How to conduct a thorough needs analysis

Feb 27, 2019

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Have you ever spent weeks or even months designing a program, only to find out that the client really wanted something else entirely? This is what happens when we fail to conduct a thorough analysis of the project.

No matter how small, urgent, or seemingly simple your project is, analysis helps to:

  • Prevent mistakes, rework, and unhappy clients
  • Save time and stress
  • Get the results you want
  • Establish your credibility as a valued advisor

The freelancer’s role

Most of the time, you will be the “face” of the project to the client, managing communication, scheduling meetings, and sharing your work with the client for input and approval.

Throughout this process, you have many opportunities to strengthen your relationship with the client and identify new opportunities beyond the scope of the current project. As most clients expect you to take a leadership role and guide them through the process, analysis is your opportunity to shine.

While many people consider analysis a linear process, a skilled consultant never stops uncovering client needs and identifying opportunities to add value. These additional opportunities may be recommendations for more advanced courses, reinforcement activities, periodic content updates, knowledge repositories or other solutions. Here's how:

  • Identify Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)
  • Develop questions
  • Orient SMEs
  • Collect data
  • Validate findings

Identify subject matter experts

Your Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) will make or break your project. It is critical that you are talking to the right people and that they understand what you need from them. Before you begin your analysis, talk with your client about SME selection. It may be tempting to rely on a small number of people to make the data collection process easier, but this approach may cause you to miss key information that isn’t available from those few people. You also run the risk of becoming too dependent on a single resource, putting your ability to get the right information at risk.

A best practice is to identify key domains or topics that will be needed for your project and work with your client to match the right group of SMEs for each domain. Be sure to discuss possible differences in location, division, experience level, client base, and other factors that may color the information provided by each SME.

It is important to establish a realistic time commitment for SMEs. Typically, the same people who participate in the analysis phase will review your work for accuracy and completeness later in the process. Try to select people who:

  • Have the knowledge you need
  • Have the time to work with you
  • Realize that working with you is a priority

It is an added benefit if your SMEs have supported similar initiatives before. However, we often don’t get to pick our SMEs. It is up to us to work with them, not the other way around.

Develop questions

Work with your client to develop the questions before your first session with a SME. If you have this list available for the kickoff meeting, you may want to share it at that time, so your SMEs will have time to suggest modifications to the list and be prepared for their role in the process.

There are many ways to collect date for your analysis. Consider these options in addition to, or instead of, SME interviews:

  • Focus groups
  • Job observations
  • Performance reviews, customer surveys, and other performance-related documentation
  • Surveys
  • Email (With a follow-up interview as needed)

Orient subject matter experts

Once you have identified the SMEs and identified the key questions, it is time to orient the SMEs. I like to conduct a kickoff call specifically for the SMEs. Keep in mind that you may need to conduct several calls to accommodate work schedules across multiple time zones. The kickoff call should be brief and to the point. It is your first chance to show the SMEs that, you know what you are doing, you value their time, and that you are flexible and will respect their preferences.

This is also the time to establish expectations, share the timeline, and address any concerns or questions. Be sure to ask each SME how he/she prefers to collaborate. Some SMEs prefer to answer your questions in writing, while others will want to share existing documents or walk you through key concepts. You should also find out when each SME is available and identify any blocks of time when someone might not be able to contribute, due to competing projects, vacations, or other planned absences.

Analyze the data

Since you will be working with inputs from multiple SMEs, you will need an easy method to organize the information you collect. I like to use a spreadsheet, but you may have another tool that works for you. The important thing to remember is that you want to be able to scan across a summary of the information you collect, so that you can spot discrepancies and trends across all SME inputs, without having to read each line of your interview notes.

Present and validate findings

As you conduct your analysis, you should begin to develop a clear picture of your learning audience:

  • Who needs the solution?
  • What do they need to know/do? (Future state)
  • What do they know now? (Current state)
  • What is the best way to close the gap between the current and future states?
  • What other needs did you uncover that are outside the scope of this project? How do you recommend addressing them?

Remember that you are telling the client a story. Try to summarize your findings as succinctly as possible, using action verbs. Do not overwhelm your client with raw data. They are expecting you to collate the data and find meaning in it. It is your job to make it simple for the client to commit to your plan.

Never email your findings to the client. Always review your analysis in a meeting with the client and any key stakeholders, including the SMEs. You want to be sure that your findings and recommendations pass the “reality test” and gain buy-in from all the key stakeholders on the project. It is too easy for the client to ignore or dismiss your findings via email, and you may never know if you’ve achieved your purpose.

Seek new opportunities

Be aware that your findings may reveal new opportunities for additional revenue. By bringing these up as part of your Analysis, you are demonstrating your ability to go beyond expectations and give your clients the comprehensive solution that they deserve.