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Business Requirements – What Is The Difference Between Good And Bad?
What is a ‘good’ request?
Many customers have asked us to provide them with examples of ‘good’ business requirements. Some of the braver ones even looked for ‘bad’ requests to compare. Probably the bravest are those who presented us with samples of their requests and asked for an assessment of the ‘quality’ of the requests. After a lot of hair-pulling, brainstorming and sprinkling of ashes on our heads, we decided to approach this topic directly (don’t even get me started on that advertisement!). However, since the topic is quite huge (ie too big to cover in one article), we decided to break it down.
‘Good’, although young and immature claims
First of all, we must point out that the ‘goodness’ of a business requirement depends on where it is in its evolution. For convenience, we divide the requirements determination process into three main stages, ‘Recording’, ‘Clarification’ and ‘Confirmation’.
Our basic philosophy is that business requirements can exist in the wilds of corporate America, we just don’t know for sure. The reason we don’t know is because we can’t tell if something is a condition or not until we catch it. What we as business analysts (that is, those responsible for capturing business requirements) first need to do is plan the hunt. We need to study the requirements in their natural habitat to try to learn as much as possible about them. Anything we can learn about their habits, behavior and preferences will help us in the upcoming hunt to make sure we can trap as many of them as possible in the time allotted. ‘Capturing’ is all about getting the request by any means – interviewing, observation, analysis, blue sky, brainstorming, brainwashing, ass-kicking or whatever works for you.
At this formative stage of your life, a ‘good’ request is a statement that:
- begins with the words ‘I (or We, or Our department, or My people, or a certain role) need (or don’t need or want or don’t want or need or don’t need or will or won’t)’ OR defines some dimension of a certain component of the future solution;
- names one component/characteristic/behavior/state for which whoever has the authority in the business community to make a decision decides whether the project result is worthy of funding;
- focuses on the business outcome rather than the technology to be used; and
- can be traced back to an individual with the authority to ‘own’ and ‘fund’ this claim.
A couple of good (IONSHO – in our not so humble opinion) examples:
- Sales must be able to see which contracts will expire in the next 90 days.
- I want the system to automatically calculate the sales tax based on the relevant sales tax laws.
- A website visitor will not have to click more than once to get to the order page from any other page on the website.
- We need to be able to respond to a red flag incident anywhere on the planet within 24 hours.
- Sales tax will be localized according to the zip code of the shipping address.
About requests for clarification
Clarifying a requirement really means making sure that more than one person (ie the author) fully understands what the requirement means. Requests are, after all, a means of communication, so unless both the creator and reader of the request agree on what it actually means, it cannot be called a clear request.
As a good example, let’s take the first request from the above set:
“Sales needs to be able 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 to developers (whether they are sitting in a third world country or cube next to me, whether or not they speak English as their first language, and whether or not they share a cultural background with me)? What questions might these developers have?
An exercise in clarity
As an exercise in your analytical skills, perhaps you could take two minutes at this point to see how many questions you can think of that you would like answered to make sure you understand my intent and not just your interpretation of my words. Whether you write them down or not, count them. In this case, the quantity is counted.
Okay, here’s my two-minute list:
- Who or what is “Sales”? What can they do? What will they do with everything I give them?
- What does “see” mean? Do they need physical contracts or just a list?
- What constitutes a contract?
- Why does the contract “expire” and why do they care?
- The next 90 days? Starting when? Does this view change from day to day or weekly or monthly or hourly or what?
- Come to think of it, what constitutes a day in this context, 24 hours (a day in one location) or a global day (and is it 47 hours or how does that even work)?
Okay, so those are the first 6 (or however many you want to count) questions that hit my feeble mind, but remember, I’m an author! You can probably do a lot better because you’re looking at the world from your perspective. All of this indicates that while the requirement was clear to me when I wrote it, it may just have some subjectivity that needs to be addressed so it doesn’t lead us to develop the wrong solution.
When does it even stop?
Let’s consider what we just did. We took one sentence and made a bunch of questions that will lead to who knows how many more sentences, each of which will consist of concepts that need to be clarified. Sounds like a classic example of analysis paralysis to me. How does it end, when we finally know enough to stop tinkering and start developing a solution?
Great question! Actually, a very likely question for business analysts everywhere. The most expensive answer, of course, is to build the solution and then see if you understand the requirements correctly (which could have a negative impact on your chances for a career in business analysis).
The best answer our industry has come up with to date 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 your understanding of it. If you and your colleagues (subject matter experts, so-called SMEs on one side and developers on the other) are familiar with modeling techniques, it is a good exercise to have each side draw a quick diagram (process model, data model, swim lane diagram , whatever) of what they understand the request to mean, and then compare the models. Models, however, are not the only method available to you.
Why don’t we clarify?
“Why do so many of us skip the clarification process,” you ask? (At least that’s what I think I heard you say in your head.) For starters, many people don’t like to ask questions for fear of coming across as ignorant. (That’s my line — questions don’t show ignorance, they show interest!). Second, figuring out what to ask is hard work. (Of course, it’s not as hard as being president, but still.) While the question shows interest, some questions at least SOUND stupid, so how can you be sure YOUR questions aren’t stupid? OK, how many of you picked up on the nonsensical use of parentheses in this passage to “clarify” what was meant? Did it clarify or confuse? Ahhh, the conundrums we create in our longing for clarity.
This kind of thinking and that pesky deadline looming leads you down the rosy path of, “Well, a subject matter expert must think that, since that’s the only thing that makes sense to me”; and another promising project fails. There is a better way, there has to be.
Dilemma of decomposition
Claims Decomposition probably has as many different definitions as there are letters in the name of the technique, but our take on it is the simplest (it really is, trust me). All you need to think about are two things.
Both people and systems do things. In our language, we call these things functions, activities or processes. By doing things, both people and systems consume resources (such as data) and create new resources (including new data). The primary purpose of information technology is to help us do things cheaper, better, faster and remember what we did by tracking related data. Well, since the requirements should define the future of information technology, maybe we should just focus on what the system will DO and what it needs to KNOW to begin with and see where that takes us.
Functional and informational components
In its simplest form, decomposition of a requirement statement consists of asking three questions, starting with “What does the requirement state or imply that the system (or person) will have to DO?” Since doing anything requires some form of action, we look for answers in the form of verbs and objects (ie, “calculate sales tax,” “deposit check”). Since verbs denote action, objects are usually data (or something we need to have data about).
Once we have a list of all the things the system or users need to DO, the second question for each item on the list is, “What information does the system need to KNOW to do it?” Since data is the thing, we’re now looking for nouns or noun phrases (ie, “sales tax,” “amount owed,” issuing bank).
The third question is “Where did this data come from?” and the answer here can only be another function or somewhere outside the system (ie bank, user, IRS – sorry about that last one, but it’s a valid source as well as a pain in the anatomy)
And so it goes
Okay, so you started with a simple sentence that defined a future feature, state, or behavior of a business system component, and now you have several long lists of things the system must do and things it must know. The only important question that remains unresolved is whether you know enough about each item on the list to be able to communicate with developers or solution builders. It might even be a good idea to know how to tell if these things exist and work the way you want them to after the solution is delivered.
Is everything clearer now?
Confirmation before encoding
Validating business requirements is really about making sure that the business community and the technical community understand the same thing by requirements. It is also about both agreeing on the relative priorities within a set of requirements, so that those requirements most important to the business community will be addressed first. Prioritization isn’t something that can be done unless it’s important, so we won’t go into the intricacies of this critical step now. Suffice to say, unless your business requirements are validated and prioritized, they are not ready for prime time which, in our philosophy, means “Ready to Manage”. In the end, the manageability, maintainability and feasibility of your business requirements is what makes the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ business requirements.
May the best request win.
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