch of times.  Here are some thoughts for whoever is gunning to get the new design in place for September.

There are Lots of Designs that Work, but Very Few Organizational Designs Promote the Goal of Improvement

If you have a team of BAs, you can organize by application, by business, by seniority, by type of BA, by geography, then you can organize management centrally, or by business line, or by matrix of business and IT, or … and the list goes on.  All designs are for a reason, so they will all accommodate some aspect of the culture or gap or improvement, or machismo that needs to be addressed.  Only some designs will promote the goal of improvement in the capabilities of BAs and consistency of service brought by BAs to the organization.  The designs that best enable improvement bring together and optimize three basic areas:

  • The Framework: What are the processes, practices, tools, metrics, deliverables and standards etc, of doing requirements?
  • The Resources: How are the competencies defined and managed, how is performance managed, and how are resources allocated to work?
  • The Infrastructure: This is the governance, business alignment, organizational integration k, etc.

The more fractured these things are, the more difficult to manage and promote standards and change. By the way, improvement may not be the primary organizational design constraint and sometimes you need to work with a suboptimal organization structure to enact change.

A Few Pointers 

Even when you have a poorly designed analyst organization, there are a bunch of things that can be done to make it function better. 

Centralize Analyst Work Intake. Even if the organization is a complete mess, centralizing the small function of estimation and work package creation pays massive dividends, especially when the analyst organization is larger.  And, it’s not expensive.

Think Services.  Sometimes it is not possible to get centralization on the entire analyst organization, but it is possible to get an institutional focus for a small set of high-end services, especially when these services are directed at success for larger projects.

Revise the Hiring Practices. I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of companies don’t really know how to hire BAs.  I think people don’t realize it’s a tactile job, yet a lot of companies hire without seeing how a BA does these hands-on things.  It’d be like hiring a nanny without ever checking out how they interact with the kids.  I’m not talking about charisma or being personable here, I’m taking about aptitude and the ability to ‘do through interacting’.

Right-size the Organization.  One of the biggest oddities is the vast differences in size of the analyst function at different organizations.  Sometimes one or two BAs are driving $100M in projects, sometimes it’s over 100.  When you get way too few, the organization get really ineffective because all the people can do is be traffic cops and oversee the outsourcing of work.  When you get too bloated, the work progress slooooowwwwssssss waaaaayyyyy dooooowwwwwwwnnnnnnnnn; it’s painful to watch.  We get people that are used to taking a week to deal with what we deal with in a day – it’s really hard to reset expectations.  It’s not difficult to do know the right number of people, but hiring headcount is often difficult to deal with.

Be Positive and Patient. There is a time and situation when changing the structure of an organization  becomes dramatically desirable.  There are also times when no amount of executive discussion will create openness to change.  As anyone paying attention to the recent financial fiasco knows, external influences can create a 180 degree change in focus extremely quickly.  Timing and planning are everything, as are planting seeds for change … sometimes for years.  Remember, eventually, most companies try to do the right thing.


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Analysis versus Needs Analysis

Most analysts can do analysis…but very few can really be proactive in helping customers figure out their needs.  Executives routinely complain about analysts being passive on projects, not proactive, or inconsistent in their execution. I think this is a real challenge that needs to be addressed. 

Done well, business analysis is a leadership role; one that actively impacts the speed and outcomes of IT development activity.  In this leadership role, analysts have the skills to proactively lead stakeholder discussion and create information in a format that communicates well to both business and technology about business needs.  Analysts are playing the role of bridging the gap between business and technology. 

Without the right processes, techniques, skills, organization, technology and deliverables, analysts default to small ‘a’ analysis.  This is a reactive role, taking in projects and generating activity without momentum.  The clarity of need and outcome is simply not emerging rapidly enough, or with sufficient consensus, or with the right usability of deliverables.  Projects are more difficult with small ‘a’ analysts on your team.  Work may be getting done, stuff is happening, but how much momentum is really being generated?  How much do you need to rework the deliverables of those people?  How many times are you getting the right blocks of content filled in on templates, but very little being said?  Know people like this?

Am I really being too harsh?  To me it comes back to the role and expectations, and I believe analysts provide LEADERSHIP.  Part of this leadership value is that analysts be a strong source of momentum.  This means you can’t have situations like the above.

OK, so you’re looking around your organization seeing lots of what I’ve coined small ‘a’ analysts. What do you do?

There are a few short term tactics you can employ to refocus the value delivered by analysts, and one long term tactic.  In both cases YOU, the manager, need to own the situation you’ve created for yourself.

The short term fix is to focus on ‘elicitation skills.  They’re the methods and practices (like facilitation) of engaging stakeholders and asking the right questions at the right time to extract the information needed to determine business need.  This has immediate benefits in the focus of analysts and their abilities to engage stakeholders.

You can also implement a short term fix about quality standards:  getting away from defining the completion of the template as the standard, and going toward setting clear guidelines on the fidelity of information in the template.

Finally the short term fix could be to look at the services that your analysts provide to the organization and change the intake process for new projects that want to use these services.  It can have a profound effect if the requirements management team knows how to quickly understand the status of a project, and create more clearly defined work packages for their analyst teams from this understanding.

In the longer term, the management group has to assess requirements definition and management maturity, and set out a plan for improving this maturity level.  It’s the only way to get stickiness on change.  An organization cannot hope to make substantive improvement by focusing only on one capability:  skills (continuously training), process (continuously redesigning or enforcing a process), techniques (being militant about the use of certain standards), deliverables (getting people yet another template), organization (going from a requirements center of excellence to a center of practice), and technology (roll out something else… again!). 

Business analyst management needs to look across all capability areas and systematically improve the consistency of the organization across these areas.  The value of making this improvement is also extreme, doubling most performance metrics on projects.

Why do I get passionate about this?    Seventy five percent of organizations last surveyed were poor at doing requirements… 

To really meet business need, analysts need to be leaders.

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Choosing Business & IT Participants for Your Requirements Sessions (Video)

Having the right mix of people is critical to the success of requirements elicitation sessions!

Click here for more on Choosing Participants for your Requirements sessions


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