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Information Gathering 1: Strategic Interviews the Foundation of Success

The one-to-one strategic in-depth interview is the most effective means of gathering information from senior directors and senior executives and are the foundation of all successful system development and business improvement projects.

The following content is an excerpt from the eBook IMM Function Modelling

The purpose of one-to-one strategic in-depth interviews is to find out from key executives within the enterprise what their opinions are regarding the business area in question and the improvement project itself.

Such interviews will give you a feel for, provided you listen to what is said (sometimes what is unsaid), what is most important to the interviewee and, as he or she is a key member of the business, it is vital that you know this before proceeding with the project.  This is the type of information that you cannot gather from documents alone.  All of the knowledge you gather here will help you to formulate a forward strategy for the business modelling project.

Who To Interview

Effective strategic interviews with appropriate senior executives are the essence of the success of any business modelling project.  The term “appropriate” means that the person:

  • Is knowledgeable about the business area in question.
  • Is a key player in that area.
  • Is empowered to define and implement strategy for that area.
  • Has a vision of the way forward.
  • Supports the objectives of the business modelling project

These interviewees will be key people and opinion leaders from the business area in question plus members of groups with a valid interest in the business area, such as auditors.

Another group of people who have a very strong interest in the business area are its customers both internal and external.  An enlightened business modelling project manager would see that there are significant benefits to be had by involving customers in the information gathering process.

The number of in-depth interviews will vary depending on the size of the organisation and the scale and scope of the study.

For a small organisation with less than 30 employees one or two interviews should suffice.  As the size of the organisation and the scope of the project increases then the number of interviews will increase.

Whatever the size of the organisation, interviewing numbers greater than 12 will give diminishing returns – great extra effort expended with little extra to show for it.

The interviewees should represent all areas of the business falling within the scope of the project, with some overlap into related areas (such as customers!) to ensure nothing vital is missed.  The objective is to involve the minimum number of people with the greatest knowledge who know what the business ought to be doing now and in the future.

Many projects fail because interviewees for early in-depth interviews are chosen at too low a level in the business, generally people with detailed “hands on” knowledge of existing systems.  Such people are (generally) unsuitable for in-depth interviews, as they tend to see the business only in terms of the current system(s) and procedure.  They seldom appreciate the underlying Business Functions and lack a vision of what ought be happening.

Do not be afraid to insist on having senior executives for in-depth interviews.  It is essential that you have, their input is vital. If you structure the interviews as detailed here you will ensure that you do not waste their time.  Making audio recordings of interviews will also ensure you will not have to re-interview these people and ask them the same questions over again.

Some or all of the interviewees must be in a position to make or agree a forward strategy for the project.

What to Ask

Key managers are interviewed separately, one at a time.  Preparation for these interviews is essential.  In a large organisation this can take between half and one day for two analysts.  A major output from this preparation is a basic set of questions to be asked of the senior executives that should include, as a minimum, the following:

  • What are the Business Functions that the executive sees as being within the scope of the study?
  • With regard to those Business Functions that are in the scope of the study and are carried out in the executive ‘s department:
    • What are the business aims and objectives?
    • What are the key performance indicators, i.e. what measures should the business area use to measure how well it is performing these Business Functions?
    • What are the critical success factors for the business, i.e. what must be achieved by the business with regard to these Business Functions for the business to be judged to be successful?
    • What are the critical success factors for the business modelling project, i.e. what must be achieved by the project with regard to these Business Functions for the project to be judged to be successful?
    • What does executive see as being the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) for the business and for the project?
    • Are there and existing risks and issues within the business area?
  • What do they see are the risks and issues for the project?
  • Any other questions that are relevant are then added to the above list.

Avoid asking “closed” questions, i.e. those requiring just a “yes” or “no” answer – unless you require a definite “yes” or “no” answer on a particular subject.

In general, each question should be the beginning of a dialogue between the manager and the lead analyst.  The supporting analyst should help keep the lead analyst and manager on track and bring them back to the listed questions if they stray too far.

Two analysts are always better than one at these interviews, even in small businesses.  It actually increases productivity.

A major aim of the one-to-one strategic interview is to get information from the interviewees that could not be obtained in any other way, for example, their current opinions on certain industry topics and the elements of the business or the modelling project they see as being most important.

Another major aim is to establish that the manager supports the objectives of the business modelling project and the changes that it will bring about in the business and, if not, why not.

The final question should be: “Is there anything that you think I should have asked you and which I have not?”

Structure Not Straight Jacket

Some analysts think that giving such structure to strategy interviews is somehow limiting them.  Good analysts will know the questions they will need to have answered during an interview.  They will also know that the only way to ensure that they get them answered is to ask them during the interview and that the best way to ensure that they are asked is to have them on a list of questions to be asked!

None of the above prevents the analyst from being creative, asking supplementary questions and expanding the interview into an open dialogue where appropriate.  Structured interviews ought to be methodical but not mechanistic.

Planning

The duration of the interview can be calculated in advance based on the amount of time it ought to take for the manager being interviewed to answer all of the questions on the list.  The typed up list should be taken to the interview and used as the basis for the agenda.

The interviewee should be prepared by sending them a synopsis of the list of questions explaining the purpose of the interview and indicating the type of questions that will be asked.  Avoid sending the list of questions itself as many managers are tempted to treat this as a questionnaire, complete it and return it to you thinking that that is an end to the matter. This does not give you what you wanted as the questions were on the starting point for a dialogue; it wastes their time and creates a negative situation that could have been avoided.

Method

These interviews will typically last between two and four hours depending on the size of the organisation and scope of the project.  Two analysts should take part in the interviews, one to lead and facilitate, the second analyst is there to take notes and monitor the lead analyst, ensuring that he/she is asking the correct questions, is listening and hearing the interviewee, is reacting to their responses and not missing any critical points.

The second analyst also takes notes but these ought not to be the primary means of capturing the findings of the interview.

Ideally, all in-depth interviews should be captured by an audio recording and a manuscript produced from which all the analysts in the project team can work.  The interviewee should be assured that the tape will only be played to members of the project team for the purposes of making a typed transcript – then erased.

At the end of the interview thank the interviewee and say that you will feed back a transcript of the interview as soon as possible to ensure that you have correctly captured what you think they told you.

Getting More Setail

To read about how to add detail to the information gathere in Sytratgeic Interviews read Detailed Modelling Workshops

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4 Responses to “Information Gathering 1: Strategic Interviews the Foundation of Success”

  1. John Beatty February 15, 2012 2:40 pm #

    Excellent points all. Definitely engage frontline staff. Most senior execs *don’t* give interviews though – good luck there – something about plausible deniability.

    I like to use a mind mapping tool to distill the interview. My clients love it.

    • John Owens February 16, 2012 2:16 am #

      Hi John

      Thanks for your comments. Frontline staff are excellent for Detailed Analysis Workshops. However, for Strategy InterviewsONLY Senior Executives will do.

      Its a fallacy that they do not give interviews. Because people believe this, they do not expect it to happen and so do not set up the interviews. Apart from that, if the senior executives of the enterprise are not willing to get involved then STOP THE PROJECT! It is pointless proceeding with a project for which the direction and strategy has not been defined by senior management. This one of the major reasons why so many IT projects continue to fail!

      If the captain of the ship is not willing to take time to tell the crew what the ship is meant to be doing and where it is meant to be going, then it is not up to the crew to guess the destination, set sail and hope for the best.

      A mind mapping tool can be useful, however, the products of these interviews have got to be formal business models. At the very least they must result in a Function Model and a Logical Data Model. Remember, the analysis is not complete until the models have been built.

      Again, thank you.
      Regards
      John

  2. Richard Ordowich February 15, 2012 1:14 pm #

    Know your Audience

    Although I agree with most of the suggestions in this article there are a few points which I believe are ill advised.

    “Whatever the size of the organisation, interviewing numbers greater than 12 will give diminishing returns – great extra effort expended with little extra to show for it.”

    Rules of thumb are helpful but perhaps a better rule would be to interview as many senior executives as you can, all departments and all functions (major business processes).

    “Many projects fail because interviewees for early in-depth interviews are chosen at too low a level in the business, generally people with detailed “hands on” knowledge of existing systems. Such people are (generally) unsuitable for in-depth interviews, as they tend to see the business only in terms of the current system(s) and procedure. They seldom appreciate the underlying Business Functions and lack a vision of what ought be happening.”

    Make sure you sit with the people on the front lines. Sales, customer support, production etc. These folks will give you the “facts’ the way things really work with all the exceptions and workarounds, while many others will describe the text book or ideal perspective. Also make sure you get the history of the organization because buried inside the history are the successes and failures that may impact your project.

    “These interviews will typically last between two and four hours depending on the size of the organisation and scope of the project.”

    Any meeting of more than one hour is an interrogation. Interviews should be one hour. If you need more details schedule another interview.

    “Ideally, all in-depth interviews should be captured by an audio recording and a manuscript produced from which all the analysts in the project team can work.”

    This stifles the conversation. Do not bring recording devices into any meeting.

    • John Owens February 15, 2012 11:51 pm #

      Thanks for the feedback, Richard.

      This Rule of Thumb on numbers was put in because it has been proven to work. It prevents wasting the time of senior executives. Senior executives not included in Strategic Interviews should be included in a scoping session. I will cover this more when I talk about ‘Slaying Dragons’. When choosing your senior executives use the 80/20 Rule of the Parato principle.

      Front line staff are definitely not suitable for strategic interviews, exactly for the reasons I gave. They do not have the strategic view nor are they empowered. They will definitely have great ideas about how to make the existing systems better. However, this is the ‘Achilles Heel’ of all information gathering as it concentrates on trying to make existing systems better. What it does NOT do is define WHAT the enterprise OUGHT to be doing in the first place. The existing systems may well not support this ‘ought’!

      Front line staff can definitely contribute to Detailed Analysis Workshops.

      Longer meetings are split up into one hour sessions. However, when you are trying to get into the diary of a very busy senior executive, it is better to do it once and get it right.

      Totally disagree about recording devices and stifling conversation! I have been using this technique with senior executives around the globe for over 20 years now and it has NEVER stifled the conversation. These people are not afraid to say what they mean, quite the reverse, it is there ability to speak out and say exactly what they need that has taken them to their positions. However, I would always, as a matter of courtesy and policy, guarantee that the recording was only for use by the analysis team.

      Also remember, everything that each or the seniors executives says in their interview, whether recorded or not, will be shared with the other senior executives at the Executive Feedback session at the end of the Strategy Stage of the SDLC

      Recording conversations is an absolute MUST as it prevents anything being lost and the need to call on the busy executive again.

      Again, thanks for the feedback.

      Regards
      John

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