If you are in any way participant in intelligence projects from an end user or consultant perspective (BI, CI, MI or whatever I) you will most likely also participate in the process of information analysis. Previously, we have defined this as the process of gathering both information needs and functional (and non-functional) requirements. I’ve seen many many posts about interview techniques and presentation techniques and the more I read about it, the more I come to the conclusion that those are merely tools, and not even the most important ones. No, information analysis is Art. And it was not his brush that made Rembrandt one of the biggest painters of his time.
Let’s focus on interviews. Interviews are a common way to get the information needed for an information analysis (as well as workshops for bigger audiences). If you’ve ever read posts or articles about the top <insert random number here> do’s and don’ts during interviews, you might learn a thing or two. If you’re lucky. One of the utter basics you will be taught is most likely this killer tip: “Use open questions”. Doh! Surely if you are interviewing someone who does not want to be in the chair on the other side of the table for whatever reason, it will be a horrible experience if you only use closed questions. You will be the one talking throughout the interview, desperately trying to keep the conversation going, ending up with no useful information because your opponent didn’t say anything other than yes, no, and don’t know. But don’t you think the interview is a total waste of time anyway? Do you think that using open questions will force him into opening up to you, and willingly telling you everything you want to know? One who does not want to be there apparently has other priorities than this interview. So he or she deems this project to be unimportant. That renders this person equally unimportant to the project. Even if you are talking to the CEO here – think about it; if the CEO doesn’t think it’s important what you are doing, he is either not going to be a user of the intelligence solution you are creating, or your project is in deeper trouble than you could possibly imagine before you started. So investing time and effort in asking what this person wants is a waste of time, because he doesn’t want anything (other than being left alone, elsewhere, doing other things).
Another great lesson you just learnt: “Prepare your interview and consider your audience”. Double doh! Isn’t that one of the basic rules for communication in general? Something you do all day, every day (prerequisite for this is that you actually communicate during your day)? Would you tell your 4 year old nephew not to speak so vituperately to his sister (and expect any reaction whatsoever)? At a party, would you say that you recently suffered from the worst acetaldehyde intoxication ever, or would you just call it a hangover (thank you Wikipedia)? Of course you consider your audience. And if you don’t prepare for an interview at all, you are (probably) just (being) arrogant.
It is like writing a book. You are thinking about writing your first novel. Most likely you have been writing tons of stories, poems and other pieces of verbal art but now you want to be well informed to launch your professional career. You seek for advice and hire a very expensive writing consultant (I bet they exist). And this person walks up to you, sizes you up and without kidding this person advises you to rehearse the alphabet…
Don’t get me wrong – I am not stating that these things are not true. I just would consider it a slap in the face if someone gave me these tips because they are so obvious. So seriously, what is important when it comes to interviewing stakeholders? If information analysis is really Art, I am not calling myself an artist, but at least it’s what I do and have been doing for quite a while and I would like to share some experiences regarding what I think is most important.
One of the things I think is important is awareness (this is the superlative of ‘considering your audience’). First, be aware of the reason why you are in the interview and why the other party is. No matter if it’s because you are the subject matter expert, the project sponsor, the project manager or the information analyst – you are there for a reason. Know your position and the position of the person you are facing during the interview. Is this person the enemy who wants to make your life miserable or a consultant with the best intentions (both might be possible). If you are the interviewing party, you want to know what the role is of the interviewee. Not the role that’s on his business card but his role in the project. Is this person a believer of the solution at stake? Is he an influencer? Will he be the most frequent user of the system? If you are unaware of these things, you are bound to ask irrelevant questions. There will be a disconnection between you and the interviewee because he does not feel understood, or worse, taken seriously – and I’ve seen both happen – resulting in unnecessary tension during the interview. This is what I feel is vital preparation for an interview.
Second, after the preparation, you should be aware of the interviewee and the way he approaches the interview. You did your due diligence to find out what you can about the interviewee, yet much of what you didn’t find out yet can be learned from the behavior of the interviewee. Is he at ease or stressed, does he seem excited about the project or is ‘annoyed’ best describing your interviewee’s state of mind? Subtle things like showing up on time rather than ten minutes late can be a signal. Be aware of these signals and anticipate immediately, even if it’s the exact obvious of what you expected and prepared. Don’t waste time with the ten-minutes-late-stressed-looking-top-manager. Skip your intro or keep it short. If you cannot beat his Blackberry in the struggle for his attention, you are losing the battle quickly (no matter how rude this is, it happens, so you better be prepared). Come to the point and skip less relevant questions, or move them towards the end (which might be sooner than you think). If he says he has 20 minutes only, make sure you use only 15. It’s commonly known that imitation makes people feel at ease (keywords here being: don’t overdo it). By being to the point rather than being the eloquent poet that you are, you make sure you are on the same level. He has no time to waste, so you better not waste it by beating about the bush. Closed questions (which by the way require a great deal of preparation concerning the interviewee’s role and job) may work extremely well in these interviews.
Quite the opposite would occur if the interviewee seems extremely interested in the project. He shows up 5 minutes early, turns off his cell phone, and wants to know everything there is to know about the project and about your role in it. Of course this interviewee gives you more (and better) options, but still you have to determine the path for your interview. Is this a knowledgeable, pro-active person, eager to share his relevant information? Or does he just talk a lot? And does he try to be in the lead of the interview or will he willingly let you guide him through your questions. All these signals and interactions determine what the best, most effective approach is, and unfortunately none of this you can prepare for. Also note that even though a set of prepared questions might come in handy from time to time, it plays only a minor role in the interview. Merely, if somehow you get stuck during the course of the interview, a list of topics you want to cover can help to get you going again.
There is no way I could even describe headlines of scenarios one can encounter during interview sessions. This is why I do not believe there could be something of a how-to for interviews (to be clear: this is not one!). Be prepared and try to be aware of the situation you are in and the goal you have for this interview. From that point on you have to rely on your communication and interpersonal skills. Focus, listen carefully and observe your interviewee. Their signals, either expressed consciously or not, help you direct the interview towards the desired goal (yours, hopefully). It’s like driving a car; you can get basic instructions to drive a car (your communication skills), and even directions (preparation) but in the end the external signals such as traffic lights and fellow drivers determine when to hit the brakes – it’s all about anticipation.
I think but one question remains: can anyone learn to be a good interviewer? Well – can anyone become a good driver? I believe some people unfortunately will never be one because they miss certain ‘talents’. I think we also agree that someone who just got their drivers license is not a good driver right away. And TomTom doesn’t teach you how to be one either. A good driver is one that is aware of his environment and anticipates well on actions (sometimes mistakes) from fellow drivers and traffic signs. The same goes for interviews: If you don’t have the required skills, such as some degree of empathy, you may never become really good at it. So you need a certain degree of these talents and have to understand the basics of communication. With the proper preparation (set destination in your navigation system) you are good to go but to ever reach your destination you need to find your way in the interview, even if there are unexpected detours. And I bet that this unwilling, rude, Blackberry-browsing top manager wasn’t in your instructions either.