Clean Language in Business Analysis: Interviewing and Facilitating

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Apr 29, 2020
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In the context of this article, “Clean Language” is not the opposite of “potty mouth.” It is the opposite of opinionated talk. “Clean Language” is a conversation technique developed by a psychotherapist, David Grove (1950 – 2008). It is a method of asking neutral questions to avoid influencing patient responses. Besides psychotherapy, clean language can be used in various fields for interviewing and facilitating meetings with stakeholders. This is particularly true for business analysis. The context of this article is interviewing and facilitating meeting with a focus on using clean language to ensure that stakeholder requirements are captured without the influence of the business analyst. In this article, you will note that I have cited several sidebar comments to help the reader connect the dots with various business analysis aspects.

BA Techniques for Effective Elicitation

Business Analysts (BA) use various communication and process modeling techniques to effectively elicit and document requirements from stakeholders.

  • In Communication:
  • Active Listening is a conversation technique for pulling information from the stakeholder. It emphasizes eye contact, body language, and mirroring stakeholder words (repeating stakeholder words).
  • Active voice is documenting requirements using subject/verb sentence construction.
  • Neutral posturing is accepting stakeholder positions without judgement.
As a sidebar, I want to include voice tone and facial/body language under neutral posturing since a judgment can also be communicated by how something is said and other visuals.
Voice tone, in particular, adds significantly to the communication. This is especially true on conference calls since participants are blind to both facial and body language.
  • Questioning, in the neutral context, is eliciting information to interject topics without offering positive or negative view points. This technique is particularly useful in guiding conversations without recommending solutions.
  • In process modeling:
  • Flowcharting is a graphic model for documenting a single point of view of a participant in a process.
  • Activity model with swim lanes is a graphic model for documenting multiple points of views of participants in a process.
  • Business Process Modeling and Notation (BPMN) is a graphic model for documenting multiple points of view of participants in a process and multiple company collaborations via messaging.
  • Including path decisions:
  • The Decision Model is a table/graphic model for documenting business rules for choosing process paths.
  • Decision Modeling and Notation (DMN) is a table/graphic model for linking and documenting business rules for choosing process paths.

Embellish BA Communication Techniques with Clean Language

Clean language is not really an expansion of the BA techniques since neutral posturing and questioning are already on the list above. And certainly, it does not replace the different types of interview questions:

  • Open – requires an elaborate response (used as a starting question)
  • Close – can be responded to by a “yes” or “no”
  • Clarifying – requires a detail response possibly via examples
  • Confirming – requires a validation response

However, clean language does embellish the details on how to construct neutral questions. I have listed below four groups of questions using clean language construction; note, I did change some of the original “Clean Language” terms to portray the business analysis context.

  1. Problem or opportunity definition – what/who/where specifics including locations
  2. Process sequence – where/when/how processes that are associated with the problem/opportunity or could be associated
  3. Decision gateway paths – how/why does a process follow a path versus another path
  4. Intent – what is the desired result

These questions typically result in follow-up questions which should be neutral as well. Let’s take a look at example questions in each group.

Problem or Opportunity Definition

This group covers the need to define the stakeholder topic of interest.
The BA asks the neutral question,

  • What “problem/opportunity” do you wish to address? The choice of the topic is the stakeholder’s.
  • Rather than the BA stating, “Let’s discuss the inventory system since it appears to be the problem.” Here the BA not only makes the choice of the topic, but assumes the inventory system to be the problem.
  • Can you describe any specifics of the “problem/opportunity and who is involved?” The stakeholder gives details on the subject. Once again, it’s the stakeholder who describes the problem.
  • Rather than the BA stating, “There appears to be an excess inventory problem caused by order clerks.” Here the BA gives an opinion on the problem and its source and possibly influences the stakeholder’s response.
  • Where does the “problem/opportunity” exist in the business? The stakeholder identifies the location of the subject.
  • Rather than the BA stating, “The business appears only to need changes at the main warehouse.” Here the BA gives an opinion of the problem/opportunity location.

Note that the “Rather than the BA stating” examples are statements, not questions. Although they could be in the form of a leading question. Such as, “Would you agree that only changes appear to be needed in the main warehouse?”

As a sidebar, I want to point out that it is best for the BA to document the stakeholder responses in the active voice (subject/verb). Active voice ensures the BA captures both the action and the subject doing the action. This will help clarify the requirements with stakeholders and developers. Also this serves as a basis for confirming follow-on implementations (i.e., testing). For example,
Active voice – Only team leads can modify the inventory count.
Rather than the passive voice, the inventory count can be modified.

 

Process Sequence

This group covers the need to determine what processes are associated with the problem/opportunity. The BA asks the neutral question,

  • Are there current activities associated with the problem you stated and do they have a sequence? The identification of the activities are the stakeholder’s.
  • Rather than the BA stating, “The problem appears in the third and fourth activities of the Inventory Update process.” Here the BA is suggesting the activities to be investigated.

Or if it’s a new endeavor

  • Given that it’s an opportunity, what could be the activities and their sequence? The identification of the activities are the stakeholder’s.
  • Rather than the BA stating, “The opportunity looks like a new warehouse process.” Here the BA is suggesting the new activities.

As a sidebar, I want to point out that the BA needs to model the process to clarify and confirm the process with stakeholders and developers using one of several techniques.
Flowcharting
Activity Model with Swim Lanes 
Business Process Modeling and Notation (BPMN)


Decision Paths

This group covers the need to determine the rationalization of the path choice in the sequence. The BA asks the neutral question,

  • Are there alternative paths to an activity?
  • Rather than the BA stating, “There must be at least two paths to the next activity.” Here the BA is suggesting the design the process.
  • How is a path selected?
  • Rather than the BA stating, “The count business rule must limit the inventory count.” Here the BA is suggesting how the path is selected.

As a sidebar, I want to point out that the BA needs to document the business rules using one of several techniques. Too often, BAs document processes without decision logic on path choice.
The Decision Model
Decision Model and Notation (DMN)


Intent

This group covers the desired result. The BA asks the neutral question,

  • What result is desired? The stakeholder determines the result.
  • Rather than the BA stating, “This change can provide a 20% improvement.” Here the BA offers what the end result can be.
  • What needs to happen to achieve the desired result? The stakeholder provides the requirements that are needed to achieve the result.
  • Rather than the BA stating, “I recommend that the warehouse adopt just-in-time inventory posture.” Here the BA offers a solution to the problem.
  • Can the result happen? The stakeholder provides what is needed to lead to the desired result.
  • Rather than the BA stating, “A business rule change in replenishing inventory can fix the problem.” Here the BA offers a needed change to fix the problem.
As a sidebar, I want to point out that the BA must ensure that the stakeholder responses align in addressing the problems/opportunities cited in the definition questions. Otherwise, the conversation wanders out of scope.


Background on Clean Language

David Grove (1950 – 2008), a psychotherapist, developed “Clean Language” in the 80’s. He observed that many therapists influenced conversations with their patients by stating their assumptions and offering judgments. He constructed 12 neutral questions to help therapists discovered the “true feelings” of their patients without influencing their responses; see below.

  1. (And) what kind of X (is that X)?
  2. (And) is there anything else about X?
  3. (And) where is X? or (And) whereabouts is X?
  4. (And) that’s X like what?
  5. (And) is there a relationship X and Y?
  6. (And) when X, what happens to Y?
  7. (And) then what happens? Or (And) what happens next?
  8. (And) what happens just before X?
  9. (And) where could X come from?
  10. (And) what would X like to have happen?
  11. (And) what needs to happen for X?
  12. (And) can X (happen)?

Note that “X/Y” is a word/term/metaphor used by the patient.

I asked BA and facilitator professionals, “What is clean language?” Their responses were typically the opposite of vulgar language. Perhaps Mr. Grove should have named the technique, “Unbiased Language.”

Note Mr. Grove was a psychotherapist and BAs are not psychotherapists. But Clean Language can be used in many fields and in particular business analysis since its focus is obtaining stakeholder requirements. Training in Clean Language helps the BA conduct a better one-on-one interview or a group facilitation session by being neutral.

As a sidebar, I want to make a distinction between two words,
“Objective and Neutral.”
Objective – based on the situation, evidence or lack of, there is an opinion.
Neutral – regardless of the situation, evidence or lack of, there is no opinion.


BA Benefits of Clean Language and Drawbacks of not so Clean Language

Clean Language helps BAs capture the “real requirements” of the stakeholders avoiding the “pollution” of the BAs’ own:

  • assumptions – something that is accepted as true without question or proof,
  • suggestions,
  • opinions,
  • directions,
  • solutions,
  • voice tone or facial/body positions that imply a position,
  • or judgements.

And, it helps maintain requirement ownership with the stakeholders.

In teaching various aspects of business analysis, I have listened to BA objections to the neutral posture. For instance, I often hear the following: “As a BA, I am tasked to develop requirements using my business analysis skills. I am not just a note taker.”

Keep in mind, management has tasked the BA to document stakeholder requirements, not to develop/determine stakeholder requirements or the BA’s perception of those requirements. Be aware, if the BA does not maintain neutrality:

  •  Stakeholders may challenge BAs on their business expertise causing conflict and/or a loss of trust.
  • Or even worse, stakeholders abdicate their business responsibility and effectively transfer their ownership of results to the BA. Note that stakeholder ownership is essential for support when problems happen in implementation to avoid the blame game.
As a sidebar, I want to provide an analogy of an agile coach vs a project manager response to a development team stating a problem.
Agile Coach: “How would you (the team) handle this problem?”
vs.
Project Manager: “This is what you (the team) need to do.”


 

Author: Mr. Monteleone holds a B.S. in physics and an M.S. in computing science from Texas A&M University. He is certified as a Project Management Professional (PMP®) by the Project Management Institute (PMI®), a Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP®) by the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA®), a Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) and Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) by the Scrum Alliance. He holds an Advanced Master's Certificate in Project Management and a Business Analyst Certification (CBA®) from George Washington University School of Business. Mark is also a member of the Association for the Advancement of Cost Engineering (AACE) and the International Association of Facilitators (IAF).

Mark is the President of Monteleone Consulting, LLC and author of the book, The 20 Minute Business Analyst: a collection of short articles, humorous stories, and quick reference cards for the busy analyst. He can be contacted via - www.baquickref.com.


References:

 

  • Clean Language
  • Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds by Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees, Crown House Publishing Ltd 2008
  • Metaphors in Mind: Transformation Through Symbolic Modeling by James Lawley and Penny Tompkin, Developing Company Press, 2000
  • Modeling
  • BPMN Method and Style: A levels-based methodology for BPM process modeling and improvement using BPMN 2.0 [Paperback] by Bruce Silver
  • DMN Method and Style: The Practitioner’s Guide to Decision Modeling with Business Rules by Bruce Silver (2016)
  • The Decision Model: A Business Logic Framework Linking Business and Technology by Barbara von Halle and Larry Goldberg











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