Three Ways Asking ‘What if’ Matters

The other day I heard a conversation between a mother and her young son. He asked her a series of questions starting with ‘What if’. After a few of these she responded with ‘What if we stopped with what ifs?’ As a mother, I understood her frustration and response. As an analyst, I was sad considering the consequences of stopping ‘What if?’

Can you remember when you thought anything was possible? There was a time when each of us had no limitations on what we believed could happen. As we gain experience and wisdom in life, we slowly forget to ask What if. We rely on our own experience and that limits our thinking.

The foundation of business analysis is thinking. Thinking to consider every viewpoint, system and business rule involved in understanding the problem and designing the right solution. Asking ‘What If’ and dozens of other questions is key to focusing thinking. Remembering to ask ‘What if’ creates value in several aspects of analysis. I want to focus on three specific value contexts. Consider customer focus, business need and business risk.

Customer Focus

All businesses exist to provide a service and or a product to a customer. Understanding your customer is critical to be a successful business. Customers can be internal or external to the organization. They likely have different problems and may need different solutions. Consider these ‘What if’ questions we should ask.

  • What if I don’t understand what my customer needs and I provide the wrong product?

Asking what if in this context creates focus on knowing your customer. We need to know what problem they are experiencing and what solution they need. We need clear understanding of who our customer is and what they need. Some additional questions to consider:

  • What if I asked my customers what difficulties they are having?
  • What if I HEARD what my customers difficulties are?
  • What if I found a solution to their difficulties?  

You have heard the phrase ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’ When companies anticipate what customers need, create that product or service they will gain loyal customers. The best way to find out what someone is struggling with is to ask, then listen. Listen to understand and not respond with, but that isn’t possible, we tried that or some other phrase that shuts down the possibility of change.

I owned a mini van in the early 90’s. I loved it, it had the space for my family and met my needs, for the most part.  As my children grew, we had the same mini van. I wished for doors on both sides, windows that rolled down in the back, an easier way to remove the back bench for hauling items. This would make my life as a busy mom easier. Years later all of these features appeared in new models of mini vans! The car industry listened, heard and responded. This is something every company had do!

I am waiting for retailers, grocers and restaurants to make loyalty programs and coupons easier for consumers. Somehow, can they collect information and acknowledge discount with a few data points that represent me rather than separate apps? I am confident that this will happen!

 Business Needs

Many times, people will ask for something that they want, mistaking it for what they need.  

  • What if I give my customer exactly what they ask for?
  • What if I don’t challenge my customer to think about what they need rather than what they think they need?

An analyst creates value when they hear a request and use their elicitation skills to dig deeper to understand what the problem is that is resulting in the request. This sounds simple. In theory it is, however knowing when to go deeper is an art. Analysts need to understand process, data, rules and the stakeholders just enough. This requires some elicitation to know when to challenge the stakeholders to consider a change in the process, while still supporting their rules. Knowing the process can help you illustrate the outcome of the business process to accomplish exactly what they ask for. I articulate the result of giving exactly what they ask for, showing them the outcome. Then ask the question, is that what you were expecting? The answer is usually No, which allows me to dig deeper and understand what is causing difficulty. If I miss this chance to ensure that I understand what they need rather than giving them what they want, the team will likely implement the wrong solution. This causes frustration with the business and the IT team that implemented the change and creates rework.

Additional what if questions follow when you understand what needs to happen to solve the problem.

  • What if another role could perform this task to better match their skills?
  • What if you relied on the initial data check rather than incorporating the second validation?

This is a way to guide your business stakeholders to think about things in a different way and see the future that could be more efficient and could reduce your cost that you could pass on to your customer to more competitive, invest time to improve service to your customer, or in new product development.

Business Risks

A business risk is something that could happen to cause the business harm to profitability or reputation. Business risks are discussed and identified many places in an organization. For example, compliance and legal departments are the gatekeepers of risks that could result in litigation or regulatory fines. These risks are often discussed in operations.  Using what if questions with the perspective of a business analyst can draw out risks that may not be discovered in other areas. Consider these questions that build on the context of customer focus and business needs contexts.

  • What if I don’t understand what my customer needs and I provide the wrong product?
  • What if I can’t influence my customer to work differently to meet their needs after a software implementation?
  • What if my customer purchases my competitor’s product or service because I can’t solve their problem?

Identifying these risks is a conversation that teams should engage in to plan for creating the right solution. If you fail to understand your customer, you introduce business risk.

Consider the scenario with the New Coke product. Who else remembers this from the 1980s? Coca Cola has one of the strongest most loyal customer base. They were experiencing a decline in market share to Pepsi. The decision was made that people preferred the taste of Pepsi to Coke. In response, the New Coke tasted more like Pepsi.  Focus groups indicated this New Coke would be well received. However, Coke customers prefer to drink Coke and don’t want something that tastes like Pepsi! This fundamental change to an established product was a monumental flop. This did create business risk.  Could the team have mitigated the risk differently if there had been more What if thinking? Despite using elicitation techniques focus groups, surveys and interviews, as well as massive marketing campaigns, they were not able to persuade their customers to embrace a new product. This is a cautionary tale to ensure that when making changes, consider the risk of a customer not receiving the change.

If a customer continues to have a problem that you don’t address, eventually there is the risk that they will seek out a competitor. This business risk is that you lose market share and profitability. Talk to your customers and listen to anticipate what they need. Customer feedback is invaluable.

When you have identified a business risk through a what if question scenario, the conversation doesn’t stop there. Additional what if questions arise.

  • What if I ignore the business risk?
  • What if I can’t influence my product owners to listen to the customer?

These questions are important to consider creating a mitigation strategy. Ignoring the risk is a response. There are so many places for customers to purchase services and products organizations can not afford to ignore these risks.

It is important that we do not stop asking what if. However, I caution you to not get caught in analysis paralysis with the what if. Teams can spend too much time discussing these. Like all aspects of analysis how much time or the number of questions you ask will depend on the context of whatever situation you are working with. Ask what if to understand the customer, the business needs and discuss the business risks you could encounter. Create a risk response strategy and move on to creating the right solution!  

Heather, A BA Without Borders