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Yes indeed, there are stupid questions (in business analysis)!

James Proctor
James Proctor


There is an expression “there are no stupid questions.” I disagree. In the world of business analysis there are indeed stupid questions. And in the context of business analysis, I define a stupid question as a question that a business analyst could have and should have resolved prior to engaging Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and other stakeholders in a business analysis discussion.

A Classic Stupid Question

Here is a classic example. A business analyst has a scheduled meeting or facilitated session with a small group of knowledgeable SMEs. Perhaps it’s in connection with mapping and analyzing the organization’s customer billing process. The BA opens the meeting with the question “What is customer billing?” Please bring me up to speed on the concept of customer billing.” The BA is immediately viewed by the SMEs as a slacker [def: A person who avoids or minimizes work or effort]. The SMEs are already irritated and have lost respect for the BA within the first 60 seconds of the start of the meeting or session. Why?

Pretty much all SMEs are slammed for time. In other words, they have more work on their plate than the time to do it all. The work that they need to do (and is not getting done) while they are in a work session with a BA is a backlog of work that remains when they finish the session – no one is covering for the SME while the SME is in a session with their colleagues and the BA.

However – and this is key - SMEs want to contribute and will make time to contribute but are not particularly tolerant of a BA that asks stupid questions and wastes their time.

Do Not Waste SME Time With Stupid Questions

How is the BA wasting the SMEs time? When the BA asks the question “What is customer billing”, you can feel the tension as the SMEs roll their eyes and think to themselves “this is the third BA in the last two years that has asked us the same question - do they not keep track of the analysis. And then throughout the session the BA continues to ask the SMEs to explain basic terms and concepts regarding the subject. In other words, it’s not an analysis session, it is, in this example, a course in customer billing 101 to get the BA up to speed.

The SMEs have a legitimate gripe because the BA conducting the meeting could have reviewed prior analysis work – and even if there is no prior analysis work, I guarantee that there is an existing body of knowledge at some level regarding any business space in an organization, in this example, customer billing. For example: policy and procedure manuals (even if not complete and a bit out of date), user documentation of systems supporting the business area, user and management reports, etc.

The Cure for Stupid Business Analysis Questions

Accordingly, I encourage BAs to apply a technique - domain pre-analysis, that I discuss in detail in my Business Systems Analysis and my Business Process Modeling courses. The concept is that a BA, prior to initial engagement with SMEs first assemble the existing body of knowledge of the business space that the BA is analyzing, analyze that body of knowledge to bring themselves up to speed to at least a basic level of conversational understanding of the space prior to engaging SMEs. I typically even go to next level of pre-session preparation and create starter artifacts – process maps, activity diagrams, etc. to present in the opening meeting.

The BA can then open the session from a different, more informed perspective – “We are here to discuss and analyze customer billing. Prior to this session I have assembled and analyzed the great work that you have done in this space over the last few years. I have good basic knowledge of space, but I am not an SME, you are the SMEs and together we can hit the ground running.” If I also have created some starter artifacts (see paragraph above) I say “I created these starter diagrams (I do not use the term “artifacts” with SMEs) to enable a deeper level of discussion. Clearly, my initial diagrams have gaps and inaccuracies, but it’s a starting place to build on.”

Your SMEs will respect you for respecting their time and will view you as someone that “gets it” and can provide analysis value from the SMEs time invested in the analysis session(s). And, because you did the pre-work, you can now authentically ask insightful questions, clarifying questions, open-ended questions, etc., but you no longer need to ask stupid questions.

Also see my whitepaper The 5 Essential Business Analysis Questions for deep insight into asking smart business analysis questions.

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