Monday, October 4, 2010

Getting your virtual team to agree on requirements

As a seasoned Business Analyst you come to recognize that not all “requirements” are really requirements. Ideally discovery teams first diverge, taking differing positions, identifying all possibilities. Then after carefully examining numerous alternatives, they use a decision-making process to converge on a solution. In a face-to-face workshop you might group, rank, or prioritize ideas, but how can that be accomplished in a distributed forum?

In my last article, I wrote about using “Virtual Brainstorming” to collect broad input from distributed stakeholders. Now your virtual team will want to winnow the material and transform what’s learned into what’s vital to the task – critical requirements, essential project dependencies, mandatory data, etc. Here are some suggestions on how to analyze brainstormed ideas and distill them into well-defined requirements.

Decide how you will navigate decisions

Most decision-making techniques can be accomplished virtually with the right set of tools and ground rules. It can save a lot of headaches if your team can agree on a decision-making process in advance – BEFORE they brainstorm ideas. What will produce an acceptable outcome?

* Should brainstorming results be handed off to an “expert”, delegating decisions to someone else?
* How about majority rule; would a simple democratic system work for your team?
* Would multi-voting (a/k/a “Chicago Style” – 1 person:3 votes) help to determine importance or weight?
* Would your team prefer to evaluate the pros & cons of each idea then make a group recommendation?
* Is consensus the goal?

Experts say consensus techniques are ideal in terms of decisions that are well thought out, of high quality, and generate commitment to support and implement the decisions. As someone who is now more Facilitator than BA, I would have to agree. For more on consensus decision-making see the archive of Gary Rush’s enlightening 2-part article entitled “A Process for Deciding.”
Use buckets to organize brainstorming ideas

To consolidate the various ideas generated during a brainstorming session first find the duplicates and closely related ideas, grouping them into “buckets” of similar context. Develop a process for organizing the data, then capturing the “theme” of each bucket. This helps the team recognize their common ground – similar lines of thinking. As they explore how the themes relate and deal with exceptions and variations, the team comes to an even smaller set of workable ideas.

In a virtual environment this concept is supported by Collaborative Systems (also known as electronic meeting systems, groupware, and group decision support systems) - software specifically designed to address the group processes in problem solving and decision making. Key features enable data input, categorizing, grouping, and voting. More elementary (and less costly) options include Mindmeister’s award-winning free “Mind-Mapping” software, or a shared on-line whiteboard space can be used to collect virtual brainstorming ideas as electronic sticky notes and allow participants to take turns organizing them, as you would an Affinity exercise. I find the key is to avoid information overload for the participants by structuring the data into understandable and readable portions, enabling them to see the patterns of thought.
Scoring, elimination heats, and determining winners

Once your choices are narrowed to a manageable field, a survey or polling tool can be used to vote, rank, or prioritize pre-defined selections, on-line or using a telephone keypad. Polls can support a variety of decision-making activities:

* Allocation across alternatives.
* Categorize alternatives.
* Prioritize or rank order from most preferred to least preferred.
* Rank relevance of subjects/statements from most true to least from your perspective.
* Rate alternatives on a chosen scale.
* Score alternatives versus weighted criteria.
* Select the most preferred alternatives.
* Vote on alternatives with options to indicate yes, no, or abstain.

Collaborate with your team to determine criteria that should influence decision-making and the weight placed on decision factors. If there are polarities among your team consider a prioritization process first to highlight the degree of importance they place on the issue. If you have uneven representation in your team, avoid skewing by grouping members of the same department or position; create a level playing field by limiting affiliated positions to just 1 vote per group. When the voting is done, share the results in a bar graph or summary form. Be sure to discuss and document minority opinions as well as favored solutions.

SurveyMonkey is an example of a survey generator that works well to collect measurable responses in the form of preferences, comparative opinions, yes/no decision, etc., and is available for free. Participants are invited by web-link to the polling site to cast their votes and view results. Web conferencing tools also typically offer live polling features that are used to quickly analyze the group’s direction of thought during a meeting. All the survey tools that I’ve worked with also include features to instantly report the results. Think about how impressive it will be to ask for a virtual show of hands, then instantly display a graph demonstrating the outcome and distribution percentages.

Applying these techniques

So how do we put all this into practical use? Try these virtual techniques the next time you face the challenge of converging brainstorming results into “developed” requirements. Here are some applications I’ve had success with:

* NARROWING DOWN TO ESSENTIAL USE CASES. An initial list of Use Cases was derived from virtual brainstorming using a web conferencing chat feature to collect ideas. The entries were evaluated and categorized in real time by a designated “theme team” of observers, while the main group moved on to other topics. In the next phase the theme team presented their findings as an electronic poll for a prioritization vote.
* PLANNING PROJECT ACTIVITIES. A team engaged in a web conference dialogue about project assumptions and required tasks was able to observe on-line and guide the creation of an electronic “Mind Map” by a designated scribe.
* ALIGNING STAKEHOLDER INTERESTS. Expectations were brainstormed on-line with electronic sticky notes, and then the participants were divided into 2 breakout groups via teleconference to complete a virtual Affinity exercise. The designated leaders took turns organizing the sticky notes into affiliated topics at their group’s direction. The full team explored the categories that were developing and differences in the groups’ organization until they could come to consensus, delivering a refined list of project objectives and constraints.

* EVALUATING CANDIDATE SOLUTIONS. After a software evaluation team came to agreement regarding the weight placed on various evaluation criteria, an electronic survey was launched to collect the ranking of 3 packages being considered. Evaluation team members completed their individual surveys as they finalized their research and testing over a 1 week period. The conclusions were delivered in a report detailing the summary results and the ranking from each individual Evaluator.

What happened to make each of these virtual collaborations a success? A simple formula of inclusive decision-making combined with effective use of virtual tools. By following these practices your virtual team will have input during the brainstorm, voting, and discussion phases, making them highly engaged during the working session, and truly committed to the decisions that are made. In other words … smooth sailing into the sunset.

This blog was provided courtesy of Joan Davis and originally appeared on

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