5 Steps To Creating A Watertight Elicitation Approach

Jun 10, 2022

For a Business Analyst, elicitation is one of the most fun and creative parts of a project. But if not done well it can come back to bite us later on.

The Australian magpie has extraordinary intelligence. It has the ability to remember people who have mistreated it. So why do they foolishly attack innocent people?

Despite its intelligence, the magpie has a particular limitation that causes it to "malfunction". It can remember up to 30 people's faces within its territory and so recognises someone who's been mischievous with them. But if someone new enters its territory, it can mistake them for a perpetrator. So it's not uncommon for them to attack an innocent newcomer.

Now although this might seem random, it actually isn't. If someone new fits the profile of the 30 people in their memory, they're in for it - because they have this tendency to stereotype.

And that just seems quite limited for an intelligent bird that can do many things with such accuracy. But that’s fine for magpies because being a bit mischievous in nature they can get away with it.

But you can’t be inaccurate when conducting elicitations. Business Analysts have a lot of skill, but if they don’t use the right process, the results can go sideways. In this article we'll explore why this is and how to unblock this limitation with a 5-step method you can use right now.

What Is Elicitation And What Does It Do?

Elicitation is the process of extracting information about customer’s problems and needs.

Imagine your friend approaches you and needs to discuss their marital problems. You’ll sit there and listen whilst they bitterly complain about their loved one. And the worst thing to do at this point is to start advising them. In fact the more you listen and gently probe through asking questions, the more insight you will both get into what’s going on.

Take that same concept into a business setting and you’re now understanding what’s going wrong in the organisation. This enables you as a problem solver to get deep insight into customers problems and the needs they have. At this stage you’re not solving anything - you’re just finding out information.

As this information lives in various places, you need to know where to look for it.

Why Is An Approach For Elicitation Important?

Understanding your friends marital problem is much simpler than understanding a business problem. You’re dealing with one person, and the scope of the conversation is clear - marriage.

But when eliciting information in a business setting, due to the many moving parts - people, processes, systems, politics, etc. you need to design an approach that will enable you to quickly and accurately find out the problems and needs. And that can be hard.

Without a clearly thought out approach, you might know what information you’re looking for but it’ll be a “scatter gun” approach, resulting in poor engagement of stakeholders and misinterpretation of data.

Which would be catastrophic for your analysis work.

How Do You Design The Right Approach?

There are 5 steps that you can take to make sure you’re on the right path to designing a robust approach to elicitation:

  1. People: Identifying the right people who are close to the problem and the needs is critical, because they’ll have the information that you require. This should be a tight circle of a few people to keep focus sharp.
  2. Sources: Once you have the right people in place, you need to find out where the information lives that you need. Information isn’t just in people’s heads. There’ll be business documentation, wider stakeholder groups and systems. These will be sources you can elicit information from.
  3. Outcome: This is often overlooked, but the single most important question to ask is: ‘What is the purpose of this elicitation exercise, and what will we do with information we find out from it?’ If you can’t answer this, challenge what’s being asked of you.
  4. Technique: With all this, you should now be able to determine the most effective techniques for extracting information. A few examples: document analysis, questionnaires, prototyping, workshops and brainstorming.
  5. Timing: Understanding the scale of the elicitation is important in setting expectations for the time involved for you to comfortably complete the exercise. Without this you’ll be under pressure, and it’s likely the execution will be disorganised and the elicitation results incomplete.

(Once you’ve designed this, make sure you document it succinctly and share it around).

But What About Managing The Overwhelm Of Elicited Information?

Information overwhelm is definitely a problem for Business Analysts. It’s not uncommon to feel like you’re drowning in an ocean of documentation, meetings, ideas, and agendas.

So that can make it very hard to make sense of everything - particularly when under time pressure.

What you need is a system to organise, prioritise and process information and if this is in place before you even start elicitation, then you’ll maintain control and not end up in a tailspin.

It’s a bit like the classic cartoon episode where Daffy Duck was trying to stop the dam leaking by plugging the holes with his fingers. First one hole springs a leak, he stops it. Then another, so Daffy uses a second finger. Then holes open all over the place and Daffy is out of fingers. The dam breaks.

You Can Compare Elicitation To Detective Work

Columbo was a detective series that ran from the late 1960’s to early 2000. Columbo had a masterful way at connecting disparate pieces of information to arrive at an accurate conclusion.

When a detective is figuring out a crime scene, they have to piece a lot of information together, and find connections between seemingly disconnected things. They’ll be interviewing people, understanding the history of events, looking at documents. They know what they’re looking for, and they also have a system and a method. This is exactly what we do as Business Analysts.

Example: Workshop Design

Imagine your manager asks you to run a workshop to understand issues with the company’s refund process. This would be called ‘current state analysis’, and its purpose is to elicit information on what’s going wrong with the process (with a view to improving it).

How does our 5 step system help you do this effectively? This is broadly what you’d incorporate into your approach:

  1. Inviting the right people to the workshop (and communicating about it to them before hand)
  2. Understanding the detail of the process, business objectives and systems involved in supporting it
  3. Knowing what you will do with the information from this workshop
  4. Perhaps running a survey before the workshop to gather insights, and using brainstorming during the workshop to get people thinking outside the box
  5. Planning the time involved to prepare, run the workshop and follow up afterwards so everyone knows how long you’ll take in total

Now imagine creating that plan and then writing this in a 1-pager to show your stakeholders and manager - they’re going to love you for it!

Let’s Do A Quick Recap

  • Elicitation is the process of extracting information about customer problems and needs
  • Information that you need can live in different places - documents, systems, people’s brains, etc.
  • It’s very important to design your elicitation process before jumping in
  • Because when done well and with accuracy, the output is of superior quality and will contribute to a project being successful
  • The 5-step system will give you a structured way of designing an elicitation approach for any assignment
  • It’s also very important to not get overwhelmed by the ocean of information that elicitation generates
  • So you will need a system to manage information
  • Elicitation can be compared to how a detective conducts their investigations
  • One dynamic form of elicitation is running workshops, and the 5-step system will help you plan this out
  • Sharing your elicitation approach with your stakeholders will deeply impress them and score you points

So How Accurate Can You Be Now?

If you ever thought that elicitation was a tick box exercise, or there was a ‘cookie cutter’ formula to it, you’ll by now see that it’s actually a tailored approach for every assignment. And with the system provided, you can be specific and accurate so you’re on point - every time.

What now?

James Compton is the Director of Professional Development for the IIBA. He is a Business Analyst Consultant and Trainer with over 20 years experience, and is on a mission to raise the profile of Business Analysts as highly valued members of any good project team.