Key success factors for Business Analysts, Product Owners, and Project Managers leading meetings.

Facilitating meetings to successfully achieve their planned outcomes has always been a hot topic — and a challenge that hasn’t become any easier with remote participants, new technologies, and progressively more complicated projects and environments. Requirements Discovery Sessions (or similar meetings like User Story Workshops or Workflow Modeling Sessions) are special cases adding complexity and risks – requiring some additional considerations and thought.

How do you set the best expectations and tone for the meetings? What makes a good session? As a meeting organizer or session leader, what can you do? How do you facilitate a smooth and efficiently run session? How can you lead to support a successful outcome? And how do you ensure good participation, engagement, and positive meeting dynamics.

In this post I’ll share some tips we’ve learned over the years in the sessions we’ve run on IAG engagements.

Without an experienced facilitator, sessions have the tendency to move in their own uncharted directions based on what more vocal participants want to discuss. Right out of the gate, it is important that facilitators lay out the session topic(s) and objectives of the session, and stick with that intention throughout the meeting.  Simple tricks like having a title on the whiteboard, page, or flipchart visually helps as a focus and reminder of the current topic under discussion. At IAG we also use a variety of Discovery Canvases™ as visual aids which are like pre-defined templates of the ‘sub-topics’ to discuss.

When the conversation starts to veer off topic (as it inevitable does) the facilitator should be able to get the group back on track quickly while acknowledging the out-of-scope topic, and by extension, letting participants know that they’ve been heard and that their input is valuable. The idea can be captured for future sessions or offline discussion (e.g., place the idea on a parking lot list on a side wall in a physical room, or a tab or off-screen area in a virtual space.)

Invariably, many Discovery Sessions will require the group to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short time. A good facilitator can help promote a fluid rhythm for eliciting information from participants by prompting them for clear and concise responses. When session participants answer questions or provide an explanation for something (e.g., steps in their business process, or acceptance criteria for a user story), the facilitator can help them clarify aspects of their response as they provide it.

Generally, we like to follow the advice of Albert Einstein to “make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Don’t get us wrong – there are definitely times when long examples and descriptions are helpful, or when background detail can provide necessary context to develop great content during discovery sessions. However, facilitators should be wary of falling into the trap where an extended conversation monopolizes limited session time and goes beyond what is necessary for the purpose at hand. In these cases, conversations may need to be diplomatically cut short and deferred for future discussion to keep the session on track and on time.

While we may sometimes undertake some modeling exercises to understand how things are done today (e.g., Joanne from Engineering, the only person in the department who understands legacy system ABC, is retiring next month), for the most part, Requirement Discovery Sessions are about understanding how we want things to be handled in the future — for the new product, system, or environment. A facilitator who directs discussion towards the desired/future state will, by extension, find out:

  • What works in the current state (and should persist in the future state)
  • What does not exist in the current state and needs to be added in the future state, and
  • What exists in the current state but needs to be modified or removed in the future state.

Concentrating on the future, desired state ensures the best use of limited session time and a focus on the business’ needs.

Speaking of business needs, here’s a subtle difference in the perspective a facilitator can take with session participants:

While problems (and solving them) may be why we’re all meeting (i.e., the drivers or the motivation for the project/epic/change), our primary focus in a Requirements Discovery Session should be directed towards describing what is needed, and not the problems themselves.

Facilitators can select one of many techniques to elicit these requirements, including modeling and describing the product’s use cases, the organization’s processes, a customer’s journey, or by building a story map and having user story conversations.

Along similar lines, good facilitators need to dig deeper when an individual or the group casually assumes something to be true (or that it will exist in the future state). If you believe a point/requirement has an underlying assumption (which could be a dependency/constraint), it is important to seek clarification. Keeping track of these assumptions to allow them to be continuously validated at key points in the lifecycle of an initiative – this will help the team manage the inevitable changes and potential risks introduced when a previously agreed upon assumption is suddenly identified as invalid.

We all come to meetings with our own interests in mind – and sometimes some participants are more vocal than others. Experienced facilitators and business analysts know the value — and necessity — of ensuring all voices are heard. Session leaders need to encourage everyone to actively participate, to listen, to ask questions, and to be present.  This starts with setting the tone and expectation of everyone to be open to the views of others, mindful of the different communication and interpersonal styles of others, and to be constructive in conversations. Unfortunately, junior, less experienced, or introverted participants often feel uncomfortable making counterpoints or expressing their perspectives in front of more dynamic participants or to those who sit senior to them on the company org chart. It is the facilitator or sessions leader’s responsibility to create an environment for all to contribute their thoughts and ideas freely. I can’t tell you how many times a senior stakeholder’s assumption of how they believe lower-level tasks are performed is not accurate, and where junior-level participants have been able to contribute valuable insights or a different perspective which helps the group make much better decisions on the business’s true requirements.

Participants sometimes need to be reminded that the reason they have been invited to these Requirement Discovery Sessions is to represent their unique and shared perspectives, needs, priorities, views, (and yes – issues & problems) to the group. Establishing a safe, respectful, open environment is absolutely key — where there may still be disagreement, but everyone feels they can contribute and they are valued. A positive, respectful, and engaged group that is actively sharing is essential to the requirements discovery effort and in achieving positive results and the intended outcomes for the session.  Using a supportive, encouraging, and focused professional facilitator experienced in these practices (or following this guidance yourself) could be the difference between success or failure on your next workshop.

– D. Nicholls

Have any other tips or advise for ensuring a session is smoothly run and accomplishes its goals? Please, feel free to share them in the comments below.

IAG offers a variety of services for individuals and organizations involved in improving their systems and business processes. Running facilitated workshops to accomplish objectives such as scoping a project, defining software requirements, mapping user stories, or modeling workflows are essential elements of these engagements. Over decades of engagements, we have developed a reputation for leading successful sessions – both in-person and virtual meetings. In courses like Facilitating Discovery Sessions, we teach this skill – and give away many of our secrets for running successful workshops. And, of course, our bread and butter is our project engagements (like this recent one) where, in a few weeks or months, we deliver business cases, project vision and scope, story maps, requirements, or process models – often with the intended added goal of coaching and mentoring internal project managers and business analysts along the way.

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