BAs and POs: Are You Asking the Right Questions?

Note: This blog post is an update to a previous blog post Five High-Impact Questions Every BA Should Be Using. It’s been updated to address how we are working right […]

Note: This blog post is an update to a previous blog post Five High-Impact Questions Every BA Should Be Using. It’s been updated to address how we are working right now.

The Current Situation

Let’s face it, we are under so much deadline pressure that it seems like we don’t have time to ask thought-provoking questions, model, or even think about the problem we are actually trying to solve. Are you really putting energy into providing options and alternatives while strategically selecting the right solution to solve the actual problem? It’s often more of a “FIX THIS NOW … and WITH THIS SOLUTION” sort of order-taking scenario.

Let’s take a moment to rethink what this deadline-driven, solution demanding, just get it done mentality is doing that challenges our training and experience in business analysis.

  • Creating more problems for customers since we are not backing up to see the customer point of view, we are too focused on a fix which means we miss key aspects of context and the real problem to solve.
  • Creating the wrong solution leads to process, data, and technical debt. This is when we develop processes that are simply another version of the same process or procedure happening elsewhere, creating inconsistencies, and making matters worse for the customer or another team. We also create process debt in that when we want to make a future change it takes longer to implement due to so many places in the org performing the same process multiple ways. We create data debt the same way and then have “bad data” or poor data quality coming in from multiple disparate processes, then we try to use AI, data analytics, and machine learning and get burned because the data inputs are not the quality needed to meet the goal of such automation. And, technical debt that literally imprisons most of the organization into maintaining software and updating constantly where the code base is so coupled together with band-aids that nothing can get done without needing a ridiculous amount of resources from the entire tech stack and regression testing, documentation, and handoffs between teams.
Ok, back to “re: we asking the right questions” and deadlines.  I think I went off into a dream, I mean nightmare, that you all can relate to… I am back now.

Reality “Bites”

In reality, our business leaders want outcomes and results, and their requests are expressing the pain of not getting results at any reasonable speed. It is a self-defeating cycle of, their frustration in not getting results, so they try to come up with a solution to be more clear, and a louder voice to get it completed sooner. Again, they don’t really want THAT SOLUTION faster, they want RESULTS faster. Getting the results means asking the right questions to truly solve the right problem with the least amount of work and not creating the process, data, and technical debt… all of which lead to “customer debt”.  “Customer debt” is when we build experiences through our process, data, and technology that disenfranchise our customers such that their positive experiences with us dwindle and we have a lot of work to do to reverse the negatives and bring them more positives before they leave us for the competition.
So, the next time you get a new request, perhaps a technical need, defect fix, process change, and it comes to you loaded with an urgent deadline and pre-defined solution; take a few moments and think about the powerful high impact questions you can ask that can actually help everyone get a shared understanding of the problem and customer impact, then work with the team to identify a few potential solutions to solve the problem and what the smallest, fastest thing that you can do to solve the problem and make real progress towards the customer result.  This is prioritizing OUTCOMES over OUTPUTS!  Business leaders will favor this approach far more than the exact solution they demanded that won’t create a business result in the end.

Success or failure often hinges on the questions we ask throughout the project lifecycle. It sounds a bit dramatic, but I’ve witnessed it many times—a single, thought-provoking question that changed the trajectory of a conversation, opened a floodgate of new ideas, or magically simplified a complex problem. Great business analysts fill their toolbox with high-impact questions! BAs use these questions strategically. They figure out the right way to ask the question and the right way to gather the answers. They also consider the best time, place, and audience for each question. What is the definition of high-impact questions? Consider the following regarding high-impact questions:

  • Are difficult to answer
  • Create moments of silence
  • Inspire responses like, “Hmmmm, let me think about that…”
  • Stir up emotions and politics
  • Spark analysis
  • Encourage stakeholders to provide context, solve problems, make good decisions
  • Generate deep, meaningful, interactive discussions that spawn high-value systems, processes, and products

Five Excellent High-Impact Questions

Tell me about your pain points and challenges with the system/process/product.

Yes, I know this is not in the form of a question, but this phrasing indicates your interest in details and deep discussion instead of a short, off-the-cuff list. Starting from a place of pain gives people a chance to get their frustrations on the table right away. It inspires storytelling that gives context to stakeholder concerns and creates a shared understanding of each stakeholder’s priorities.

If this system, product, the process worked as good as it could, what would that look like?

This question approaches pain points and challenges from a positive angle and promotes problem-solving. Stakeholders will reveal their solution priorities and their definition of success. Use this question to brainstorm enhancements, features, or to diffuse disagreements about priorities, needs, or decisions.

What are the top 3 things you would change?

This question can be used in multiple ways throughout the project lifecycle. You can use it in discussions about systems, features, products, or processes, or you can use it to focus on internal processes and issues. This question works in the initial stages of the project when you are defining needs, and is equally useful during a retrospective or “lessons learned” discussion. It also works well evaluating how a current or newly implemented solution is working regardless of if changes are being asked for.

Asking users to limit their change list to 3 items, forces stakeholders to prioritize and focus on what’s most important. Be sure to spend time diving into the why for each item. When stakeholders reveal their top 3 things and explain why, you will begin to understand their values, priorities, and pain points. You’ll also begin to see how each stakeholder is connected.

What things would you make sure not to change?

This question works well when you need your team to focus on the positive. It reveals what each stakeholder appreciates about the current process, system, or product. You begin to understand stakeholder values and priorities. You discover stakeholder fears and define innovation boundaries. Digging into the why of each “please don’t change this” item, will uncover stories (requirements in context) of what’s working well and might spark ideas for enhancements or new products/processes/systems. You might also find conflict here…things in this list might also be in the top three that others want to change, which generates good discussion.

If the project or enhancement does not happen, what impact would that have for you?

This question, when discussed in a group setting, pulls each stakeholder out of their silo. They begin to discover gaps in their understanding of the big picture. As the stakeholders reveal their needs. Some may discover they do not need to actively participate in the project. Others may discover they underestimated their impact. This question often generates meaningful examples and scenarios that stick in people’s minds much longer than words in a giant requirements document.

Benefits Of High-Impact Questions

High-impact questions provide multiple benefits that tip the project balance to success. Here are just a few:

  • Silence: High-impact questions allow the stakeholder or group to think, go back in their mind, come back and be with a space in their mind to really process thoughts and come to conclusions. Silence helps us get better requirements that are better thought out. It reduces the risk of changing requirements by giving stakeholders time to dive below the surface requirements earlier in the project.
  • Trust: High-impact questions build strong relationships with stakeholders and users. Deeper dialog makes them feel connected and understood, which creates trust and boosts morale.
  • Ownership: High-impact questions help our stakeholders own their involvement in the solution. Rather than cast blame or incite conflict, high-impact questions help stakeholders communicate and articulate the real problem they want to solve.

Be Strategic

To maximize the benefits of high-impact questions, use them strategically. Consider the following:

  • Why are you using the question? What do you hope it reveals? How will it help your team boost end-user value?
  • Who should be answering the question? All stakeholders or just a subset? Users or management?
  • How will you ask the question and how will you gather the answers? One on one, small group, large group? Do you need to allow opportunities for introverts by using surveys or individual brainstorming on sticky notes, then sharing with the large group?
  • Can you use the questions to help stakeholders focus on the end user’s perspective rather than the team’s perspective?
  • If you are in a group when you ask these questions, take the time to observe body language. Who is agreeing with the speaker, who is disagreeing, who looks angry or frustrated? What does body language reveal about your stakeholders’ needs, values, and priorities?

High-impact questions encourage teams to talk early and often—minimizing the risk of identifying expensive, show-stopping issues late the project. Use them strategically to help your team build the right solutions, faster! Test one of these questions in your next elicitation session and let me know what happens, or share your favorite high-impact questions with me on LinkedIn.