As avid readers of my blog probably noticed, I appear to have recently become semi-obsessed with the problem of getting the most out of your stakeholders when eliciting requirements – or user stories, features, scenarios, examples, or anything else you need from them to be able to define the solution of their dreams. (Sidebar: that might be the longest sentence I’ve ever published!)

Actually, I have always been obsessed with it, but lately I have run across a few brilliant tools of which I was hitherto unaware.

Getting Stakeholders to Open Up

If you studied psychology, you might be familiar with a concept called “Motivational Interviewing (MI)”. The technique is used to help patients implement a change that will solve a personal problem.

If you haven’t studied psychology, you now at least have heard of the technique. You get one star for that, but that isn’t enough to help a heck of a lot.

So, what do you need to know to take advantage of that particular elicitation tool? I could be facetious and write, “Google it” (and you might if you prefer to read lengthy reviews and professional lessons on the topic). For those who are not so inclined, here’s the lean version of Motivational Interviewing.

Disclaimer: This technique is described online as a tool for psychiatric professionals to use to help people change an undesirable habit (e.g., alcohol or drugs abuse). As a business analyst, you don’t have to “fix” your stakeholders – that is a job for professional psychiatrists, psychologists, or someone with an equally awesome degree. That means you don’t have to go “all in” on the technique of MI – you just need a subset of it.

Using Motivational Interviewing (MI) in Stakeholder Interactions

Motivational Interviewing is all about working with another person to help them achieve a certain goal. It is important to note that you are not trying to change them, you are helping them make a positive change that they desire.

In the case of a business analyst, you are trying to help a stakeholder discover what s/he wants or needs a proposed product to do. This is certainly in their best interest because many stakeholders struggle to give you good user stories or requirements and without them, the end product will suffer.

Four Principles of MI Are Relevant for Business Analysts

Build empathy with reflective and informational listening

My grandfather taught me, “If you listen twice as much as you talk, you’ll learn a lot more.” (I guess he was loosely translating Epictetus).

Listening is one of the critical success factors for anyone trying to elicit requirements or stories from another person.

Asking appropriate questions and then actually listening to their answer can reward you with a treasure trove of great content rife for analysis.

Accentuate discrepancies - contrast the current and desired situation

Since the proposed product or solution is supposed to improve the stakeholder’s life, emphasize what is wrong with the current product and show how the proposed product is far superior.

Talking about proposed features can generate a lively discussion about the value that or similar features can deliver. That can lead to the discover of other options or features no one had previously considered.

Avoid arguments which can activate the defensive mode

Don’t shoot down any ideas or suggestions your stakeholder might have. Instead, make sure you truly understand what s/he is asking for and if you feel it is out of scope, you might say something like “Neat idea; I’ll have to run that by the team to see where we can go with it.”

Trying to talk a stakeholder out of something they desire can cause them to become more enamored of the idea. If they start to defend their request, back off.

Acknowledge and encourage their contributions

Make sure they feel that their contribution is valuable and will help your team deliver what they need, but without promising anything specific. Consider wrapping the meeting up with something like, “Yeah, great chat and I really appreciate your time.”

Personally, I find it absolutely fascinating how powerful techniques used in other professions can be when judiciously applied to the field of business analysis.

I have always maintained, “You either live and learn or live for naught.” For me, those words are inspirational. You can never have too many tricks in your toolkit. Never stop learning.

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