Project Practitioners > Business Analysis Is All In the Questions

Business Analysis Is All In the Questions

By Kent McDonald

A question that often comes up when hiring business analysts or assigning them to specific projects is whether a business analyst has to be a subject matter expert in the domain of the project. I won't get get into that discussion (good topic for a future post) except to say that question implies that a Business Analysts responsibility is to provide the right answers. I'd like to suggest that a business analyst is really responsible for asking the right questions. The real subject matter experts (stakeholders, customers, and users) will then provide the answers that will lead to the appropriate solution. If you buy into the idea that a business analyst is responsible for asking the right people the right questions, them it's not as important for them to know the domain inside and out, rather they need to understand the analysis process inside and out. So for all those really good analysts out there, I suspect the question that is coming into your head right now is “so what are the right questions?” It depends on the situation, but here are four questions that are standard regardless of the domain.

  • Is it worth it?

  • Why?

  • What?

  • Did we deliver what was needed?

Is it worth it?

This question helps cut through some of the ambiguity associated with considering what business value a project will deliver. Project Sponsors and project team members often have difficulty putting their arms around business value, but can usually answer whether a project is worth it's cost, if even at a subjective level. This is a good question to ask at the beginning of a project and frequently throughout the project at points when new information is encountered.

Popping the Why? Stack

This is also known as the “five whys” and is mainly used to get at the root cause of the problem. When you are working with Subject Matter Experts and Stakeholders to understand their requirements, ask why a particular requirement is important, and then continue to ask why to their answer until you come to their root problem. It is important to understand what the true problem is that you are trying to solve so that you address the root cause, not just a series of symptoms.

Popping the What? Stack

Think of this as identifying requirements in progressively more detail going from Business Requirements, which are the fairly high level what the solution should do, to User Requirements which are a little more detailed and describe what users expect from the solution, and finally the System Requirements that describe in a fairly detailed fashion what technically needs to happen in order to deliver the desired solution. Note that the question is always what is needed, not how will it be delivered.

Did we deliver what was needed?

This is verification that the solution we delivered met all of our requirements and actually solved the problem we were wanting to solve. This is a good question to develop test cases for verifying the solution. A similar question can be asked when verifying the completeness of the requirements (did we identify all the necessary information to properly solve this problem).

Starting with these questions no doubt lead to a set of other questions based on what you discover, but if you start with this set, you can be assured that you are heading on the right track to helping the team develop a complete understanding of the problem and characteristics of the desired solution.

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