One of the more often repeated phrases from the lean startup and customer development lexicon is the admonition to "get out of the building." In other words, unless you actually go out on location to meet your customers, you will never actually learn what their needs are.
This does not mean walking up to someone and asking, "What do you need?" It starts with understanding what problems they need solved (what jobs they need done) and what value there is in solving those problems.
This idea does not apply only to startups. Project teams in established organizations can use the “get out of the building” idea as well, although in their case, the idea may be better described as "get out of the cubicle." This is a bit more relevant to project teams working on systems that support users internal to their company.
The main thing you should do when you leave the cubicle is perform some user (and stakeholder) research. When prepping for this user research, you’ll want to consider the following questions: What problem is your project solving? What do you want to know about your current or potential users/stakeholders? How can you create an effective screener to discover who your target users are? and How can you create an effective interview script?
After creating that interview script, review it to make sure you are not asking questions in such a way that they generate the answers you want to hear. In other words, understand your biases so that they don’t get in the way of hearing your stakeholders needs; avoid taking your cubicle with you. That's not to say that teams shouldn't come up with their thoughts on how to solve a problem, but they should avoid coming to conclusions about the problem before they have sufficient information.
When you feel you have a good set of questions that doesn’t introduce biases, go talk to your stakeholders using some of these hints. You need to find out what the stakeholder’s real problem is, and then figure out some possible solutions.
Using some ideas from the lean startup community will help a project team in even the most non-entrepreneurial company identify successful solutions and gain a better understanding of its stakeholders' problems.
Kent J. McDonald is an author, speaker, and coach. His more than fifteen years of experience includes work in business analysis, strategic planning, project management, and product development in a variety of industries including financial services, health insurance, human services, nonprofit, and automotive. He is coauthor of Stand Back and Deliver: Accelerating Business Agility.