Requirements engineering strategy can make or break your project .

Part one – What would you like sir
Part two – Requirements,tests, training, help files
Part three – Why no project exists in isolation-what should be done
Part four – Business rules, Process rules, Process, Data, different viewpoints
Part five – Testing requirements is not optional
Part six  -Requirements strategy can make or break your project

If you’ve been reading my blogs on the subject of requirements, you will no doubt appreciate the level of importance I place on getting requirements right and then testing them before committing yourself to a contract or a technical specification.
Just in case you are thinking that this is in some way anti agile, then nothing could be further from the truth. Please read my blog on agile requirements engineering for a discussion on this topic.

Let’s take this opportunity to recap on why we do requirements. The simple fact is that once a development team start work on creating a technical specification, the till begins to ring up with costs and every time you make a change after this point more costs are added. The closer you are to rollout when you make the change, the greater the extra cost will be and that time phased increase is exponential, therefore the first purpose of requirements engineering is to contain costs and eliminate or reduce slippages.

The second purpose is to make sure that the end product delivers value by meeting the needs of the business precisely in order to meet or exceed the benefits targets set in the business case.

Getting requirements right therefore, is absolutely critical if you are to contain costs and deliver value

Developing a requirements engineering strategy

Each organisation and each project are different and requires a tailor made strategy for getting the requirements right by recognising, exploiting and working with the capabilities of the organisation.

To do this successfully, you will need a few things:

  1. A detailed analysis of the stakeholders involved in the as-is process in order to make interviewing efficient and thorough.
  2. A strong feel for the past experiences of the organisation in terms of successes or failures with software projects in terms of meeting business need and staying within budget and time constraints. This along with some tactful exploration of causes will give a strong steer about the current capabilities of the organisation to engage with a formal requirements process and to take seriously concepts like change control.
  3. A feel for the organisations ability to take on and successfully adapt change will help you decide whether and how far you might decide to upgrade their skills and attitudes to requirement engineering
  4. A good indicative plan that indicates the products to be created, their acceptance criteria, time scales for delivery and the amount of effort that will be needed from stakeholders.
  5. The understanding, agreement and total buy-in of key stakeholders to the proposed approach with full support in terms of making people and facilities available for the process


Stakeholder analysis for requirement engineering

Step one

Using RACI to identify stakeholders for the Requirements function.

In my blogs on business case techniques and models I discussed the importance involving the right stakeholders to gain buy-in and get a real picture of what success will look like.
In order to design the system, you will need a different type of stakeholder list, one that describes roles, responsibilities skills and communication. This list will give a clear view of where the knowledge skills and the responsibilities lie within the organisation and therefore point you at the right people to describe requirements and take responsibility for their quality. My favourite tool for achieving this is a well known HR instrument known as the RACI chart. Responsibilities Accountabilities, Consults, Informs and it provides a two dimensional view of a team that helps you quickly analyse the team for adequate skills, supervision, communication and quality control. It can be adjusted in form or emphasis to suit your precise needs, but the fundamental principal serves well in any circumstance straight out of the box.
Here’s an example;

RAACI example

The table above lists nominal roles across the top and Activities down the left, each cell is then marked with one or more of RACI to show who has what role in that activity.
The example is for a software development team, but if you were building a hospital it would list things like planner, builder, architect and activities like approve plans, complete design, etc.

A software project for a builders might involve, Construction director, surveyor, cost controller, quality controller etc and Liaise with clients, agree costs, sign off completion, etc.
Apart from being a huge benefit in helping to highlight the important stakeholders for your requirements process, the RACI chart also provides a quick but effective sanity check to make sure that your team is adequate and that there no duplications, conflicts or gaps.

Horizontal analysis of each task will quickly tell you whether there are sufficient doers and accountability exists and is in the right place.
Vertical analysis of roles will quickly highlight overworked, underworked, misplaced authority or responsibility and lack of or too much consultation and information.
Too much consultation stifles decision making and too little leads to dangerous decisions. Corporate culture can lead to busy bodies who don’t always follow through, or teflon in-trays. All of these issues need to be understood and ideally addressed ahead of system design, because the system will only perform as well as the people who use it.

Once you have created this chart, the next thing is to create a list of names with contact information to place in each of the role areas. If the project is large and/or complex, there may be more than one name in each box and there may be further sifting to do in order to resolve any doubts.
Don’t be surprised to find skeletons in the cupboard and lack of agreement over who does what. If you uncover these issues, now is the time to discuss them at a high level and attempt to get them resolved ahead of requirement gathering.

Step Two
The second step is identify the Actors, the people and systems that carry out tasks as part of this process and the sources of all the skills, knowledge and decisions required to complete the process successfully. This will generally begin with the R people in your RACI chart and will usually expand to people who do the work with or for the R person. E.G. the R may be in your chart as the Technical architects for design, but on investigation, you may find a DBA, a SysAdmin and many others who play key roles and these people also need to be interviewed.
The actual actors may be more usefully broken down to specific skill sets or disciplines as opposed to specific roles. E.G you may have Document writer, Interviewer, modeller all of which are actors within the BA function. This approach gives a slightly more abstract approach that lends itself to reorganising roles for efficiencies, or to adapt to a new system.Never be tempted to accept the assurance that a supervisor can tell you the whole story and you don’t need to talk to her/his charges. If anything this should be seen with an element of suspicion and tactful verification is a good idea.

To better understand and communicate how the various roles influence the outcome of a process, it is sometimes useful to create a fishbone chart adapted slightly for the purpose. Here is how i like to create it:

Stakeholder fishbone chart

The fishbone can be made as complex as you need it to be in order to show all the influences on your new project. The thing that becomes apparent very quickly is that whether they are aware of it or not, most of your stakeholders rely on others for skills, support, knowhow, data, administration and other inputs that can potentially prevent the processes progressing and hence you need to know about it and to resolve, or risk manage it.
Your fishbone chart will immediately tell you who to talk to and by way of a bonus, it will very quickly highlight the areas of influence, both positive and negative when it comes to rolling out.

Organisational culture and requirements process maturity.

Once your target interviewees are lined up, your next step is to hold a number of short interviews and/or an interactive workshop to discuss past projects, how they went and how the organisation reacted at the time and now. Asking them what they felt went well and what went wrong will go a long way towards gauging what will go down well, or will meet with resistance in terms of methodology.
The aim is not to deliver the perfect project, by your standards, but to deliver the best you can within the capabilities and expectation of the clients.

The last critical aspect of this phase is to get a good feel for their favoured mode of communication within this area. Do they have requirements documentation that they worked with in the past? Are they comfortable working with it? Does technical documentation create silos that exclude valuable stakeholders to the benefit of technical people .

This aspect is vital, because the quality of decisions they make and their perception of you as a trusted adviser will be directly proportionate to your skill in communicating the concepts clearly to them. Not only that, but your ability to get their attention at all let alone hold it long enough to achieve a useful level of consultation will depend on not confusing or alienating them with technical or complex instruments of communication or use of unfamiliar jargon.

A clearly communicated strategy and indicative plan

Once you have gathered your information it is time to make some preliminary decisions about how to take it forward. How to collect information, how to verify your information and how to communicate back to stakeholders ahead of defining the requirements.

Identifying these tasks, the stakeholder and support staff needed and the order and dependencies of the work, it is time to add this to a simple Gantt chart that defines high level activities, high level milestones and products to be delivered.

Understanding, agreement and total buy-in.

If you have done your homework and worked in a consultative manner you will be very confident before presenting the plan, that it will be understood and supported and will be accepted by your stakeholders.
You should present:

  1. An introductory explanation of the approach with reasoning
  2. A list of products you propose to produce backed by a simple concise explanation of how and why and samples.
  3. A Gantt describing the timeframes and milestones.
  4. A simple, high level risk assessment
  5. An indication of the time commitments required of key stakeholders.

At the end of this you should answer questions and ask for their full support backed by a sign-off of the plan.

Ed Taaffe is a senior Consultant in Business Improvement through technology and Hi-tech Product management.

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Requirements, tests, training, help files – the connection?

Part one What would you like sir

Part two Requirements,tests, training, help files

Part three Why no project exists onin isolation-whwat should be done

Part four Business rules, Process rules, Process, Data, different viewpoints

Part five Testing requirements is not optional

Part six Requirements strategy can make or break your project

 Really! – Have you seen this new stuff? 

This could easily have been Mick Jagger and Keith Richards after their first successful gig. In the modern world, it is more likely to be a hard working CTO talking to a COO about his systems needs.

Systems are not like any other purchase. You can go to a tailor today and he will do almost the identical things that a tailor did for Julius Ceaser.  You can call an architect and his approach will differ little from that of Hiram Abif apart from the time taken to produce drawings.  When it comes to systems though, it is more like medicine. Patients differ, you only hear what they tell you and you don’t really understand anything you have not personally experienced, you have to tease it out using your instinct and experience and play the numbers game.

There are techniques for flushing out the problems and verifying them and for getting the medicine accepted, but ultimately every doctor likes to deal with life threatening situations. If he succeeds for whatever reason, he’s a hero and if not, well, he did his best.
Apart from a lucky few, most of us in the software industry have to earn a living by delivering value in the real world through cost savings, or competitive advantage and that’s a tall order.
It calls for a mixture of calculated risk taking and good fall back positions and it requires an insight that combines real understanding of the business domain with leading edge technological ability. It doesn’t matter whether this is done by a committee or a genius as long as it gets done

The requirements challenge

So how do you meet a business person, listen to his/her needs and six, nine or thirty six months later get a well done, thank you response?

There isn’t a really good answer to this. If it is six months, you are in with a chance. If it is nine you are still in there, at thirty six, the likelihood is that before you deliver this, a much better solution will have been invented, or the problem will have been replaced by a new one.

There is a considerable number of methodologies out there, most of them geared up to coax you into paying for expensive training courses and few aimed at really bridging the divide between what a business needs and what technology can deliver with reasonable reliability.   A methodology that really works has to be able to understand business needs, translate it into process and match this with the best possible technical solution.

Defining the problem

This is not as simple as it sounds. If you read my business case blogs, you will probably remember the way I recommend tying corporate objectives in a direct and accountable way to the benefits delivered by the business case.  That makes perfect sense of course, because a good business sets a plan and then works to deliver on it.
There are other scenarios however that need to be taken into account, this example will hopefully help to illustrate the point.
Suppose we approach an Amazon tribe still living in the traditional way, tell them that we would like to give them some gifts and ask them about the problems they would most like to solve and the things that might give them the most satisfaction.  Problems and exciters. The likelihood is that having seen bright steel machetes amongst the crew, they might suggest a steel spear to make fishing more productive. We might then suggest that rather than give them a spear, we can give them a monofilament net. This way they can catch enough for the whole tribe in an hour instead of having to fish all day.Here we have seen a classic example of the two cardinal sins of analysis:

 1.       Asking a question that the object of the question can’t possibly be expected to answer well.

2.       Answering with a solution rather than a problem.

The interviewee in this example can’t be expected to know how to manage this process, so the entire responsibility lies with the interviewer. By the way, that includes the many occasions when the interviewee believes she knows exactly what she wants and is driving.
The responsibility of the analyst extends to making sure that the interviewee has explored and understood the problem and has a sufficient understanding of it and of the desired outcomes to start either designing or verifying the solution.
I include verifying here, because an increasing number of business people believe themselves to be tech wizards and arrive with fait accomplis and a budget wanting a technically trained fellow to make her vision happen.  In these cases, instead of designing a solution, the analyst goes through a process of verifying the problem, the requirements and the solution.  If these three don’t match and the sponsor doesn’t see it then it is up to the individual analyst’s conscience  and professional intergityas to what he/she should do next.

In Summary

In this part we have talked about three key issues:

1.       The unique challenge facing a systems professional in getting to the real problem before starting on the solution.

2.       Educating the client about possibilities in order to truly understand what the problem is.

3.       Tempering the part time inventor with a little pragmatism without dampening his/her enthusiasm.

The next part will get much deeper into the language and culture of requirements and and discuss different methods of achieving a reliable result.




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Testing requirements is not optional

Part one – What would you like sir
Part two – Requirements,tests, training, help files
Part three – Why no project exists onin isolation-whwat should be done
Part four – Business rules, Process rules, Process, Data, different viewpoints
Part five – Testing requirements is not optional
Part six  -Requirements strategy can make or break your project

Yes you read it right. If you are one of those people who believes that testing begins when the supplier drops the system in your lap, then you have missed the point entirely. Testing starts when you build a business case and you test it to make sure that the solution is feasible and the figures are sound etc.
The next important test comes when the requirements are deemed to be complete.
Here’s the summary of a good requirements definition. Depending on the size of the project this could be one document or one per viewpoint. The thing that is important is that the right problems have been addressed and the problems have been identified and described clearly to the suppliers or developers in a way that makes it easy for them to get it right first time.

Business case — Tested via a Business case review, or Stage gate review.
User requirements – Tested via user and stakeholder review. (The problem)
Functional requirements – Describe the functionality that the system will provide in order to meet user requirements. (The solution)
Non Functional requirements – Describe all the constraints like speed of operation, reliability etc.
Data requirements – Describe in detail the inputs and outputs of the system and cover both the validation of human input and the specification of machine interfaces
Business Process – Describe the time phased rules that govern how the business goes about achieving it’s goal with the system. 

Business case review

Has the scope expanded, or the costs changed, or has the timeline been impacted in such a way to negatively impact the business case.
Has the level of complexity shed any doubt on the organisation’s ability to deliver.
Does the bsuiness case still stack up

Business process review

  • Do the processes join up to deliver a result
  • Does each process receive the required inputs
  • Do they handle all exceptions sufficiently
  • Are processes efficient
  • Will new processes deliver the expected benefits
  • Are the risks managed
  • Are the assumptions sound

User requirement review

  • The aim is to discover problems like ambiguous requirements, missing requirements, inconsistent requirements
  • Check against process models to ensure that nothing has been missed.
  • Check against the ten commandments

Functional requirement review

  • Traceability to user requirements
  • Design agnostic
  • Achievable
  • Complete

Non functional requirement review

  • Measurable
  • Explainable
  • Traceable to a business requirement

Data requirements review

  • Complete
  • Clear definition of types, mandatory fields, sizes,

Prioritisation of functional requirements

Armed with best guess estimates of time, cost, risk and benefits propritise them a number scale ar a scale like MoSCoW

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Why no project should exist in isolation and what needs to be done

Part one – What would you like sir
Part two – Requirements,tests, training, help files
Part three – Why no project exists onin isolation-whwat should be done
Part four – Business rules, Process rules, Process, Data, different viewpoints
Part five – Testing requirements is not optional
Part six  -Requirements strategy can make or break your project

How requirements language can contribute to the solution

The very thing that brought about the project as a business entity can also be it’s worst enemy, especially when it comes to technology. The project isolates the goal from the rest of the business by providing it’s own governance and budget and treating like a mini company with a project board in place of the board and a Project manager in place of the CEO. The stakeholders take the role of shareholders and the sponsor that of Chairman.
Project structure is necessary in order to get important tasks completed quickly without having to fall in line with all of the political and process barriers that would otherwise smother it. The problem however is that this isolation often leads to forgetting to ask simple sensible questions like ; “Do we have something already that can do this?”.

I once was engaged by a large public sector organisation to look for a solution to their string of failed web projects. In the course of initial investigations I discovered that they had no less than 6 content management systems any one of which could have provided for all 100 plus websites that they managed. Each project had been considered in isolation and nobody had considered whether more software was needed.

How requirements language could have solved this problem.

The reason things happened the way they did is that nobody said “We need to deliver our messages 24/7 on demand”.
Nobody said “We need a way to encourage feedback from our audience” etc etc.

Nobody said “we need John to be able to publish stuff instantly and get it reviewed and in front of our customers within 30 minutes”.
The reason nobody said these things is because nobody asked them, or at least nobody asked them the right questions, or asked them in the right way.

Here’s how it works best.

The Business person says: “ I need to influence the market to purchase more of our products”
Here we have a business requirement/business problem/probortunity. The terms you choose depend on your viewpoint. In this example it could any of the three. The key is that this is the goal which kicks off the business case and which is ultimately measured in the KPIs you define for benefits realisation.

The Business Analyst then adds some deeper definition like ballpark estimates at timescales, size of increase and other key constraints.

The Business Analyst then speaks with Marketing people who tell him:

“We need to reach these segments.
We need to deliver these messages, we need to make these things available at these points in the buying cycle on a 24/7 basis.
We need to encourage them to approach us in these ways.”

Business analyst then brainstorms with technical people, designers marketers and everyone with a stake and they decide on a high level plan of how this goal can best be achieved.

At this point we have high level requirements. I prefer to refer to them as high level process requirements just in case anyone starts designing systems yet, but they have not developed beyond business requirements and are dealing with “how” rather than with “what” we want to achieve.

The Business analyst then draws use cases from these requirements that provide some detail on the everyday activities of users and the systems they need in order to support them. He/she does this iteratively, continuously checking back with business stakeholders until he/she has a clear understanding of everyone’s role and what they will need to achieve/do (use cases) in order to deliver on the high level requirements.

The Business analyst gathers high level costs and timescales and organises a scoping session when the team make a first draft at deciding how much of this they can afford and which bits will give the best returns for lowest risk.

Verifying the detail behind the more complex use cases is beyond the scope of this blog, yet it is critical to at least acknowledge that this verification must be done to bring time, place, and sequence to these simple use cases and to get an understanding of the processes required and how they differ from, or add to, those which exist and equally importantly, how they can reuse existing processes.

At this point the business analyst converts the use cases, business rules, models and scribbles into a formal set of requirements written down in a straightforward requirements language and taking great care not to define the solution at this point, simply to define the requirements so that a technical team can decide how best to meet these requirements technically, while taking into account the tools they already have.

The rules for writing good requirements

Below is a simple list of 10 rules that you can use to test your requirements once you have written them.

Value – Traces directly back to a business requirement in the business case, i.e. it adds value
Clarity – Give it some thought, be aware of your audience and don’t use three words where two will get the job done. Above all don’t use jargon including company jargon and if it is absolutely necessary to use technical terms add an explanatory footnote.
Design Free – This is by far the most important rule. Don’t even hint at the design. Stick strictly to outcomes. How it is delivered is down to the specification.
Achievable – There’s no point in asking for things that can’t be done technically, are beyond the budget, or are not going to be accepted in the user culture. This last part has been the downfall of many CRM implementations. If the culture is not ready, then don’t do it yet.
Complete – The requirement must give the reader sufficient information to work form the document without your standing beside him/her.
Consistent – Language and style always depends on individuals, the most critical thing is to be consistent so that the reader can learn your style and be confident in understanding your meanings.
Unambiguous– Don’t be woolly and don’t be coward. Spell it out clearly. Words like nice, fast good have no place in requirements. Define what will be nice or fast or good and make it measurable.
Verifiable – Assume that you will also have to write the test cases and test scripts and ask yourself how you will test this requirement. If the requirement doesn’t give enough information for this , then it is not verifiable and not complete.
Atomic – Take your requirement down to the smallest unit you can. Always ask, could this be broken into two requirements. If the answer is yes, do it.
User experience – This one applies mostly to products, but increasingly it is important in business change scenarios. Ultimately your user will feel an emotion or reaction when using your product. This the ultimate test for your product, the one where it wins or loses. This is where you describe the reaction you are trying to produce.

The last and very important step in requirements definition

Now that you have a requirements list, and assuming that all the context of this project has been communicated to the recipient of your list, the next step is to take this list to your supplier.

Regardless of whether the supplier sits at the next desk or is Microsoft Corporation, the same rules apply.

Add an extra 5 empty columns to your requirements list with the following headings: OTB (Out of the box), CON (Configurable), CU (Customisation required) New (New feature needed) note (Here they enter the number of any footnote they need to include.

My personal preference is to ask for ballpark time, cost and risk estimates alongside of any new code or customisations

This simple exercise will give you an immediate heads up on how much new code, new systems and other effort, risk and expense will be involved and it will take you one step closer to defining the final scope of your project and/or choosing the best supplier.

Today we talked about the issues of language and viewpoint when setting out to define system requirements and we defined the Ten Commandments of writing good requirements.

We did however gloss over a very complex and important area in terms of exploring, defining and verifying process, rules and business rules in order to write requirements that you can feel confident about.

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Product or Internal System why it is important to make a distinction

When do you need a BA and when do you need a Product manager? why is it critical to get it right?
Whenever I write about anything connected to product development or systems implementation, I am acutely aware of the amount of critically important stuff that I have to gloss over or ignore in order to stay readable and this is no exception.

In broad terms, it is very easy to make a distinction between a product and an internal system. The internal system is being rolled out to the workforce and there is not normally much option about whether it can be adopted and used by the target audience, that is, unless it fails to deliver.
The product, on the other hand has to be launched to a public audience who must be sufficiently convinced that it meets a compelling need or solves a pressing problem, to part with their cash and use the product.

There’s a world of difference between investigating a business problem, creating a business case and designing a solution to this problem and identifying a market sized need, establishing a product problem and designing a compelling solution with confidence that you will have a success on your hands.
The stages we go through are remarkably similar and almost interchangeable, but the big difference is in how we engineer and verify requirements.

Although many products begin as an idea in the mind of a director and are driven forward by this vision, at some point a professional product manager has to establish a strategy for verifying these requirements with the intended purchasers and developing a compelling value proposition that will sell the product.
Faced with defining requirements that will motivate users to pay for your new product, you will need a lot of new consultation and communication techniques that are generally well beyond the scope of a Business Analyst, you will also need deep knowledge of the marketplace to assess not only how well your product may be received, but how the competition will compare and how they will react to your offering.

It is remarkable how often this fundamental truth is ignored by government and public agencies who believe or assume that they have a captive audience for their brainwave, when in fact the public often remain unimpressed and find alternatives or ignore it altogether. A simple product management methodology and the use of more appropriate skill sets could save many of the costly blunders in e-government and deliver dramatically more benefits for most of the remainder.

Ed Taaffe

Managing requirement scope

Sometimes the definition of requirements and management of their delivery is described as Scope management.  Scope management is composed of five distinct phases:

  1. Scope initiation
  2. Scope planning
  3. Scope definition
  4. Scope verification
  5. Scope change control

Scope initiation refers to the justification phase. This is when a Product management team create Market requirements and Product requirements documents or a  corporate change team will create a Project mandate and produce a Feasibility study.  It is high level, but it is critical to establish clearly that there is a need or justification and to understand the early boundaries.

Scope Planning is a lot more than it sounds and the danger in glib descriptions like this one is that they can easily lead to not taking the work seriously enough.  This is the time when the established high level need at strategic level or market level is translated into a clear product definition with features that hopefully trace right back to the benfits put forward in the outline business case.
This phase is where the real requirements engineering happens and where the product  design ideation and design phase product development will happen.

You may well be sitting there saying yes, but I only wrote down requirements for a simple off the shelf system and purchased it. Well if that was the case, going through the motions of making sure you understood the  benefits and that the product would really be able to deliver them will have been quick and easy.
 In my personal experience, the purchase of a cheap printer can be fraught with problems unless you go out with a clear scope in mind.

Scope definition.

This is where you either define work packages for the various teams of developers or suppliers, or you place and manage a procurement contract.  Without a sound plan and careful management, the best possible plans and designs can come apart very quickly at this stage as requirements are misinterpreted, deliverables fail to deliver and tests fail to impress.

Scope verification.

This is best started at the earliest possible time. Ideally it starts as soon as there is a single deliverable that can be tested alone.  This is the process of verifying that the deliverable performs, that it meets performance specifications and finally that the end product is capable of delivering the benefits.

Scope management.

This is another part of the project that can continue right through the process. It is the positive act of keeping  everything form the earliest designs to the final deliverables within the scope that was agreed and signed-off and just occasionally invoking a change request procedure to accommodate a truly great idea or a serious oversight.

These five activities applied judiciously to the definition and delivery of a product of any kind will greatly increase the likelihood of success and reduce the risk of failures.

Ed Taaffe