More accurate requirements: Who framed Roger Rabbit?

Last June at Innovate 2010 in Florida Kurt Bittner envisioned the new role and responsibilities of the next generation business analyst. If you were not able to attend, his presentation is available online so you can check it out: Transforming the role of the Business Analyst. The need for a different role and responsibilities is to provide solutions for ongoing problems a lot of companies are faced with. These are common problems like:

  • Users expecting  functionality they did not initially ask for
  • Users demanding functionality they will never use
  • Contradictory of conflicting requirements

In order to be more successful, a number of changes are to be made and lessons are to be learned. One of them is that business analysts need to be more focused on desired outcomes rather than features. And another is that business analysts need to probe into root causes rather than being satisfied with just identifying the wants. Being focused on outcomes and unraveling root causes can be hard work and sometimes it is easy to mix them up or to get stuck. A smarter way it is to be more aware of the language that is used for questioning and context frames .

Context frame is a bit of jargon but it is easy to explain. I am sure that you know people that always come up with this annoying “yes, but” response. And even though normally there  is no negative intention behind it often just sounds or feels that way. Communication experts have proposed to apply  the “yes, and” response as a way to reduce this negative feel, but to me it is really about choosing the right frame in order to get the required outcomes and responses.

For example, compare the below sentences:
1.    The project is in good shape but we have to mitigate these risks
2.    The project is in good shape and we have to mitigate these risks
3.    The project is in good shape even though we have to mitigate these risks

When you read these sentences, notice what comes up and notice that each sentence has a different feeling or focus attached to it.

When but is used, people mostly tend to focus on the second part of the sentence or in this case the concern that we have to mitigate risks. And when and is used, most people experience that the first part is equally important as the second part of the sentence. And finally when even though is used, most people tend to focus on the first part of the sentence. The fact that risks must be mitigated is then seems to be less to not relevant at all.

The lessons we can learn out of this example is that changing just one word of a sentence emphasis a certain part or aspect  and ‘frame’ our experience. “Words frame our experience by bringing certain aspects of it into the foreground and leaving other in the background.” (R. Dillts, 1999)

In language you can identify many kinds of frames and reframes.  For example, even though they are in essence the same, which activity would prefer to have on your software project, rework or refactoring? (Thanks to Craig Lucia for the example.)

When you want to talk about outcomes rather than wants you do not want to go into deeply into the problem space. Also when you want to talk about the problems or root causes you do not want to go into envisioning. And using the right frame does just that. “Frames direct attention and influence how evens are interpreted” (R. Dillts, 1999).
When you want to identify outcomes you must ensure to focus on achieving one or more particular goals or desired states and finding solutions. This requires questions like:

  • What do you need?
  • What would it be like to have….?
  • How can we notice or measure that we have achieved …?
  • What resources are available to make … happen?

Notice that the first question above is a dangerous one when used in isolation because when you only ask this question you might end up with this unwanted list of wants. So, use it as a starting point and continue with questions that are alike the next questions in the list. And also make sure that outcomes are formulated in a positive way and have a perspective on the future. We will discuss the reason behind this in a short moment but before we do that let’s have a look at the problem frame first.

When you need to identify root causes, you must ensure to focus on undesired symptoms and their effects. This requires questions like:

  • What is the problem?
  • What is wrong with the current situation?
  • Why is it a problem?
  • How do you know it is a problem?
  • Who caused the problem?
  • What causes this problem?

And also realize that dwelling into problems and root causes is not very useful by itself because in the end it is about solving problems rather than having them. Therefore, always make sure that problems, symptoms and root causes are examined or investigated in the light of desired outcomes.

As discussed, recognizing and setting the right frame and formulating outcomes in a positive and future focused way are important. Many people tend to state outcomes in a negative way which in many occasions leads to making bad decisions.  For example, ‘I want to have fewer defects due to inaccurate requirements’. Many times organizations have tried to solve such a problem by introducing more formal processes and more extensive requirements descriptions. However, in all cases I know off this strategy only led to more and bigger problems.  The cause lies in focusing too much on preventing errors and or as in this case trying to do better what have been tried before. An alternative and often more successful solution is to apply a different form of collaboration with other disciplines and early feedback mechanisms. These kinds of solutions emerge when you get a different perspective on the problem and a way of doing that is to reframe negative formulated outcomes into positive ones. You can do this by asking questions like:  ‘When you have fewer defects caused by inaccurate requirements, what would that be like?’.

All in all it’s about (un)consciously selecting the right focus and a smarter usage of language. You do not have to take my word for it, but I suggest you give it a try. And when you do, you just might be surprised with the result.