Although most projects start enthusiastically, optimism fades quickly unless an analysis and design team gets traction and learns where it is going. Working from a project charter, the team's next step is defining typically, "What does success look like?" These high-level requirements help clarify the project's vision and give the team a focus. Many business analysts employ group facilitation to elicit these requirements. This blog post summarizes some of the steps you might follow in facilitating such a meeting.
This blog entry is also available in PDF form as a TechRepublic download.
The importance of "group think"
Long a mainstay of business analysis, one-on-one interviews with stakeholders is a standard business analysis tool. Typically, each stakeholder represents to you the interests of his or her own business unit and measures the project by what the unit may gain or lose. Accumulated, these one-on-one interviews make me think of the ancient Indian story of "The Elephant and the Seven Blind Men." Perhaps you remember the story. One blind man judged the elephant to be a large snake because of its trunk. Another claimed the elephant was a tree because of its leg, and so on. Is there method to develop consensus among opinionated individuals? I've found facilitated meetings to be useful.
How important is the "group think" that comes from facilitated meetings? In the elephant story, a revelation comes to the blind men as a wise man affirms their perceptions and helps them understand each other's perspectives. In a facilitated meeting, you help the team members recognize their unique perspectives, reveal mutual interests, and distill common agreement. What makes this process work? In his recent book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki indicates that a successful group needs a diversity of opinion, independent perspectives, decentralized governance, and a good method for aggregating opinions. Stakeholders typically arrive at the meeting armed with the first three success factors. Through facilitation, you enable the fourth.
Facilitation as a tool
Facilitated group meetings generate positive outcomes in several dimensions. First, consider the axiom, "The whole is greater than the sum of the parts." In my experience, a facilitated meeting routinely generates more high-quality ideas than would be revealed by one-on-one interviews. While "designed by committee" is sometimes derided, all requirements are subject to scrutiny eventually anyway. There is significant value in distilling and refining the team's smorgasbord of requirements early in the project.
Facilitated meetings create value beyond the requirements. Even in the first meeting, you will witness the formation of a functioning team. From the ideas suggested by individual team members, adjustments, clarifications, compromises, and consensus emerge. Although it may take three or four meetings, a working team emerges and produces valuable results.
Building an effective analysis team
Who should attend the team meetings? At a minimum, you need the stakeholders or their designees. The team should also include the project manager, the technical project manager, and a representative of the sponsor. If the project is expected to affect numerous business units, find someone with the experience to plan and execute communications. The team will also need someone in an administrative role to take meeting notes and to handle logistical details. If asked, the project sponsor may suggest a person for this role.
Although the project sponsor may have already set the team's membership, you should consider the functional experience of those who were tapped to participate. Talk with others who may be affected by the system. The project sponsor and the current team members are good resources for the names of others who should be considered for team membership. Will the membership adequately represent the functional areas touched by the new system? Is each team member an expert in a functional area?
The project manager may be a resource for estimating the breadth and depth of the team's experience. He or she may also know each individual's work style and work ethic. If you feel strongly that the team needs more (or different) resources, make your case with the project sponsor. Consider asking the sponsor, "Who else could help this project succeed?"
The facilitation cycle — setting up
There are three major steps in successfully facilitating a meeting: setup, execution, and follow-up. Start preparations by finding a common time and place the team members can meet. Check schedules to make sure everyone has enough time to get to your meeting. Leave some unscheduled buffer after your meeting as well. This buffer gives some team members time to linger and ask questions or discuss an idea. Reserve a convenient, comfortable meeting room with adequate table space. Make sure the room has an adequate supply of flip chart paper and a stable flip chart stand. You'll also need two vacant walls on which you can hang flip chart pages.
As any project manager knows, there is no such thing as an unwritten plan. This wisdom also applies to meeting agendas. Write the agenda to include a five- or 10-minute introduction to the project and use the project charter as a resource. There may be some new faces among the team members. Allocate time for brief introductions from attendees. Although the remainder of the meeting will be requirements work time, leave five minutes or so at the end for a "check out" — a chance for participants to voice an opinion about the meeting or the process. If the expected meeting time exceeds two hours, schedule a short break in the middle.
When you set a meeting date and an agenda, send an e-mail to the participants. Copy the project sponsor. Attach the agenda and project charter. In your message, set a tone of enthusiasm and excitement. Also, promise to start and end the meeting on time. Encourage the team members to come prepared to offer and discuss requirements. Indicate you will be calling each person for a brief chat over the next day or so.
Follow up on your commitment to call. Briefly introduce yourself and explain the reason you are calling. Ask if they have a few minutes to talk about the project. If you called at a bad time, ask them to offer a better time to talk. Asking about their interests in the project is a good way to build rapport and keep the phone call short. Take notes as you listen. Thank them for their time and tell them you look forward to seeing them at the meeting. Your phone call reminds them of the meeting and its importance, raises their interest level, and introduces you in a positive way.
Before the meeting, familiarize yourself with the topic area. Study the project charter and any supporting materials. Have a good understanding of the jargon the team is likely to use. You don't have to be an expert, but you have to understand the business concepts and lingo the team will use. Consider meeting with a functional expert.
As a final step, gather the materials you need. Find a few narrow-tip, black felt-tip pens. Make sure they produce clear lines and don't bleed through the flip chart paper. If you don't have any self-stick flip chart pads, bring along masking tape for hanging flip chart paper on the meeting room walls. Bring a few extra ink pens and pencils in case team members need them.
Arrive about 10 minutes before the meeting starts. Arrange chairs around the table to make the attendees feel comfortable. Hang several sheets of flip chart paper side by side on one wall. Set up the flip chart pad on the stand. Have a marking pen handy. Place a few pens and pencils on the table.
At the beginning of the meeting, ask each person to introduce themselves by giving their name, the business unit they represent, and their role in the project. During the introductions, I secretly write for myself a seating chart to help me connect names to faces.
People improve their focus on a topic when they have had an introduction to it. Ask the project manager to review the project charter with the group. Allocate a few minutes for questions and answers about the project.
Introduce the main section of the agenda by providing a definition of requirements and their importance to the project. For the purposes of this meeting, a requirement can be defined as a feature the new system should have. If team members seem stuck, you can get them started by asking, "What are the limitations with the current system?" On the flip chart pages on the wall, jot down a key phrase about each limitation and number it. Be careful to write clearly, so that each participant can read and understand what you wrote. If you feel you misunderstood what was said, ask the contributor to restate or summarize it while you revise.
As team members run out of suggestions, start them thinking about the high-level requirements for the new system. Encourage them to think about people and process, not technology. As they consider requirements, the limitations you've written on the wall make easy targets. Even so, new requirements will surface. As you hear what a team member is saying, think about how to summarize it. Number each item in the list. Since you can't catch every word, write your best summary and ask the contributor to affirm it or offer corrections. If you got it completely wrong, strike it and write the correct text. As you fill up each page, the person filling the administrative assistant role can hang up the pages on an adjacent wall for all to see.
As the facilitator of this elicitation process, you accept a mantle of responsibilities and constraints as you channel the energy, enthusiasm, and ideas of the team into a workable set of high-level requirements. Strive to enable, encourage, support, translate, clarify, and record. The team members provide the content, while you provide a structured medium to capture and hold it. If a suggestion doesn't make sense to you, ask the contributor to clarify it. Encourage participants to expand and reframe ideas. It helps to smile or nod when someone suggests an idea. Try to affirm every contributor and thereby raise the team's enthusiasm and excitement. Always avoid judging a contribution. Instead, ask other team members to wrestle with it through leading questions — "How would that work in this business unit?" or "What do others think about that idea?"
Stumbling blocks may arise in the discussion. Help the team avoid getting lost in a protracted discussion, but give it time for as long as it bears fruit. If you haven't written any new requirements after a few minutes, politely interrupt the discussion with, "It sounds like we need to explore this topic in the future. I'm wondering if we can make a note of that topic and discuss it in depth at a future meeting." If the team agrees, write the topic on a blank sheet of flip chart paper and label it "Parking Lot."
There is also a chance someone may wander wildly beyond the scope of project. Acknowledge the importance of the person's idea and then ask the group to consider it in the context of the project mission and goals. If the group believes it belongs in the Parking Lot, put it there. Promise to address the Parking Lot items at another meeting.
You may find that time slips away from you during the meeting. Ask the project manager or the administrative assistant to help by keeping an eye on the clock. The team expects you to keep your commitment to end the meeting on time. By respecting their time, you help team members develop trust in your leadership. In closing the facilitation, thank the team for their enthusiasm and ideas. Tell them that you will type the lists and send them as an e-mail attachment in the next day or so.
What will you have accomplished? In a few intensive hours, the team will have defined an impressive (but probably incomplete) picture of the new system. Don't worry that some items on the flip charts are really business requirements, interface features, or system constraints. In future sessions, you'll give the team an opportunity to clarify, supplement, reframe, and revise these ideas. You will also introduce them to a place to store each type of artifact.
Before you close the meeting, invite team members to briefly "check out" and state any thoughts, ideas, or concerns about the project or the meeting. Acknowledge any contributor's idea and make a note of anything that should be addressed.
Since you scheduled the meeting so that most team members don't have to rush out, some may linger in the meeting room. Often, team members chat and familiarize themselves with each other. While you are gathering the flip chart pages and restoring the room to its original state, try to listen to these conversations. You may overhear a key point or interesting perspective no one raised during the meeting.
Consider numbering each flip chart page to record the sequence in which it was used. Sometimes knowing the order of ideas is helpful in understanding some detail or distilling a theme.
I encourage you to type the notes from the flip chart pages as soon as possible after the meeting. I like to write two versions. The first one contains the exact words from the written pages; the other version is a "working" document that reflects your attempt to clarify cryptic phrases and to give the reader a better understanding of the stated requirement.
After carefully proofreading and revising these documents, enable Track Changes in the working document and attach them both to an e-mail message you send to the team. In the e-mail, describe each document and its purpose. Ask each team member to review the documents. Encourage team members to add their own corrections and additions to the working document. Set a reasonable short-term deadline for their responses.
With Track Changes enabled in the word processor, suggestions are apparent in the working document they send back to you. Consolidate these changes with Track Changes enabled into your own document copy. At the next meeting, you'll have the team validate or refute these suggestions for changes. Eventually, you will lead the team as they transform these high-level requirements into business rules, constraints, user interface artifacts, summary-level use cases, and so on.
This document introduces facilitation as a strategy for eliciting requirements from a team of people. In facilitated meetings, the team will accomplished several goals. They will roughly define how the current system constrains business success. They will draft a set of requirements that the new system should satisfy. As a side benefit, the individual participants will began building an effective work group, and create forward motion in the requirements elicitation process. Each of these achievements significantly contributes to the success of your project.