The Elicitation Depth Charge


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submarineDepth Charge. An anti-submarine warfare weapon intended to destroy or cripple a target submarine by the shock of the explosion near it. The depth charge was a very powerful weapon in its time but now largely replaced by anti-submarine homing torpedoes. Things change, technology improves. We try new things to deal with today’s less with more and faster, higher, stronger mentality. So why is it we have not developed the perfect elicitation homing torpedo that will allow us to always ask the right question? Great question. 

Not a week goes by where I don’t get asked, “How do I ask the right questions that will elicit the right requirements?” There are a lot of reasons why it is difficult to ask the right questions: culture, project size/complexity, time boxing, inexperience, poor planning, and the list could go on and on. Oh, and we are dealing with that larger component of complexity – people, people with their personalities, agendas, fears, intimidations, dictatorial styles, and much more. Despite those reasons, there is however, an assumption that is made when asking questions, because it is viewed that questions are part of our normal speech and that they are really not an art form or difficult to do. We ask, we get answers, we document, and all is good, but in my opinion, it is really quite the opposite. The reality is that asking the right questions is a life skill and it takes time to develop it. So how can we help develop asking the right questions? 

Maybe we need an elicitation depth charge! Okay, I am not suggesting that we destroy or cripple our stakeholders during elicitation. However, we may need to provide an elicitation depth charge that will “shock” them into thinking differently or help us, as the elicitors, get unstuck so that we can get at those much-needed requirements. Now before we look at a few potential “depth charges”, remember that we can and should ask the very important questions (as well as many others) like: 

What pain are you experiencing? 
What is preventing you from moving forward?
Who will use this feature?
When does the process start?
Does this feature meet the business need? 

So, what happens after these questions when we get stuck or the information is not forthcoming? Depth charge! 

Please keep in mind that “depth charges” can put people on the defensive if you do not phrase the question appropriately so you have to really think through how you will ask them in a given situation. The goal is to narrow down categorically what you need to know when regular questions are not getting the job done. So here are a few examples of “depth charges” that might help get you unstuck during elicitation: 

1. “Tell me what you don’t know.” Okay, I would not ask it that bluntly, but it really is a question that will help. Socrates once said (based on Plato’s dialogues), “I know what I do not know.” The wisdom of knowing that you really are not an expert in everything is pretty powerful. We often see our subject matter experts as having all the knowledge about everything in the system. The general reality is that they are experts in certain “subjects” and not all things on the project. So, by getting them to say what they do not know will help you with stakeholder analysis and scope management, leading you to new detailed questions and more. “Tell me what you don’t know.” is simply the antonym of “What do you know?” Using antonyms and contrasts are a fantastic way of getting us out of the ordinary – a perfect depth charge. Just don’t offend your stakeholder by being too direct. They might feel like you are undermining their expertise. 

2. “What can you live without?” Well we all know the answer to that one right? The potentially defensive response of your stakeholder will be, “Nothing! We need everything.” This is where your ability to be a critical thinker comes into play. The idea that you can challenge the norm – appropriately. The idea that they can live without “nothing” is an assumption that certainly needs to be challenged. After all, “need everything” does not mean that it is really needed. There could be a lot of wants in there and it is your job to weed them out so that you have the highest quality deliverable with the best return on the investment that meets the needs of your business. It may take some effort on your part to educate them on why you are asking this question and what the impacts or ramifications are, but it will be an effort well spent. 

3. “Who are the biggest fans of this project/effort?” Again, this is another potential question that could put people on the defensive, so ask carefully. The biggest fans should be anyone you are interviewing right? Well we all know that it does not always happen that way. Why ask this question? I am looking for the champions, the faithful, and the people that will support and back up my every move. The people that will guide me when I need guidance, find information when I need information, and create a positive environment even when it becomes difficult. These are the folks that will certainly help you ask the right questions. 

So, these are just a few “depth charges” that you could use to help get you closer to your requirements goals. These depth charges will help you both to become a greater critical thinker and to hone that life skill of asking the right questions. Remember to be thoughtful with them. So, I leave you with lots of questions to consider: 

What kinds of “depth charges” have you asked before?
Did they work?
How would you ask the three depth charges I gave you above differently?
What other ways have you found to ask the right questions? 

Our profession of Business Analysis is an amazing one with so many ways to be successful and achieve our goals. I look forward to hearing what works for you!

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