The Power of a Question

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"It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer."

- Albert Einstein

[1]

Staying with problems, means that we keep on asking how we can solve those problems.

The American life coach and performance strategist, Anthony Robbins often says that successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.

This seems like a very obvious statement and yet people seldom follow this advice. Sometimes we tend to somehow revert to run-of-the mill questions, like: “…can you tell me what you do?”, or “…describe the steps involved in this process?”, or “…what do you think the problem is?”

Why is that? Are people afraid of ruffling feathers? Would it be too confrontational if people ask questions that really expose core issues or problems? Are we concerned that asking questions that stakeholders are not able to answer? Or are people merely lazy to apply their minds and reduce the number of questions to the real core, important, maybe even tough questions?

Fact of the matter is, that if you are performing any kind of analysis, you need to become very comfortable with asking difficult questions. Questions that make people uncomfortable and questions that might even potentially expose unpopular answers.

The intention of asking questions like these, is certainly not to create discord or tension, but rather to get to core issues at hand.

The experts across the world who were involved with the writing of the latest version of the BABOK® [2] on behalf of the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA [3]), included a variety of techniques were questions are pivotal. Among these widely used techniques are:

  • Surveys (used to elicit business analysis information)
  • Interviews (used to ask questions of stakeholders to uncover needs, identify problems, or discover opportunities)
  • Focus Groups (used as a means to elicit ideas and opinions about a specific product, service, or opportunity in an interactive group environment)
  • Document Analysis (used to elicit business analysis information, including contextual understanding and requirements, by examining available materials that describe either the business environment or existing organizational assets)
  • Brainstorming (used to produce numerous new ideas, and to derive from them themes for further analysis)
  • Observation (used to elicit information by viewing and understanding activities and their context)
  • Reviews (used to evaluate the content of a work product)
  • Root Cause Analysis (used to identify and evaluate the underlying causes of a problem, typically by using the 5 Whys / Ishikawa technique)

Most of these techniques are used for elicitation of information. But effective elicitation can still only occur if quality questions are asked. These techniques might guide you in terms of designing smarter questions, but at the end of the day, you’ll still need to apply your mind prior to walking into a questioning session.  I am only belaboring this point, because I believe that analysts often do not prepare properly for such types of meetings and end-up “winging-it” with less than satisfactory outcomes…

Apart from spending some time preparing quality questions, we should also spend some time thinking about the approach to follow when asking such questions. HOW you ask the questions are critical to your success. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care”. This is especially true if you are going to ask potentially tough questions.

It would be wise to establish rapport before blasting the interviewee with your questions. If people feel threatened, they will not answer your questions truthfully and these answers will not be of any value anyway. Body language, tone of voice and establishing trust are all important factors to take into account during such a session. But more than that, putting yourself in the shoes of the person being questioned, is equally important. Creating an ‘us’ and ‘them’ will not be conducive to getting to the bottom of a problem or to creating an effective solution.

In his book, [4] “Just Ask!”, Bill McGrane says that success can be as simple as asking the right questions. He goes on to say that if you create a climate of acceptance, where people feel accepted, understood and relaxed, your chances of getting valuable answers increase dramatically.

To be a great analyst, you’ll need to ask great questions. In order to ask great questions, you’ll need to remain inquisitive. So I leave you with this thought:

Never let go of your willingness to wonder, of the power of curiosity. Just imagine … you can make a fulfilling career out of simply being curious and learning more… by just getting good at asking questions…


Author: Danie Van Den Berg, CBAP

Danie van den Berg is a consulting business analyst from Johannesburg, South-Africa. Over the past 16 years he has worked in a variety of industries. His specialities include Requirements gathering & elicitation (ERP, Web & Android), Business Process Re-engineering, Workflow Automation and process optimisation. He enjoys mentoring BA professionals, teaching business analysis topics and prepping BAs for CBAP exams. Danie is passionate about the role a Business Analyst plays within organisations and believes it is central to changing and improving the world we work and live in

References/Footnotes:

[1] By Khaydock (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

[2] http://www.iiba.org/babok-guide.aspx

[3] http://www.iiba.org/

[4] “Just Ask!” Success can be as simple as asking the right questions – written by Bill McGrane III

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Featured
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COMMENTS

dayiku posted on Sunday, December 4, 2016 9:04 PM
Thanks for this article. I really like the way you laid this out. I have issues with asking question, especially in larger group settings. This for all the reasons outlined but i found that over time it impacted the quality of my work because i could not extract good information.
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