[alert type=”general”] This guest post by Adrian Reed is part of a series of contributions by business analysis professionals I respect, and whose work I follow. I’ve followed Adrian’s blog for a while. I especially enjoyed his article, “Stop the project plan crash. You are the expert.” Enjoy! – JB[/alert]

obviousnessdangerI was recently boarding a flight, and whilst I was waiting to climb the steps to the aircraft, I happened to look around the runway.  I saw, at the edge of the tarmac, what appeared (initially) to be a rather obvious sign.  The sign read “Caution Aircraft”.  I smiled – and I sensed others around me found the sign entertaining too.   In fact, I could hear a couple chuckling behind me – I mean, come on.  It’s a runway.  It’s obvious that there are going to be planes there.  Why on earth would we need a sign to remind us of that?

The couple behind me continued to chuckle about the “obviousness” of the sign as we boarded the plane.  As I climbed the stepsand boarded, curiosity got the better of me and I looked down from the steps.  From this new vantage point, I noticed that the tarmac was buzzing with activity.  Not only were there planes, but there were trucks carrying fuel, buggies carrying luggage, food delivery vans and more.   When planes landed, these support vehicles rushed over to get them ready for the next flight.  Many of these support vehicles seemed to come onto the tarmac around where the sign was located, so presumably the sign was a ‘reminder’ for vehicles that were entering an active part of the runway.

With this in mind, perhaps the sign was reminding them of something that might seem obvious from some vantage points – but something that is crucially important.  The sign only looked obvious from our perspective because we were looking from the tarmac outwards.  If you were driving onto the tarmac from a support road, it might not be clear where the road finishes and the airfield begins.   What’s blindingly obvious from one perspective might not be intuitive or “obvious” at all from other perspectives. 

 The danger of “obviousness” on projects.

This reminded me of a pattern that can occur when progressing change initiatives.   On occasion, we might meet with stakeholders who are pushed for time.   We might go in and ask them questions about their business, their processes or their systems.   We’ll be aiming to understand the business problem or opportunity that they need  to address,  and we’ll be wanting to help them define the value that they want to deliver.   If they are time-pushed, we might hit a nerve. They might deflect our questions by saying:

 “But that’s so obvious, we don’t need to discuss that at all”.

 Yet by playing the “that’s obvious card” they are making a number of tacit assumptions – they are assuming that:

  1. What is obvious for them is obvious for everyone
  2. That everyone involved or impacted by the issue/change/initiative has exactly the same understanding of the “obvious” (i.e. there is no disagreement over the content)
  3. That the scale and scope of what is “obvious” is consistently understood and there are no ambiguities (and that all interfaces with the “obvious” are clearly defined and agreed)
  4. That we are all looking at the “obvious” thing from the same vantage point (think of the aircraft example above)

Rarely will all of these statements hold true.   In most cases, the stakeholder will have tacit knowledge – that is, knowledge that is so ingrained that they don’t consciously think to mention it.  In other cases, we might find that what they tell us is “obvious” hasn’t actually been defined, evaluated or fully thought through.  In these cases, it is paramount to probe further!  If we don’t, then our change initiatives might flounder, fail, and our organisations may waste resources finding out that different stakeholder groups had a decidedly different view on what is required.  Something that is taken for granted might well be missed, and we might only find out when the project crashes and burns.

As business analysts, we create the permission to ask difficult questions—with rapport—which help us to break down the “obvious” barriers and get to the root of a problem.  Doing so helps us to ensure our stakeholders get the business outcomes that they need and want.