• Teresa Bennett

5 Ways Cultivating Intellectual Curiosity Can Improve Your Elicitation Skills

Updated: May 24, 2020

As we move on in life and in our careers, responsibilities increasingly demand more of our time and it’s easy to lose our sense of wonder and quite literally forget that our brains are muscles that need exercise to stay fit. Children do this without thinking twice, but there’s something to be said for adults who stay engaged, are always willing to improve on what they already know or learn something new by starting on an unbeaten path to see where it may lead.

There are two types of curiosity – Thinking and Unthinking.

Thinking Curiosity, more officially described as Intellectual Curiosity has very little to almost nothing to do with actual intelligence, albeit, an intelligent person may be more likely to engage in a higher pursuit of Intellectual Curiosity, but there’s no guarantee. I’m sure we’ve all met a very smart person who doesn’t express any interest or curiosity about things outside of their own orbit.

Intelligence quotients aside, what are the characteristics of an intellectually curious person?

The intellectually curious person has a deep and persistent desire to know. A person who asks the WHY question, is always seeking the answers, and doesn’t stop asking at a shallow level. Instead, they ask investigative questions in order to expose additional layers of clarification and reasoning so that they can reach the foundational thoughts and ideas relating to a specific issue.

Intellectual Curiosity includes mostly positive characteristics, such as a passion for learning, an eagerness to explore, a willingness to consider things you haven’t before, and a satisfaction experienced upon discovery.

Excellent role model for Intellectual Curiosity? Albert Einstein

Unthinking curiosity leans more towards the negative. This kind of curiosity drives someone, who despite having the ability to know better, to act reckless in the name of exploration. They will follow anyone anywhere as long as they seem interesting, even if they’re frightened along the way. Inclinations to experiment make them oblivious to their own safety.

Excellent example of Unthinking Curiosity? Alice (in Wonderland)

Alice showing curiosity

From drinking out of weird little bottles found at random, to traveling down a rabbit hole, ‘never once considering how in the world she was to get out again’ (Wonderland 1.4), Alice is a perfect example of why we need to hone, harness, and hold onto the positive power of Thinking Curiosity.

As business analysts, it’s important for us ask WHY, and we should guard against falling into the trap of complacency – where we ‘assume’ that the stakeholders have explained everything they want and the reasoning behind it - no need to ask anything further.

It’s very easy for us to meet with a stakeholder who wants to improve a current process or replace it with another and think we’ve come away with everything we need to know to get started. We can listen all the while thinking that what they’re saying makes sense, and even believe that they’ve explained the project rationale without anyone needing to ask the WHY question straight out.

They’ve just explained their vision of the new process and perhaps included the ROI analysis to defend their request. Is it necessary to ask them to explain themselves even further? After all, they’ve already obtained funding for this project, so obviously they are justified in asking for this new development. We ‘assume’ that they probably won’t appreciate having to expound on their business case all over again.

However, it’s our responsibility as the BA to understand the business goals of a project on every level. More than understanding the goals, we need to understand if the requirements attached to those goals are realistic, necessary, or even attainable.

Asking the WHY questions up front and continuing throughout the lifecycle of the project is crucial to ascertaining the true goal of the business. It’s very possible - and frequently found - that what the business thinks they want to achieve and what they really want to achieve are two different things entirely.

We should always step up, in a respectable way, to interrogate, investigate, and get extreme clarity from our stakeholders and colleagues so that we can get down to the details of any given thing. Our mission is to become the SME of any project we own.

Here are five ways you can cultivate your Intellectual Curiosity to improve your Elicitation skills:

1. Consider Learning for its Own Sake Learn something entirely new or learn how to do something better than you already do. Regardless of what you may know or think you don’t, make it your priority to get a good understanding of a subject, topic, process, theory, philosophy, industry, service etc. When you gain understanding, you gain confidence. Curiosity is always seeking to learn.

2. Embrace the Unknown Explore topics, ask questions, and follow the information where it leads. More often than not, if you’re open to the possibilities, you’ll find yourself with a completely new set of queries to investigate. This exercise can help you recognize your style of research and make adjustments as your discovery skills evolve.

3. Become Interested to Become Interesting Spending an extended period asking questions of someone, learning what they do and why often leads to something curious in and of itself. After those conversations, they’ll think you’re more interesting. People tend to interpret interest as intelligence – making them all the more receptive and agreeable to spending time with you. Win-win.

4. The Power of Why and Why Not

Asking questions, specifically the WHY and WHEREFORES when exploring new subjects or learning a new skill is the essence of Intellectual Curiosity. Get into the habit of not only posing the WHY questions but also the WHY NOT questions. Edwin Land was inspired to invent the Polaroid - an instant camera because his three-year old daughter asked why the camera they were using could not produce a photograph immediately. Robert Kennedy’s most famous quote explores the other side of WHY, “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” Regardless of whether you ask, WHY or WHY NOT during the process of elicitation, the curiosity demonstrated by either of these questions can drive innovation, creativity, new products, and better personal and business relationships (see #3).

5. Identify Intellectual Superheroes

Find the people around you who exhibit qualities of positive curiosity. That is to say, follow the leaders who are not like Alice of Wonderland fame. Observe them, learn from them, and make every effort to replicate their thinking behavior. The more you practice applying the traits of Intellectual Curiosity, the better you’ll get at applying its power.

Remember, as we move through the day-in and day-out of life and business, constant assessment by colleagues, potential employers, and others is taking place.

It’s not enough to simply ask questions or collect information. Any unthinking, curious Alice can do that.

She (Alice) is akin to that annoying person in the room who is always asking questions. Furthermore, contrary to what we’ve been told, we all know there are such things as ‘stupid questions’.

The real strength of a person with Intellectual Curiosity is in the ability to discern fact from fiction, separate the useful from the unnecessary and apply what we’ve learned in a practical way to demonstrate that we are not only capable of learning but that we are enthusiastic about the benefits it provides.

We want to help improve your power of intellectual curiosity as a business analyst through our elicitation level 1 training. It's available on Youtube as a free resource for you.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” - Einstein.

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