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The Art of Requirements Elicitation (Vol I: Active Listening)

In today’s business world everybody speaks about digital transformation, new business models, machine learning, IoT, cryptocurrencies, big data, cloud transformation, etc. Sexy words, aren’t they? Imagine you are a business analyst in charge of collecting requirements for a major digital transformation initiative. Υou organize or participate in focus groups, one-to-one interviews, design-thinking workshops and you document functional requirements, model processes, map roles to activities, and articulate user stories.

What is the common element behind all the above? What is at the epicenter of any transformation endeavor? People. Individuals with daily challenges, insecurities, good or bad days, family issues, inner thoughts, and fears. Of any grade. And how are you going to get them participate and provide the necessary information, share their experiences, reveal useful hints, and eventually help you in a successful transformation project?

Before we go on, please replace the term “gathering” or “collecting” requirements with the term “eliciting”. According to the Collins dictionary, “elicit” means “to draw or bring out or forth; educe; evoke”. It is a very close term to “maieutic”, the Socratic method of eliciting new ideas from another. If you wonder “how would someone elicit requirements?”, the answer is simply by listening carefully and asking the right questions. In this article we will scratch upon the “listening carefully” part.

Has it ever happened to you to deliver a project feeling sure about its success and once you present it to the customer to be a total disaster? Have you ever said during a project “I won’t let it happen again” but it keeps happening again and again? Or wondering about what triggered the client’s dissatisfaction? Have you ever felt that you have clearly understood and well documented the requirements and the Client refused to sign off the SoW because of critical parts missing? Or launched a software product nobody wants to invest in? Have you ever thought that all the above might be happening due to a single reason? Simply because you are not listening carefully enough?

Listening is the most critical attribute of our communication skills' pallete. Truth is, we are all using our own filters during communications with a Client. We are all heavily affected by our own confirmation bias, assumptions and limiting beliefs. We instantly judge what is said and we tend to change the meaning according to our background, experiences, technology expertise, etc. In other words, we are not active listeners.

And how could someone become an active listener? Or, at least, become better at it? Take a look at some basic principles and try to apply them to your everyday communications, on a professional as well as personal context.

People need to feel felt

A requirements elicitation session with a Client always starts with the current state. Current processes, pitfalls, bottlenecks, and positive elements are thoroughly presented. Making the Client feel felt during this process simply means putting yourself in her own shoes. If you do that successfully, it leads to effective communication and collaboration. So, when you are discussing with a client on an existing process (for instance), try to attach emotions on what you think the person feels, such as overwhelmed, frustrated, etc. 

  1. Say, “I’m trying to get a sense of how you feel when you do this activity, and I think it is overwhelmed, no?” “If this is not the case, what is it that you feel?”

  2. Then try to ask for the magnitude of the feeling: “How much overwhelmed do you feel?”. Give the person enough time to respond, trust the power of her silent moments.

  3. The next step is to go deeper by exploring the reasons behind the feeling: “and the reason you are overwhelmed is…”. You might get into many surprises as the client might reveal issues or dimensions of an issue far beyond from what they have described in the first place.

People need to feel heard

 In other words, be more interested than interesting. Stop focusing your attention on what you can say to make someone think you are cool or smart. The more you are trying to convince people that you are brilliant or charming or talented, the more they are likely to consider you boring or self-centered. Here are a few hints to help you:

  1. Stop thinking of a conversation as a tennis match. Your goal is not to return the ball but to learn as much as you can about the other person. Listen carefully to what the person is saying rather than thinking solely what to say next.

  2. Ask questions that indicate you want to learn more. What, why, how, how much, how come, etc., are a good starting point in that case.

  3. Summarize often what the person is saying. In your own words. Ask for their opinion on your summary because people love giving advice.

Act as if your solely purpose is to listen and understand and not to provide opinions, judge or comment.

People need to feel valued

One thing most people have in common is that they feel as if the world is not treating them well enough. They do not feel important or special enough in the world. Some ideas to tackle this are listed below:

  1. Ask them about what they think their strengths are. Or what other people might think their strengths are. People with low self-esteem are in desperate need for any kind of recognition.

  2. Ask them about their opinion on how the new application or process might look like ideally. Make them part of the solution. Give them the credit and ownership of a piece of the new deployment, small or big, according to their contribution.

  3. Give them the vision of a new post-deployment role for them based on their strengths. It matters to acknowledge their strengths; it matters to create a vision for them. Even though it might be totally out of your control to impose a role upgrade for them.

Eliciting requirements means communicating clearly and with empathy. It requires active (careful) listening, which is expressed in 3 manners: make the other feel felt, make the other feel heard, make the other feel valued. Applying those 3 basic principles you will gain the desired rapport, trust, and openness, to elicit valuable insights from engaged Clients. You will also build the level of connection required for the implementation and deployment phase. This is something you also need. I will soon get back with the second part of this article on how to ask the right questions.


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