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Questioning Skills of Consultants; Asking the Right questions.


My association with SAP Netweaver MDM has been close to 4 years. Over the years while understanding the concepts, with hands on the various versions of the product including involvement with innumerable integration scenarios of SAP MDM with other Netweaver components / transactional systems i have stumbled upon many significant aspects about this area and beyond.

Infact, there are many subareas / skills (including soft skills) that we need to assimilate and use when we work in this area.

One of the soft skills that i will be focusing in this weblog is on Questioning Skills and an approach that i feel will make a significant difference to any implementation. Especially, in the SAP MDM implementation, which cannot be a success without the participation of key stakeholders who touch the master data. It is extremely important to ask the right questions to the right people.


Lets assume there’s an IT consulting company (XYZ) that has won an order of USD 500K (wow!!) to hang a very precious and costly picture frame on a wall at a client site. This picture happens to be worth millions having been bought in an auction and happens to be the only piece of art in the world.

There’s a great excitement at the IT Company to have won this prestigious order beating tough competitors with innovative ideas and price tags to fix the picture frame in the shortest possible time.

A team is setup with a Project Manager to oversee the implementation and including the Business Analyst and some Technical people. The Business Analyst visits the client site does the requirements gathering and comes out with a requirement document. The document details the following:

  1. Dimensions of the Picture frame.
  2. Location on the wall where the picture frame is to be hung by the Technical people.
  3. Approval from the Client business owners.

A team of technical people consisting of a mix of experienced and junior members gets on the job based on the specification documents created by the Business Analysts.The technical team has 3 tools namely; a Hammer, a Screw driver and a mechanized tool, to drive in the screws.

  • The junior members use either of the above mentioned tools to drive in the screws depending on the training they have been provided and their confidence levels with these tools.
  • The experienced members will use either a Screw driver or the mechanized tool to drive in the screws to hold the picture on the wall knowing very well that Hammer should not be used.

After all the hard work, the client is still not happy. The feedback from the client is as follows:

  1. The picture doesn’t seem to hold as per his expectation.
    a) Some screws have been hammered in, some driven using the screw drivers and others neatly driven using the mechanized tool.
  2. It not easy to remove the picture from the wall.
  3. Plenty of Customization – Limited Change management.
    a) Overshooting the budget / timeline.
  4. Limited scope for future enhancement / replacing the picture, etc.

 So, what could have gone wrong even though everybody has worked extensively hard to complete the project on time and to the expectation of the client.




One of the key reason for the failure is because the Business Analysts did not ask the right type of questions, probably to the right people as well, such as:

  1. WHO are the key driver(s) from the client side for the requirement.
  2. WHAT is the precise requirement? Are they any parallel on-going initiatives / in plan? 
  3. Is this the only Picture frame to be hung on the wall or are there other picture frames already occupying the space close to this frame or is there a plan to hang another frame close to this?  
  4. WHAT is the condition of the wall where the picture frame is to be hung?
  5. WHAT is the condition of the building material used to build the wall? Can it withstand the load of the frame?
  6. WHAT is the thickness of the wall?
  7. Is the picture frame to be hung on a support base or the screws are to be drilled into the picture frame?
  8. WHERE do the screws have to be drilled into the frame (if any) to ensure minimal damage to the frame?
  9. WHAT are the dimensions / weight of the picture frame?
  10. WHAT is the quality / dimensions of the screws provided to hold the picture frame on the wall?
  11. Can the screws hold the weight of the frame?
  12. Are the screws rust proof?
  13. WHAT is the plan to re-paint the wall after the picture frame is hung?
  14. Is the wall freshly painted and WHAT precautions are to be taken while putting the screws in to hold the frame?

And so on and so forth….


As you can see, the “W” questions are primarily around the 4 dimensions: People, Wall, Picture frame and Screws.



Business Analysts (should):


1. Recognize the fact that there could be various dimensions of the requirements, at the start of the project itself.

2. Identify the key requirements / root causes of the issues

   a) Six Sigma is an excellent methodology to gain insight into various dimensions  of the requirement / identify the key issues from various stakeholders.

    b) Mind mapping is an excellent tool to capture knowledge.

3. Ask the right “W” questions to the right people, to get crystal clear clarity of the requirements / issues.

4. Make NO assumptions with respect to the requirements – Seek clarifications and then re-confirm the understanding in a documented form.

5. Document all the questions and their answers – Share them with the client for their records.

6. Encourage the Technical team to ask “W” questions as well and explain all the business aspects of the requirements.

7. Understand the tools / approach being used by the Technical team to fulfill the requirements and their Usability, Scalability, Maintainability, Risks, etc.

    a) This will ensure the Business Analysts know the capabilities of the tools and help them evaluate appropriate solutions, including estimating the efforts and timeline for completion of the tasks.

8. Address every requirement changes through a Change management process – Asking the “W” questions to the client for purpose of the changes. Clearly explain the impact on their business due to the changes. 

9. Discuss / Explain the technical solution (wherever possible) to the client before the actual development starts to ensure they are getting what they want.


Technical Analysts (typically):


1. Are content with fulfilling the requirements / resolving the issues and have a tendency to ask – “H” – How to questions only. These questions help in learning the tool and not the purpose of the feature / tool.

2. Are trained in-house / externally, which in many cases are designed to give them the know how-to use the tool and NOT to understand the impact on business as result of improper use of the so-called “excellent” features of the tools / tools themselves.

    a) Example of the three tools mentioned above to drive the screws based on their training / experience level – clearly highlights this aspect.

3. Usually – “Hit the Key board” as soon as the requirement documents are received.


The right approach for the Technical people is:


. Ask “W” questions regarding every requirement prior to “Hitting the key board”. This will help them:

    a) Understand the client’s business and their requirements.

   b) Eventually lead them to become good techno-functional consultants with all round Business and IT skills.

    c) Identify features / develop innovative solutions that will address the business requirements.



Key Benefit:


One of the biggest benefits from this questioning approach:


1. For Business Analysts –

    They will be able to identify potential areas of issues / provide innovative value-added solutions to the client much before the actual realization phase begins.


2. For Technical Analysts –

    They will understand the business more clearly. 

    Know which features of the tool to use and their impact on the business





Infact, it is a human tendency to be inquisitive and as a child we would have asked plenty of “W” questions before we were able to handle the “H” – How to – part of any task. Our brains work in questioning mode much before our limbs can actually tackle any task.


Hence, asking the “W” and “H” questions is not an unknown technique. We only have to inculcate this habit so that we as Business / Technical Analysts not only deliver to the customer needs but deliver value-added solutions beyond their expectations – to delight them.


Isnt this a logical way to help the Customers derive maximum benefits from their initiatives which we as consultants have a duty to service, more so in these tough economic times?


In case of SAP MDM (or in any MDM tool), this is definately not a tool implementation. In my opinion, it is 80% strategic (involving Business Analysts, Client’s key stakeholders and other decision makers) and 20% technical (involving Technical Analysts).


Hence asking the Right questions (Questioning), Clarifying and Re-confirming the understanding will play a significant roll in the MDM implementation.


Going forward, i will be writing a series of Weblogs / Articles on various dimensions in and around the Master Data Management.

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  • Very nicely put together blog! My only criticism… current drivers & dimensions can be applied for any IT project. SAP MDM project specific questions, screwas etc would help.
  • Yes, i do agree that this approach is applicable to any IT project.

    However, since i’m associated with SAP MDM and having seen the complexity of integration with respect to people, process and technology front in this area i have mentioned SAP MDM here.

    Anyway, thanks for your comments.