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Project Requirements Documents – Why bother?

In today’s new “normal” business environment characterized by lackluster sales and strained liquidity with elevated customer expectations, there is no room for project failure.  Companies need every dollar of increased sales or reduced costs in order to succeed.

For example, one of my clients in the aerospace metals industry had just started to implement a new ERP system when the recession hit.  Suddenly, each dollar was more precious, and the requirements had to be perfectly aligned with what was needed to ensure project success. As the new implementation gobbled up resources, there was no time, no people and no cash to spare.  Could the requirements documents ensure success?  It depends!

In my experience with hundreds of projects across multiple industries and globally, I’ve found that there can be immense time wasted on requirements documents; however, on the other hand, the “right” requirements documents can yield substantial returns.  How can you tell which is which?  1) Do not get sucked into the vortex of endless requirements documents.  2) Focus your 80/20 on the critical success factors.  3) Build in flexibility / revise as appropriate. 

1.   Do not get sucked into the vortex of endless requirements documents – If there is a common mistake in project management which is especially applicable with software implementations, it is getting lost in requirements overload.  Interestingly, it seems as though everything is important, and suddenly, you are lost in a sea of requirements.

For example, I’ve been involved in multiple system selection projects, and I’ve yet to find a team that doesn’t seem to get sucked into the abyss.  From personal experience, I find that it’s easy to do.  Here’s a tip I’ve found to be helpful as you see that you’re heading for requirement overload:   Take a step back.  Could you explain it to your 16 year old?  Can he make sense of it?  If not, think twice.

2.   Focus your 80/20 on the critical success factors – Without fail, I’ve found that having a razor-sharp focus on critical success factors is the key to success.  First, being focused provides a structure for ensuring success.  In my experience, those projects that wander (where decisions are not made or the direction changes frequently – perhaps with the latest management fad) are a recipe for disaster.  Second, thinking about the core critical success factors leads to a significantly better chance of success.  Why not increase your odds of success?

For example, my client in the aerospace metals industry got caught up in the typical system selection process with an overload of what seemed like important requirements.  Of course, each of the requirements was important to a particular function; however, from an 80/20 standpoint, they were base requirements for good manufacturing, distribution and accounting systems.  Yet, the critical success factors were lost in the shuffle, as they seemed to be one of many important factors.  When it came time to implement, they popped up like ugly ducklings. 

3.   Build in flexibility/ revise as appropriate – Last but not least, build flexibility into your projects.  In today’s new “normal” business environment, it is vital to be on the leading edge in order to stay ahead of your competition or to be ready to take advantage of an opportunity to leapfrog your competition.  Thus, it’s important to remain agile. 

Building in flexibility can be misunderstood.  By no means does it make sense to constantly change directions due to the latest fad or based upon internal politics.  Failure here we come!  On the other hand, if flexibility is built into the project in a smart way, the project can remain agile for changing market or external conditions which affect one of your critical success factors.

Too many projects fail to deliver the intended results.  For example, merger and acquisition integration projects typically succeed 20% of the time.  It might be tempting to become enamored with requirement overload as what seems like a reasonable method to avoid the 80% failure rate; however, that will lead straight to failure.  Instead, focus in on the critical success factors to ensure you’re part of the 20%!

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