“But I Already Know What I Want!”: Helping Our Stakeholders Think Beyond One “Solution”

As a community of practitioners, I am sure we would all agree that business analysis is a crucial discipline. Good quality business analysis can help ensure organizations implement successful solutions that are aligned with strategy whilst also meeting an underlying business need. When we are engaged early in the business change lifecycle we can help our stakeholders understand root-causes, we can help them define the outcomes they are looking for and help to develop a change strategy for reaching the desired future state. Our pre-project problem analysis and strategy analysis skills can ensure that projects accelerate towards successful outcomes—by taking an initial opportunity to ‘take a step back’ and ‘look at the holistic picture’ we help avoid the types of systemic and project failures that plague organizations and fill newspaper headlines.

There are clear and compelling reasons to ensure that this type of up-front strategic business analysis work is carried out. Yet I also suspect at least some of us have struggled to get the type of engagement that we need. I bet everyone has, at least once in their career, heard the expression:

“We don’t need any up-front analysis: I already know what I want!”

Often these words are followed by a description of a specific type of solution, often an IT system, and often a specific vendor name. Perhaps our executive stakeholder has decided they need to migrate onto the newest platform, the organization needs a new ‘mobile app’, or we need to ‘move all of our data into the cloud’. I can imagine some people will be holding their heads in their hands as they read this paragraph…

Now, there is nothing wrong with the solutions mentioned above in principle. There is certainly a place for all of them, and in the right situations they can undoubtedly all add value. The trouble is, if we don’t know what the sponsor is trying to achieve, we’ll never know whether the solution is the most appropriate available. Whether we are delivering using a predictive approach (e.g. waterfall) or adaptive (e.g. agile), projects can still fail when we have been inadvertently diverted down a ‘rabbit hole’ and are doing the fundamentally wrong thing—perhaps because it is out of kilter with the organization’s strategy, or because there isn’t a clear understanding of the underlying problem or opportunity. In these situations we risk delivering exactly what our stakeholders have asked for, only to find out later down the line that unfortunately it isn’t what they needed. As well as delivering a solution that doesn’t facilitate delivery of value, this also has the unfortunate disadvantage of reflecting badly on the BA and Change function, making it even less likely that we’ll be involved up-front in future. A chicken and egg scenario!

So how do we break this cycle and seek earlier engagement?

Getting a ‘Foot in the Door’ by Showing the Benefits

It may have sounded in the opening section of this article that I was being critical of project stakeholders and project sponsors—this certainly wasn’t my intention. In fact, as BAs we can work to empower our decision makers. We can re-frame situations to show how pre-project problem analysis will be of value. We shouldn’t expect to automatically be engaged early—we need to build relationships and earn our stakeholders respect. We need to put ourselves in their shoes, understand what is important to them, and couch the conversation in terms that they will find relevant.

This might sound abstract, so let’s take an example. Imagine a project sponsor has come to you with a granular solution, and you suspect that there has been little focus on understanding the underlying business need, problem or opportunity. Perhaps they say something like:

Stakeholder: “I already know what I want! I want XYZ system—so we won’t need any up front analysis work. Can you work on the requirements?”

We can start by engaging and offering help. We might ask a range of questions, and aim to meet again with the sponsor and relevant stakeholders to scope out the problem further. Some short responses are listed below—it should be noted that these are examples and aren’t intended to be read verbatim. Of course whether or not this approach is appropriate will depend a lot on the stakeholder, the culture and the specific situation.

#1: “Help me understand”
“Fantastic, we can certainly help you with this. Before we start, can you help me understand the core outcomes you’re looking to achieve with this initiative? For example, are you looking to increase revenue, reduce costs, or something else? Can you help me understand how it’s expected that this project will achieve that? I can then ensure that we stay aligned to this.”

This is a fantastic starting point, as it opens a dialogue. Sponsors often warm to people who ask them what their bigger vision is—and by getting closer to this vision, we can get a sense of what underlying outcome the sponsor is aiming for.

#2 “What about this solution is really important? And is there anything it doesn’t do?”
Following on from #1:

“Great, thanks for helping me understand your aims. I’m keen to know a bit more about how you found out about the solution, and what about it is most important to you? Is there anything that it doesn’t do? Would it be desirable for us to find a way of plugging these gaps?”

This is useful as it helps us understand more about why a change is necessary, and what the sponsor values. It also helps us appreciate how much research has been undertaken on the solution. We may find that some previous business analysis work has been conducted, and work to understand the problem or opportunity has already taken place. If not, it’d be appropriate to probe further.

#3: “Is this the only solution?”
Following on from #2:

“OK, I think I’m understanding you now. As a follow up, can you let me know if this is the only solution that you’ve considered? The reason I ask is that there are sometimes cheaper, quicker and even more functional solutions on the market. If we (theoretically) identified something cheaper, quicker that could do the same job differently, would you be interested?”

Again, we are thinking from the stakeholder’s perspective. Who wouldn’t be interested in hearing about things that are cheaper, quicker and better?

#4: “Can I help you further?”
Following on from #3

“Great, I think I have a really good idea of what you are aiming for now. Thanks so much for your time. I’d be really keen to meet briefly with you and a few other relevant stakeholders to generate a brief ‘problem statement’. That way we can be sure that we’re all aiming for the same thing. We’ll also talk a little bit more about outcomes, and I can work on generating a range of possible options for you to consider. Are you able to make just a little bit more time for this? Once this is done, we’ll be able to ramp up the project effort, being sure we’re heading in the right direction. ”

Now we’re starting to open up the discussion to other stakeholders, and start to create an opportunity to work with others to fully understand the problem. Once we have this session in the diary, we can plan to wow the stakeholders—so they will want to engage a BA before all of their change initiatives!

This pattern won’t work every time, and it will have to be adapted to fit the relevant stakeholder and organizational context. It is certainly no silver bullet. Yet the important underlying point here is that if we aren’t automatically getting early engagement, we should tactfully ask for it. This would ideally happen ‘top-down’, but it is beneficial for us to show value and convince stakeholders at all levels.

The Importance of Divergent and Convergent thinking

Once we have our ‘foot in the door’ and have created the opportunity to help better understand the core business need, the hard work begins! We need to keep in mind that our organizations often need fast progress. We have engineered the opportunity to take a step back and ensure that the project is on the right path, but we mustn’t get stuck in an ‘analysis paralysis’ doom-loop. Out-of-the-box thinking is useful, but it’s important not to get carried away and distracted from the core project and organizational aims.

It can be useful to consider the different types of thinking that take place at different stages of projects—and two types of thinking that have been written about in the past are convergent and divergent thinking.

At some points we will be encouraging divergent thinking—we will be looking to generate lots of possible options, and we’ll be encouraging people to ‘free-wheel’ and come up with innovative and creative ideas. Yet divergent thinking on its own won’t deliver a solution—we also need convergent thinking—where we rationalize ideas, refine and narrow things down. These concepts are illustrated in the diagram below:

Figure 1: Divergent and Convergent Thinking

We will utilize convergent and divergent thinking at different times during a project. It can be useful to consciously consider the type of thinking that we are aiming to encourage—and let our stakeholders know this. In a workshop, we may see conflict if we are looking for divergent thinking but one of our stakeholders is expecting us to settle on a single idea! The diagram above can help to explain this, and can be used as a short-hand to clearly set expectations and keep everyone on the same page.

Conclusion: Building Rapport and Encouraging a Problem Focus

In summary, the business analysis toolkit is broad and there is a lot we can add during the early stages of a change initiative. Strategic business analysis and pre-project problem analysis are crucial activities that may often be overlooked by our stakeholders. Encouraging our stakeholders to ‘take a step back’ will lead to projects that are more aligned to organizational objectives, and this is an important part to building in project success from the very beginning.

As a community of practitioners we shouldn’t wait to be asked. We should volunteer our experience to help our stakeholders. This will involve building rapport, empathizing and understanding the world from their perspective. Over time, we’ll get our ‘foot in the door’ and will be able to encourage divergent (as well as convergent) thinking. And when this happens we have the chance to help co-create outcomes that really hit the mark.

Author: Adrian Reed, Principal Consultant & Director, Blackmetric Business Solutions

Adrian Reed is a true advocate of the analysis profession. In his day job, he acts as Principal Consultant and Director at Blackmetric Business Solutions where he provides Business Analysis consultancy and training solutions to a range of clients in varying industries. Adrian is a past President of the UK chapter of the IIBA® and he speaks internationally on topics relating to Business Analysis and business change. You can read Adrian's blog at http://www.adrianreed.co.uk. Follow Adrian on Twitter @UKAdrianReed.

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Paul posted on Friday, May 26, 2017 1:38 AM
Great article well written
Ryan Milligan posted on Thursday, July 20, 2017 9:41 AM
Excellent article, and one that every BA should bookmark. All too often I have received the "how" from stakeholders instead of the "what" and, most importantly, the "why". The result usually delivers value, but I may be left wondering how much more value could have been delivered. Part of the issue is that it's often difficult to elicit business objectives that the solution needs to tie back to, because they aren't well defined. Capturing stakeholder-level requirements - i.e., what do I need to enable achievement of the objectives (leaving technology out of the picture) - can help to draw those out and start a more meaningful conversation of what a project should truly be working towards. Only then should a solution be selected and more detailed requirements gathered.
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