The journey of a thousand miles begins with a small step; similarly, the development or deployment of systems and solutions begins with requirement gathering. Conventional wisdom has it that IT teams talk to business users to gather their requirements, and then go about creating or finding a solution which fulfills defined selection criteria. When an agreement is reached between the users and IT, the system is then implemented. No user requirement, no solution.
Over the years many research papers have been written on the methodology and science of gathering requirements. Consultants created templates and promised success with common and uncommon sense. It has also been the subject of ridicule with challenged implementations, many of them attributed to requirements either not being articulated adequately or changing requirements leading to scope creep and thus sliding timelines. The most famous amongst these has been the pictorial representation below.
Image courtesy: © Paragon Innovations
When I reflect back on the time I was a rookie programmer, I too went through the journey albeit with not too many such experiences. I remember instances when the disconnect was complete while in many the users loved the solution and the benefit delivered right first time. It never occurred to me at that time to analyse why I got it right sometimes while everyone was miserable in other instances. Eighty percent success was deemed good and that kept everyone happy.
Seeking some expert advice
So last weekend over dinner when I met a CIO who recently inherited a legacy of many challenged projects, I was curious to find out how he planned to overcome history and get everyone moving in unison in the right direction. When he took on the new position, the buzz in the market was that the veteran of many industries and acclaimed implementations had taken on more than he should have. Everyone wished him luck and wondered what went wrong in his previous company for him to take such a risk.
The first month was spent assessing status, understanding and cataloguing projects, getting the team to wake up from inertia, and getting the business teams to start talking. In the company with many custom solutions, there were many stories on what went wrong in the past with fingers pointing at lack of business domain, incorrect interpretation of requirements, discipline, engagement, low skills, sliding timelines with projects not delivering even with 200% escalation in time and budget. The IT team was demoralized and had given up all hope.
Many months into his new role the vendors were on fire hearing about the transformation, change and the investments that had suddenly mushroomed. Old projects rejuvenated, new initiatives being aired; there was a direction where none was thought possible. The story had believers inside as well as outside. Having heard about this I was excited to be in his company to extract some insights on how he went about solving the unsolvable problem.
The CIO smiled at the questions and said, I coached my team to ask all the right questions and did the same myself with the CXOs. He elaborated user requirements will always contain not just what they need, but also what they think they want or should have. The requirements always contain many elements that are nice to have and not necessarily aligned to current reality. That is why they are referred to as “requirements”. So what are the right questions?
Ask the right questions
“What is the business problem you are trying to solve?”, “What will change for you or your customer once you have this new capability?”, “Is the benefit measurable in money or time or efficiency?”. We all ask these questions but not too often; we are happy gathering requirements and then executing solutions which are then sub-optimally used. Requirements tend to get unwieldy with all the exception conditions being mapped; in the end it does not solve the original problem but creates new ones.
Winning teams today do not focus on requirements, they ask the questions above and create solutions that solve real business problems or capture real business opportunities. I believe that the future holds a lot of promise to those who follow the new way of thinking and discard the old requirements lead approach. What do you think?