Business Analysis Question: What Do You Know?

Where are we goingBen Franklin once observed, “… the more we know, the more we feel that we don’t know.” Actually, I’m going out on a limb here and assuming that he was neither the first nor the last to voice that thought, albeit he did express it very succinctly. Knowledge is dangerous and there is a huge difference between what we know and what we think we know (don’t even get me started on that aspect). Anyone who has been through our training class on “How to Elicit (Gather), Write, and Analyze Business Requirements” or any of its derivatives was exposed to our “Fate Chart”. You remember, the one that depicts what you know you know, what you know you don’t know, what you don’t know you do know, and what you don’t know you don’t know. Simple stuff, this, but extremely powerful if applied appropriately, and you know how to do that, right?

As a reminder, the basic premise of this little technique is that you can never know it all. That calls to mind the old joke about Mr. Know-It-All chatting with Ms. Patience at a cocktail party. After listening to Know-It-All pontificate on endless topics in which he considered himself an expert, Ms. Patience commented, “You know, between the two of us we know everything there is to know.” Know-It-All, smiling deprecatingly, responded, “Well thank you, but I hardly think. . . ” Ms. Patience interrupted, “Yes, you know everything except that you are a bore, and I know that,” and walked away.

To return to the topic du jour, the Fate Chart is simply a way of tracking where you as the one wearing the business analysis hat are on a project relative to what you know about the project. It divides all of your “knowledge” into one of four states.

What You Know You Know

These are the Facts. Facts can be requirements, problems, solutions, or just plain information. What they have in common is that someone within the organization has told you that it is a fact. Assuming that your source you has both the knowledge and the authority (either alone is not enough) to make the statement, you have good reason to accept it as a fact. I feel ridiculous telling you that you ought to write these down because that could lead to project documentation which is another dangerous thing, but I’m getting used to going out on that limb.

What You Know You Don’t Know

These are Questions. If you can formulate a question, you have recognized that there is a fact to be discovered, something you do not know and think you should. If you organize your questions into a “Question File”, you are in fact (pun intended) structuring your lack of knowledge into a usable format. Once you have captured your question, you simply have to figure out who can answer it (with the appropriate knowledge and authority, as stated above).  You now have the basis for an interview plan (more on that in a future issue).

These questions will, by the way, suffer one of three fates:

  1. They will get answered by the appropriate authority and become facts.
  2. They will not get answered and you will be forced to make an assumption that you will treat as a fact.
  3. They will not get answered and you never make an assumption which leads to them becoming the principle topic of the project post-mortem – and the nails in your professional coffin.

Bottom line: pay attention to the Questions!

What You Don’t Know You Do Know

These would be the Assumptions that you make without realizing it. They are based on your Experience. History indicates that the more Experience you have, the better your Assumptions become. That is until you reach the stage where your experience leads you to think that you know the answers to the questions better than the experts, in which case you may have become too Experienced to be a useful analyst on the project.

The better you get at recognizing and documenting Assumptions and using them to generate more Questions, the better your project will run.

What you Don’t Know You Don’t Know

This state is where Fate lives. Fate exists on every project. It is just the projects that Fate manages that get into real trouble. What do you document in this quadrant? Absolutely nothing. If you knew what to write, you would have a Fact, a Question, or an Assumption and you know now where those go. Fate simply looms there, empty, smugly waiting for you to ignore it so it can surprise you when it hurts the most.

There are a variety of techniques that you can use to combat Fate and it far exceeds the scope of this post to cover them. I promise, however, that other posts present several of them in detail – at least enough detail to let you know that there is a lot about the technique that you don’t know. Gee, doesn’t that sound like Ben Franklin’s presumably plagiarized philosophy?