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Business Requirements – What Is The Difference Between Good And Bad?
What is a “good” requirement?
Many of our customers have asked us to give them examples of “good” business requirements. Some of the braver ones even asked for “wrong” requirements for comparison. Arguably the bravest by far are those who showed us samples of their requirements and asked for an assessment of the “quality” of the requirements. After a lot of hair-pulling, brainstorming and pouring ash on our heads, we decided to approach this topic head-on (don’t even get me started on this ad!). Since the topic is as big as it gets (i.e. too big to cover in a single article), we decided to break it down.
“Good”, although the requirements are young and immature
First, we need to point out that the “goodness” of a business requirement depends on where it is in its development. For convenience, the process of defining requirements is divided into three main stages: “Record”, “Clarification” and “Confirmation”.
Our basic philosophy is that there may be business requirements in the wilderness of corporate America, we just don’t know for sure. This is because we don’t know that we can’t tell if something is a requirement or not until we record them. We business analysts (aka those responsible for capturing business requirements) must first plan the hunt. We need to study the requirements in their natural habitat to learn more about them. Anything we can learn about their habits, behavior and preferences will help us in the upcoming hunt to trap as many of them as possible in the time available. “Capturing” is all about meeting the requirements in any way you can – interview, observation, analysis, blue sky, brainstorming, brainwashing, butt-kicking, or whatever works for you.
At this formative stage of his life, a “good” requirement is to state that:
- begins with the words: “I (or we, or our department, or my people, or a specific role) need (or don’t need, or don’t want or don’t want, or have to or don’t have to, or want to or don’t) ” OR defines some dimension of a specific component of the future solution;
- name a single component/characteristic/behaviour/state that you are empowered to decide in the business community is a project outcome worth funding;
- focuses on the business outcome, not the technology to be used; and
- can be traced back to the individual who is entitled to “own” and “fund” this requirement.
A couple of delicious (IONSHO – not too humble in our opinion) Examples:
- Sales needs to see which contracts are expiring in the next 90 days.
- I would like the system to automatically calculate sales tax based on applicable sales tax laws.
- A website visitor does not need to click multiple times to get to the order page from any other page on the website.
- We need to be able to respond to a code red incident anywhere on the planet within 24 hours.
- Sales tax is determined by the zip code of the delivery address.
Clarification of requirements
Requirements clarification is really about making sure that more than one person (ie the author) fully understands what the requirement means. Requirements are tools of communication, so if the developer and reader of the requirement do not agree on what it actually means, then it cannot call itself a clear requirement.
Take for example the first requirement from the set above:
“Sales needs to see which contracts are expiring in the next 90 days.”
It makes perfect sense to me, after all I wrote it. What does this mean for developers (whether they’re sitting in a third world country or a cube next to me, native English speakers or not, and whether they share my cultural background or not)? What questions might these developers have?
An exercise in clairvoyance
As an exercise in analytical skills, at this point you might want to take two minutes to see how many questions you can think of that you want answered to make sure you understand my intent and not just my interpretation of my words. Whether you write it down or not, count them. In this case, quantity matters.
OK, here’s my two-minute list:
- Who or what are “sales”? What can I do? What will they do with what I give them?
- What does “see” mean? Do they need the physical contracts or just a list?
- What constitutes a contract?
- What makes a contract “expire” and why do they care?
- Upcoming 90 days? From when? Does this view change from day to day, weekly, monthly or hourly or what?
- If you think about it, what does a day mean in this context, 24 hours (one day in one place) or a global day (and it’s 47 hours, or how does that work)?
Ok, so that’s the first 6 (or however many you want to count) questions to hit my feeble mind, but remember, I’m the author! You are probably much better off seeing the world from your perspective. All of this suggests that while the requirement was clear to me when I wrote it, there may be some subjectivity involved that needs to be worked out to avoid developing the wrong solution.
When does it stop?
Let’s think about what we’ve done. We took a sentence and created a bunch of questions that lead to who knows how many sentences, each consisting of phrases that need to be clarified. To me, it’s a classic example of analysis paralysis. How does it end when we finally know enough to stop nitpicking and start developing a solution?
Great question! Indeed, this is the question for business analysts everywhere. The most expensive solution, of course, is to build the solution and then check that you have understood the requirements correctly (which can negatively affect your chances of a business analyst career).
Our industry’s best answer so far is the old Chinese quote: “A picture is worth a thousand words”. In other words, draw a diagram or prototype of what you think works and test how you understand it. If you and your colleagues (SMBs on the one hand and developers on the other) are skilled in modeling techniques, it is a good practice to draw a quick diagram (process model, data model, swimlane diagram) of both sides. , whatever) what they mean by the requirement, then compare the models. However, models are not the only method available.
Why don’t we clear it up?
“Why do so many of us skip the clarification process?” you ask (At least that’s what I think I heard in my head.) First, many people don’t like to ask questions for fear of appearing ignorant. (That’s my line — questions show interest, not ignorance!). Second, figuring out what to ask is hard work. (Sure, it’s not as hard as being president, but still.) Even though a question shows interest, some questions at least SOUND stupid, so how can you be sure that YOUR questions aren’t that stupid? Okay, how many of you picked up on the clever use of parentheses in this paragraph to “illuminate” the meaning? Did it clear it up or confuse it? Ahhh, the puzzles we create in our desire for clarity.
This thinking and the looming pesky deadline lead to the rosy path of “Well, the subject matter expert should take this seriously, because it’s the only thing that makes sense to me”; and another promising project will be kerplunk. There must be a better way.
The decomposition dilemma
Decomposing requirements statements probably have as many different definitions as there are letters in the name of the technique, but ours is the simplest (it really is, trust me). There are only two things you need to think about.
Both people and systems do things. In our parlance, we call these things functions, activities, or processes. During activities, both people and systems consume resources (such as data) and create new resources (including new data). The primary purpose of IT is to help us do things cheaper, better, faster, and to remember what we have done by tracking related data. Well, since the requirements should define the information technology of the future, perhaps we should just focus on what the system DOES and KNOWS so that beginners can see where it is going.
Functional and informational components
In its simplest form, breaking down a requirements statement consists of asking three questions that begin with: “What does the requirement say or mean that the system (or a person) must DO?” Since every activity requires some kind of action, we look for answers in the form of verbs and objects (e.g. “calculates the sales tax”, “deposits a check”). Since verbs indicate action, objects are typically data (or something we need to have data about).
Once you have a list of things that the system or users need to do, the second question for each item on the list is, “What data does the system NEED to KNOW to do this?” Since data is one thing, we are now looking for nouns or noun phrases (eg “sales tax”, “amount due”, issuing bank).
The third question is, “Where does this data come from?” and the answer here might just be another function, or somewhere outside the system (eg the bank, the customer, the IRS – sorry about the latter, but it’s a valid source and an anatomical pain)
And so it goes
OK, you started with a simple sentence that defined the future characteristics, state, or behavior of a component of your business system, and now you have some long lists of what the system needs to do and know. The only relevant question that remains is whether you know enough about each item on the list to communicate it to the developers or assemblers of the solution. It might even be a good idea to know how to recognize if these things are there and working as intended once the solution has been delivered.
Is everything clearer now?
Confirm before encoding
Business requirements validation is really about making sure that the business community and the technical community understand the same thing about requirements. It is also a question of both agreeing on the relative priorities within the set of requirements, so the most important requirements for the business community must be dealt with first. Setting priorities is not something that can only be done when it matters, so we won’t go into the complexities of this critical step now. Suffice to say, unless your business needs are confirmed and prioritized, they are not ready for prime time, which our philosophy means is “ready to handle.” After all, the manageability, maintainability and realizability of business requirements is what makes the difference between “good” and “bad” business requirements.
May the best requirement win.
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