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Managing Requirements Gathering

A structured approach to requirements gathering during the early stages of a project can pay large dividends later.

Have you ever entered into a project as the manager and been expected to follow a previously established process or project methodology? Has there also been an expectation to meet certain milestones within certain dates, regardless of the scope of the project? Do you find there are great pressures to rush planning and requirements definition activities?
I’m sure you can relate to these questions. And to deal with these time pressures there are a few techniques you can build into your project early to help gather requirements quickly.

A growing number of organizations have developed project management frameworks in order to achieve a degree of structure. These processes can be viewed as management controls over projects. They are intended to not only standardize activities in the organization but also add visibility to the project progress, support decision making and streamline the work to ensure success.

These frameworks may be large and broad such as those laid down in SDLC (Systems Development Life Cycle) policies. These would apply generally across large corporations and often highlight management decision points in the process. Other frameworks are more detailed and fitting to the mandate of departments they support. Many smaller organizations are highly focused on a certain types of project deliverables and their processes are tuned for this.

In any case, all these frameworks are only as good as the definition of requirements for the projects that must follow them.

We all know that if the project deliverables and the criteria for success are not clearly defined then the chances of meeting scope, schedule and budget objectives are limited.
And yet I find that many of these staged processes come with management expectations to rapidly move through early stages.

Depending on your project situation there are three techniques you might consider to gather requirements information.

First, you can build a series of formal interviews with key individuals into your project plan. This is by far the most common approach. The best results are achieved by keeping the sessions formal and making sure the interviewees have the authority to make decisions on requirements. It is important to very clearly articulate the objectives of the interviews and follow a pre-prepared agenda, which should be sent out ahead of the interview.

The second approach is to use surveys. This might work well in situations where a large number of people need to be consulted or if the individuals are geographically dispersed. It can often be difficult to arrange a good time to meet with a group of people who are in different time zones. Keep the survey questions short and to the point. A survey with 10 questions delivered in a web-based format is likely to yield the best response rate.

Finally, you can conduct a facilitated requirements gathering session. As with the interviews, be sure the attendees have the authority to make decisions on requirements. A successful facilitated session requires planning. As a facilitator, you’ll need to consider a neutral meeting location, the session duration, how consensus will be achieved and the agenda, which may include an icebreaker. In some cases a short training period is helpful to level set attendees.

All these techniques should be followed up with a summary of the information gathering activity (i.e. minutes or survey results) and a list of follow-up activities for completeness.

Regardless of what project methodology you are expected to follow, if you get sponsor buy-in to a formal requirements gathering phase and use these activities early in your project, you’ll be sure to firm the requirements and get more issues on the table sooner. Later during project execution you’ll be much better positioned to monitor and control the project and manage the various scope changes that may arise.

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