The process of developing detailed requirements – or even a well-articulated vision – can be an excruciating process without the right facilitation techniques. In a broken process the person gathering requirements doesn’t know what to ask and those who want the solution have a hard time articulating what they want and need because they don’t know how to share their thoughts with someone from the outside.
Facilitating a discussion takes skill and curiosity, however, in many cases that’s not enough to convey the richness of the desires of those who want the solution. What’s needed is a framework for success. Forming a framework based on the learnings of knowledge management for the last 20 years and instructional design of the last 50 or so years creates opportunities to gather requirements and vision more quickly and with greater vibrancy.
Fish and Water
If fish could talk and you asked them what water was like, how might they answer? They’d probably answer the same way we’d answer about air. “It’s the stuff you’re in.” Or perhaps, “It’s always there.” Because fish have never known anything different, it would be hard for them to articulate an alternative reality. Likewise, if a fish were trying to describe the properties of a house, it’s unlikely that they’d mention that it has to be something that will stay together in water – because from the point of view of the fish that is obvious.
This is the fundamental challenge of eliciting vision and requirements. When you’re “in it” you can’t see it. It’s up to the person gathering requirements to create an opportunity for the person with the knowledge and vision to get outside of their environment and their standard ways of thinking long enough to be able to communicate the obvious.
Our brains are marvelous tools which allow us to shape our world like no other animal on the planet, but they are not without their limits. While we tend to think of our brains as computers with the ability to rapidly process large volumes of information, the truth is that our brains are more like hard drives than a computer. We are able to store and code a large number of informational facts and recall them. However, unlike a computer, our filing system isn’t that organized, and we can’t just pull out a single fact.
The filing system in our brain is about the connections, much like cards in a card catalog. The cards in a card catalog may link a book’s location by author, title, and topic. In our brain, our experiences are linked by time, location, and “likeness.” Likeness is similar to a topic but is much more subjective. For instance, we associate all red things as having similarities, such as a stop sign, a sports car, and an apple. This is why we sometimes randomly recall odd things.
In addition, our brains also retrieve entire experiences from memory – much like taking a whole shelf of books down and opening them and reading them at the same time. We get not just the facts about the situation, but often we get the emotions of the situation as well.
This is important because if we can find the right connection to the right experience, we can get a flood of new information about what is needed or desired – but only if we can find the right connection to an experience.
It’s well known that there are some kinds of knowledge which resist being codified (i.e. written down.) Knowledge such as how to balance the forces necessary to ride a bike or how to manage the competing demands for attention while landing a plane are classic examples of knowledge which is difficult to codify. This is the struggle that knowledge management professionals have fought over for years. Tacit knowledge is “know how.” It is, for the most part, difficult to codify into explicit knowledge, knowledge that can be written down.
Knowledge management as a discipline has many challenges, but the first challenge is in the process of eliciting the transfer of knowledge from the person that has it. The techniques that have been developed for the transfer of knowledge can be helpful to eliciting vision and gathering a clear understanding of requirements.
The most powerful technique that has been developed in knowledge management is the use of storytelling – both factual and fictional – to activate as many potential ways to connect what is known with the experience of sharing. By telling the story, the storyteller is reliving the experience and has access to the knowledge they used or gained during the experience. This is true whether the story is factual or whether it’s a fictional tale based on their learnings. Our brains have evolved to learn through stories and so we’re most able to learn when we’re processing stories.
While storytelling is effective at elicitation and knowledge capture, it’s difficult to fit into a requirements capture setting because the verbose nature of the story can consume a large amount of precious time. As a result, exercises and games are used as a surrogate to accomplish the same mental processes without the verbose nature of storytelling.
Trainers have long known that labs and exercises are more effective at creating deep learning. When evaluated on Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, lecturing at a group of students may create recognition of facts – or even recall of those facts later, however, the ability to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize solutions based on the knowledge is illusive. That’s why for more advanced cognitive learning more exercise-based activities are used. Most people readily identify that they learned the most through training exercises – though often they can’t put their finger on exactly what it is that they learned.
The work of Malcolm Knowles, Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan, and others who have worked on adult education and on instructional design, have discovered the power of exercises for learning. The idea is that adult students learn better from exercises. The reason for the improved learning is important. The exercise creates a holding environment where all of the students – and the instructor – are able to create a free flowing set of ideas and questions.
This same holding environment – an environment of openness and safety – can be used quite effectively in the context of attempting to gather requirements and create a precise vision. The very essence of an exercise is two way communication between an instructor and the students. When taken in the context of vision refinement, it allows the requirements gatherer to communicate about the environment and the clients to communicate about their perception. This is an effective way to create the open dialog, which facilitates greater refinement and understanding.
However, exercises aren’t the most effective approach for gathering requirements and reaching a specific vision. There is a more powerful way to achieve the objective by taking the exercise and converting it into a game.
Games are an amplification of exercises. Most people have at least a component of their personality which is competitive. We all want to win. As a result, by framing an exercise as a game, we can further amplify the effectiveness and create an opportunity for participants to get more deeply engaged in the process. The reality is that people play differently when they know someone is keeping score.
It’s not that the game is designed to create winners and losers, people simply are more engaged and more passionate about an exercise when it’s converted into the context of a game with a prize at the end. This is part of the reason why the idea of gamification has become such an important concept in recent years. The idea that someone is watching and rewarding participants based on their achievements is a part of how we as humans experience our world.
It’s certainly possible to reach a vision or get requirements through a traditional interview-based approach however it’s neither as much fun, nor as effective, as leveraging exercises and games to accelerate the process. The process of reaching a shared vision or the development of requirements need not be an exercise in drudgery. You can get better, more timely results by leveraging a bit of knowledge management and instructional design wisdom.
About The Author
Robert Bogue is a thought leader on all things SharePoint and an engaging presenter who speaks at events around the world. Rob has been awarded the Microsoft MVP designation eleven times, and earned recognition as a Microsoft patterns & practices Champion. Rob holds certifications from Microsoft: MCPD, MCITP, MCTS, MCSA: Security, MCSE as well as CompTia: A+, Network+, Server+, I-Net+, IT Project+, E-Biz+, CDIA+. Rob also served as a team member for the SharePoint Guidance.
He is the author of 23 books including, The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users: 2013, which is also available in a Wiki version as The SharePoint Tutor. Robert is committed to “making the complicated, simple.” Find out more about SharePoint adoption and engagement at, http://www.SharePointShepherd.com and follow Rob’s blog at http://www.ThorProjects.com/blog/. You can also email Rob at Rob.Bogue@ThorProjects.com.