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Three Baby Steps Toward Agile Requirements Management

If you are beginning to consider a move to more agile methods, you may be looking for a set of ‘best practices’ for agile requirements elicitation and agile requirements management. What you will likely find is many prescriptive and detailed ‘best practices,’ which I have personally found to be situational at best, and often just too much to consume for an organization new to the concepts. What I propose to offer in this post are a few ‘baby steps’ that can help an organization move toward an agile environment and prepare for some of the more prescriptive methods like SCRUM or eXtreme programming (XP).

When making a move toward agile methods, there are three main recommendations that I believe should be considered to prepare for a more agile requirements practice, and a team as a whole.

  1. Collaboration ─ While this is obviously a good idea in all methods of requirements management and all stages of a project lifecycle, it is an essential element to agile methods and agile requirements management.
  2. Embrace Change ─ This is almost a counter-intuitive step for many business analysts. To be agile in requirements management, we must acknowledge change happens, embrace it, and make it part of our process.
  3. Support of upper management ─ Becoming agile is an organizational change as much as a development practice, and without clear support from upper management, this change will be difficult, if not impossible.

Recommending good collaboration is a bit like recommending good work ethic; it seems as if it should go without saying. However, for organizations used to a very siloed waterfall method, real collaboration as a standard operating procedure may have fallen by the wayside. It can become easy in a waterfall method to simply over-document deliverables and blindly send them to the next team. In an agile method, an organization will begin to keep ‘living documents’ that constantly change and grow ─ this requires true collaboration and teaming. In order to include all members of the project team and stakeholders properly, an organization must not only take on more inclusive methods, but must educate all associated people on the use of the method, including management and stakeholders. If one expects individuals to be involved, the individuals must know how, why, and when they are expected be involved. Simply said, to create an inclusive method, all individuals associated with the project must feel and be encouraged to be involved. One simple step many larger organizations have found useful is the adoption of stakeholders’ terminology. Often in agile methods, we get very focused on the new names, terms, and roles ─ all at the detriment to collaboration. Many stakeholders will feel more comfortable with requirements, time periods, and project roles being expressed in their own terminology. This should be seen by the project team as a minor secession for the sake of greater collaboration.

Embrace Change. To many Business Analysts and Project Managers, this will seem counter-intuitive. As professional BAs and PMs, we have been taught to identify all requirements and lock down the scope. However, we all know change does happen, and what often defines the success of a project is how we deal with that change. Traditionally, an organization would manage this change with some sort of project or scope change management process, which gives a structure to altering requirements that are typically fully elicited. In agile methods, organizations acknowledge that change is constant in technology projects, and move to embrace that change. To make steps toward agility, an organization may need to change their requirements elicitation methods. The elicitation can begin with very broad requirements that outline a general scope, do some high-level requirements modelling, prioritize what has been captured, and prepare the team to change as needed. Once the broad requirements are documented and ranked, the team can then begin to add further detail to requirements in an ordered fashion. This means the stakeholders will give detail as it is needed, and the team will change documentation as details emerge. The stakeholders know their priorities and requirements will change, and the project team knows the project documentation is ‘alive’ and changing as the project moves on, and as the need for detail requires.

While the above-detailed steps are important ways to ease into agile, arguably the most necessary step is getting upper management support. The management lines for both the project teams and the stakeholders must understand the use of agile methods is an organizational change, and not just a development method. These management lines must fully comprehend the concepts behind embracing change, increasing collaboration, and the notion of practicing constant requirements prioritization. As with many successful organizational changes, the use of ‘on the ground’ champions of the new process are important, but a clear message of support by company leadership is imperative. A project kick-off that includes an executive saying a few words of support for the new methods and mentioning that management is watching for this to be a successful implementation will go a long way to drown out the voices of the detractors.

As an organization strives to become agile, it is important to remember to be agile in the implementation of agile. Meaning, only take on as much agile process and change as your organization can handle in each ‘sprint,’ or short change window; and only keep the agile processes needed to improve implementation of technology projects. Organizations can often lose focus of their underlying purpose for adopting agile methods, and begin to focus on ‘becoming agile.’ There is not a prize or reward that comes with completely adopting any particular agile method, so look to embrace the parts of agile methods you need to find your success, and question anything else — because that is truly becoming agile.

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Kurt Solarte is a Managing Consultant working for IBM Australia in Sydney; focusing on Agile Development methods. Kurt recently spent eight years with IBM Global Business Services in the U.Ss as a Sr. Business Analyst; where he specialized in keeping business analysis alive and relevant in the agile delivery of eCommerce, web portal, and business analytics projects.

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