How to Plan and Conduct Successful Observation Sessions

In the past, we’ve discussed the value that the Observation technique brings to projects, the pros and cons of leveraging it as an elicitation method while you’re identifying the root cause of a problem, and trying to understand how to properly address the problem with an effective solution. 

The Observation technique allows a Business Analyst to gather information by observing employees complete a task or process. This offers insights into the steps that are taken, the tools that are used, and the value or reasoning behind why the tasks or processes are performed. It also helps identify inefficiencies, gaps, or other productivity challenges and potential barriers to increasing ROI.

But for the technique to be effective, you must be organized and plan ahead of your observation session. By organizing your objectives and goals for the session and ensuring that you’re properly prepared, you’re setting yourself up to maximize the return on your efforts. If you don’t plan ahead or ensure you’re organized for your session, you run the risk of wasting time and money – and not just on your end. You may cause others to operate less efficiently too, or sabotage your session results.

In this article, I’ll help you identify the crucial steps and questions you should ask yourself ahead of and during your session.  

Planning an Observation Session

Before you conduct the observation session, you need to do some basic planning. Here are some top-of-mind considerations to ask yourself. While they may seem obvious, they’ll help you ensure you’re aligned with your goals for the project:

  • Why am I doing this observation? What do I want to learn?
  • Who is the best employee to observe?
  • What tasks or activities am I interested in observing?
  • Where will the observation take place?
  • When is the best time to observe that person or process?
  • Will I observe the employee with passive, active, or participatory observation?

Once you answer these questions to nail down the basics, it’s best practice to gain approval from the manager of the employee that you’ll soon be observing. This is not only helpful to continue to build relationships and trust, but can also identify additional risks, constraints, or issues you weren’t aware of. 

Next, to give you a base understanding, review any documentation that management has used to prepare employees to complete the tasks and processes you will be observing. You’ll want to understand the process that has been put in place and why it was formulated the way it was.

To finalize your observation planning, define and confirm the date, time, and location with the people involved in the observation session(s). You can then send invitations via Outlook, Google Calendar, or whichever calendar application you use.

The Day of the Observation

You’ve completed all of your planning and the observation day has arrived. Here are some tips to make your observation session successful:

  • Be on time, or better yet, be early
  • Introduce yourself and the purpose of the observation
  • Be clear that you are not there to judge the person’s performance
  • Make it clear they can stop the observation at any time
  • Encourage the person to engage in conversation while performing the task
  • Thank them for their participation
  • Provide your contact information for any follow-up questions or information

Following these best practices will help you organize your methodology (the observation session), get to the root cause of the business questions or problems you are trying to identify and solve, and help put the observed employee at ease during the session.

One Last Important Reminder

Take notes during the observation. Those notes will be critical for you later when you are trying to remember specific details of how or why something is done a certain way. Your notes could include basics about the process, any anomalies you saw, issues or errors that popped up, workarounds that were employed, and beyond.

The key is to write just enough notes that you can recollect the important details while not pulling your attention away from what is really important – observing.

While all elicitation techniques are helpful, valuable, and can provide unique insights in their own way, the Observation technique positions you in the heart of the working environment like no other. It offers you a chance to see, first hand, how processes are carried out, how employees conduct themselves, and the ability to watch and (later) ask “why was ‘x’ done that way?” But to truly see the most value from this powerful technique, you must be prepared. I hope this article has helped you do just that. If you need a little more help, check out my course Understand and Elicit Requirements (discounted for a limited time!). 

– Written by Jeremy Aschenbrenner, The BA Guide

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