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Perils and Pitfalls of Conference Calls

One of the challenges of gathering requirements in a world of packed schedules and remote stakeholders is the ubiquitous conference call.

What I find most challenging is the inability to read facial cues or body language. When discussing stakeholder needs over the phone, what they say may not be entirely what they mean. Stakeholders may be holding back out of politeness, or thinking over the best way to convey a thought.

When they are physically present, one can look for cues in posture, facial expression, and breathing pattern, and ask them if they have anything to add, if they’d like to expand on a particular issue, or simply give them enough time to collect their thoughts and speak up. It’s easy to plough straight over valid stakeholder points merely because you can’t see their face or it is taking them a moment to unmute their line.

Colleagues of mine have expressed other aspects of conference calls that can be problematic. It’s very easy for team members who aren’t leading the meeting to simply mute their phone and sit in silence, opening themselves up to a world of distractions and pressing issues that a physical meeting room would close out.

Furthermore, it may be easier for a meeting member to bring the discussion down into a level of specificity and granularity that inhibits discussion of requirements when he or she is not presented with faces associated with the exact purpose of the meeting.

When working with remote teams, an elicitor’s unfamiliarity with a certain accent can leave pertinent information on the table. There is also the eternal possibility of aggravating technological issues and dog, kid, or highway noise in the background when someone forgets the mute button.

So what can be done to make each conference call elicitation session be as productive and professional as possible?

First, strike a balance between setting firm ground rules and being controlling or patronizing. It’s valid and helpful to ask everyone on the call to introduce him or herself and provide gentle reminders about background noise. It’s detrimental to the elicitation process to start every conference call with a stern bullet list of Don’ts.

Try to check in with all of the meeting members occasionally without putting anyone personally on the spot. This will keep more listeners engaged and give a sort of permission those who may be deferring their thoughts.

Perhaps most importantly, slow down and listen. When voices are obfuscated by phone lines and a meeting leader isn’t confronted with the physical presence of others in the meeting, it is vital to allow extra time to let people answer questions, look at documentation or models, and provide input. By active and attentive listening, an elicitor can pick up on vocal tones, sighs, or lengthy pauses that convey stakeholder opinion. With preparation and patience, the conference call can be a useful tool both personally and professionally.

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