Business Requirements – What Is The Difference Between Good And Bad?

What is a ‘Good’ Requirement?

Many customers have asked us to give them examples of ‘good’ business requirements. Some of the braver have even asked for ‘bad’ requirements for comparison. Presumably the bravest by far are those who have presented us with samples of their requirements and requested an evaluation of the ‘quality’ of the requirements. After much hair pulling, brain thrashing, and pouring ashes on our heads, we have decided to approach this topic head-on (don’t even get me started with that ad!). Since the topic is, however rather humongous (i.e., too big to consider in a single article), we have decided to break it down.

‘Good’, Albeit Young and Immature Requirements

First off, we need to point out that the ‘goodness’ of a business requirement depends on where it is in its evolution. For convenience’s sake, we divide the requirements determination process into three major stages, ‘Capturing’, ‘Clarifying’, and ‘Confirming’.

Our basic philosophy is that business requirements may exist in the wilds of corporate America, we don’t know for sure. The reason we don’t know is that we can’t tell whether something is a requirement or not until we have captured them. What we as business analysts (a.k.a. those responsible for capturing business requirements) need to do first is plan the hunt. We need to study requirements in their natural habitat to try to learn as much about them as we can. Anything we can learn about their habits, their behaviors and their preferences will aid us in the upcoming hunt to ensure that we can snare as many of them as possible in the time allotted. ‘Capturing’ it is all about getting the requirement any which way you can – through interviewing, observation, analysis, blue-skying, brainstorming, brainwashing, butt-kicking, or whatever-works-for-you.

In this formative stage of its life, a ‘good’ requirement is a statement that:

  • starts with the words ‘I (or We, or Our Department, or My people, or a specific role) need (or don’t need or want or don’t want or should or should not or will or will not)’ OR it defines some dimension of a specific component of the future solution;
  • names a single component/feature/behavior/state that whoever has the authority in the business community to make the decision decides is an outcome of the project worth funding;
  • focuses on the business outcome, not the technology to be used; and
  • can be traced back to the individual with the authority to ‘own’ and ‘fund’ this requirement.

A Couple of Fine (IONSHO – in our not-so-humble opinion) Examples:

  1. Sales needs to be able to see which contracts will be expiring within the upcoming 90 days.
  2. I want the system to automatically calculate sales taxes based on relevant sales tax laws.
  3. The website visitor won’t need to click more than once to get to the order page from any other page on the site.
  4. We need to be able to respond to a code red incident anywhere on the planet within 24 hours.
  5. The sales tax will be localized by the zip code of the ship-to address.

On Clarifying Requirements

Requirements clarification is really all about making sure that more than one person (i.e., the author) fully understands what the requirement means. Requirements are, after all, a means of communication, so unless both the creator and the reader of the requirement agree on what it actually means, it can not call itself a clear requirement.

Just as a good for instance, let’s take the first requirement from the set above:

“Sales needs to be able to see which contracts will be expiring within the upcoming 90 days.”

Makes perfect sense to me, after all, I wrote it. What does it mean to the developers (whether they are sitting in a third world country or a cube next to me, whether or not they speak English as their native tongue, and whether or not they share a cultural background with me)? What kinds of questions could those developers have?

An Exercise in Clarity

As an exercise in your analytic abilities, you might at this point want to take two minutes to see how many questions you can think of that you would like answered to make sure that you understand my intent and not just your interpretation of my words. Whether you write them down or not, count them. In this case, quantity counts.

All right, here is my two-minute list:

  1. Who or what are “Sales”? What can they do? What will they do with whatever I give them?
  2. What does “to see” mean? Do they need the physical contracts or just a list?
  3. What constitutes a contract?
  4. What makes a contract “expire” and why do they care?
  5. Upcoming 90 days? Starting from when? Does this view change day-by-day or weekly or monthly or hourly or what?
  6. Come to think of it, what constitutes a day in this context, 24 hours (a day in a single location) or the global day (and is that 47 hours or how does that work, anyway)?

OK, those are the first 6 (or however many you want to count) questions that hit my feeble mind, but remember, I am the author! You can probably do much better because you look at the world from your perspective. All of this indicates that, although the requirement was clear to me when I wrote it, it may just have some subjectivity that needs to be resolved lest it lead us to develop the wrong solution.

When Does It Ever Stop?

Let’s consider what we just did. We took one sentence and created a bunch of questions that will lead to who knows how many more sentences, each of which will consist of terms that need clarification. Sounds like a classic example of analysis paralysis to me. How does it end, when do we finally know enough to stop dithering around and start developing the solution?

Great question! Actually, quite possibly THE question for business analysts everywhere. The most expensive answer is, of course, to build the solution and then see whether or not you understood 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 create a prototype of what you think works and test your understanding of it. If you and your counterparts (Subject Matter Experts, a.k.a. SMEs on the one side and the developers on the other) are versed in modeling techniques, a good exercise is to have each side draw a quick diagram (process model, data model, swimlane diagram, whatever) of what they understand the requirement to mean and then compare models. Models are, however, not the only method available to you.

Why Do We Not Clarify?

“Why do many of us skip the clarification process”, you ask? (At least, I think that’s what I heard you say in my head.) For starters, many people don’t like to ask questions for fear of appearing ignorant. (That’s my line — questions don’t show ignorance, they show interest!). Secondly, figuring out what to ask is hard work. (Of course, not as hard as being President, but still.) Even though a question shows interest, some questions at least SOUND stupid, so how can you be sure that YOUR questions are not the stupid kind? O.K., how many of you picked up on the preposterous use of parenthesis in this paragraph to “clarify” what was meant? Did it clarify or confuse? Ahhh, the conundrums we create by craving clarity.

This thinking and that pesky deadline that is looming lead you down the rosy path of, “Well, the subject matter expert must mean this, since that is the only thing that makes sense to me”; and another promising project goes kerplunk. There is a better way, there has to be.

The Decomposition Dilemma

Decomposing requirements statements probably has as many different definitions as there are letters in the name of the technique, but our take on it is the simplest (really, it is, trust me). All you need to think about are two things.

People and systems both do things. In our parlance, we call these things functions, activities, or processes. In doing things, both people and systems consume resources (such as data) and they 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 keeping track of the related data. Well, since requirements are supposed to define a future information technology, maybe we should just focus what the system will DO and what it has to KNOW for starters to see where it leads us.

Functional and Informational Components

In its simple form, decomposing a requirement statement consists of asking three questions, starting with “What does the requirement state or imply that the system (or a person) will need to DO?” Since doing anything requires some form of action, we are looking for answers in the form of verbs and objects (i.e., “calculate sales tax”, “deposit check”). Since the verbs indicate the action, the objects are typically data (or something that we need to have data about).

Once we have a list of all of the things that the system or the users need to DO, the second question for each item on the list is, “What data does the system have to KNOW in order to do that?” Since data is a thing, now we are looking for nouns or noun phrases (i.e., “sales tax”, “amount due”, issuing bank”).

The third question is “Where does that data come from?” and the answer here can only be another function or somewhere outside the system (i.e., the bank, the customer, the IRS – sorry bout that last one, but it is a valid source as well as a pain in the anatomy)

And So It Goes

O.K., you started out with a simple sentence that defined a future feature, state, or behavior of a component of the business system and now you have a couple of long lists of things the system has to do and things it has to know. The only significant question left standing is whether you know enough about each item on the list to communicate to the developers or assemblers of the solution. It might even be a good idea if you also knew how to recognize if these things are there and work the way you want them to once the solution is delivered.

Is everything clearer now?

Confirming before Coding

Confirming business requirements is really about making sure that the business community and the technical community understand the same thing under the requirements. It is also about ensuring that they both agree on relative priorities within the set of requirements so those requirements that are most important to the business community will be addressed first. Prioritization is not something that can be done unless it matters, so we are not going to delve here into the intricacies of this critical step at this time. Suffice it to say that unless your business requirements are confirmed and prioritized, they are not ready for prime time which, in our philosophy, means “Ready to be Managed”. 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 requirement win.

Letter Writing Techniques – Good News Vs Bad News Letters

There are different strategies and techniques to be discussed when writing good-news and bad-news letters. In good-news letters a writer is conveying good news to the receiver. The first paragraph (introduction) provides the good-news topic (reason for the letter). The second paragraph (discussion) provides the details of the good-news and the third paragraph (conclusion) calls for action.

Bad-news letters use the indirect approach and opens with a neutral idea while providing facts and supporting evidence. The second paragraph presents the reason for the bad news letter. The third paragraph ends with a neutral close. Tact and politeness is required when writing a letter of bad news. A writer of a letter of bad news must pay attention to tone and structure throughout the letter to avoid future problems. Writers must prevent themselves from offending the reader.

All writing is a form of persuasion. A writer tries to persuade their reader to understand his, or her point of view. Attention to wording is essential in a bad-news business letter to prevent breaking the code of ethics. An example for a reason for a bad-news letter is:

A company I work for has been advised to downsize labor cost by any means possible. The only choice I have is to terminate all temporary positions within the company. This decision requires that I write bad news letters to each of the temporary employees, terminating them and explaining to each one the reason for termination. I must take care to use tact and politeness throughout the letter while making it clear that their job performance was excellent and had no bearing on my company decision. When writing to the employee, I should offer a severance pay and to write a letter of recommendation to help the employee with job search. Additionally, medical benefits should be extended for a short time after termination. Additionally, letting the employee know that with his, or her given qualifications and proven abilities, I am confident that he or she will find another position in the near future. End on a calm and upward happy note.

Square Business Cards – Good Idea Or Bad?

Each and every day, entrepreneurs, job seekers, freelancers, employees, and executives hand out business cards. It happens in offices and on the street… during chance meetings and networking events… in between friends, new associates, or newly united strangers.

With all of these cards being exchanged, it’s very important to have a business card that stands out from the pack — one that grabs attention the instant it’s placed in the palm of someone’s hand. After all, there’s nothing worse than making a first impression with a dull and drab card.

Perhaps the easiest way to stand out is to have a business card that doesn’t look or feel like all of the others.

Enter the square business card.

Square business cards instantly stand out due to their shape. It’s almost impossible, in fact, to be handed a square business card and NOT look at it before you put it in your pocket. That alone can make it a better marketing tool than other, more typical cards.

Another benefit of square business cards is that they offer extra space for content. Considering more content equals a greater opportunity for selling yourself to prospects, employers, or referral sources, that can be a big advantage.

So are square business cards all good? Are they an automatic brilliant idea that anyone and everyone should be using?

Of course not.

The thing is, standing out visually can be accomplished in so many ways. There are 3D, plastic, translucent, metal, edible, die-cut, embossed cards… and countless other eye catching attention-grabbing possibilities. Square business cards are but ONE way to do it, and what’s right for one person is certainly not right for everyone.

When you consider that the atypical shape may make storing your square business card more difficult (in a stack of others, or in a business card book, for example) it may not necessarily be the most convenient. And as for the benefit of added space to tell your story… well, fold over cards offer that benefit as well, but they can retain a typical shape as well.

The bottom line is that square business cards will be a great way to stand out for some — and not right for others. It really does depends on what you do, where and to who you distribute your cards to, and the concept you have in mind. If a square design seems right — go with it. It’s certain to stop your recipients in their tracks, giving you ample time to make that big and lasting impression!

Women & Business Partnership – The Good, the Bad and the Synergy

Team sports prepare boys for the corporate model of business. Girls, however, typically play closely with one or two friends. What great preparation for entrepreneurial partnership! So it is fitting, as women continue to start businesses in record numbers, that many are finding partnership is a comfortable format. In fact, business partnership works for women coming from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences including those tired of hitting the corporate glass ceiling, stay-at-home Moms, and women who want to turn their passions and their social connections into business ideas.

Partnership brings a wide variety of benefits including a sense of connection and someone to cover when you go on vacation. On the other hand, many partnerships end in crisis and conflict. To avoid partnership failure, your partnership needs to possess the following seven components of positive partnership.

Shared Values. Partners need a sense of shared standards regarding what is desirable, undesirable, good, and bad. These values will guide partners’ actions, judgments, and choices. Values, which often carry considerable emotion, may range from valuing family, prosperity, ambition, a work ethic, or a political persuasion. In addition to helping partners make congruent decisions, shared values serve to keep partners united.

Different (Complementary) Skills and Traits. Successful partners will possess different (complementary) skills and traits. The broader the partners’ range of skills, the clearer the division of their labor (and power) can be. It may be easy to distinguish the marketing person from the technical person in a business but other necessary variables are often not as easy to see. Michael Gerber’s classic book “The E-Myth” explains that a business owner needs to play three roles, Entrepreneur – the creative visionary; Manager, the administrator who brings planning, order and predictability; and Technician – the craftsperson. Partnerships have a distinct advantage in that two or more invested people are available to perform the three necessary roles.

Sense of Equity. Equity occurs when the rewards of a relationship are proportional to what each side perceives as his or her contribution. Strangers and casual acquaintances maintain equity by keeping track of the benefits they exchange. However, in long-term and more committed relationships it is not healthy to keep track. Instead, a sense of equity should be established. A perception of inequity (I am giving more then I get) takes a tremendous toll on a partnership.

Growing Together. From the moment we are born until the day we die, we are in the process of growing and changing. Partners and their partnerships are continuously undergoing this process of change. However, we are often not aware of the changes we’re experiencing. And, sometimes change is viewed as a threat to the status quo. Successful partners embrace change and growth, knowing that this attitude benefits both their individual and shared professional identities.

Proactive Conflict Management Strategies. Competing and avoiding are not effective conflict management strategies for partnership. Instead, successful partners will use proactive and strategic approaches to conflict management such as accommodation, compromise and collaboration to resolve their differences.

Shared Vision. Partners need a shared vision or plan for the future. Vision is what determines and expresses where an organization wants to go and how it intends to get there. A shared vision allows partners to focus on their goals and the methods they will use to achieve those goals. When partners hold different visions they become discouraged, overwhelmed, and disconnected. In order to create and effectively benefit from a shared vision, four tasks are necessary: creating the initial vision, translating that vision into the necessary physical actions, articulating and selling the vision to others, and holding true to the essence of the vision when reality changes the plans.

An Exit Strategy. It has been said that a graceful exit is proof of a successful venture. Without an exit strategy in place partners can be faced with making crucial decisions at a time when they were least levelheaded. An exit strategy is a shared sense of when and how an alliance will end and one should be included as the end-point in a business plan. However, while planning for the end may be a critical aspect of owning a business, it is also one of the most neglected. Exits are easy to avoid when the issue is not pressing and raising the issue might sour the deal or suggest a lack of trust. Four questions should be addressed when considering an exit plan: what events might trigger an end to the partnership; how will the business be valued at the end; which options for future ownership are acceptable; and what post-alliance ties and restrictions, such as non-compete clauses, need to be included.

When you enter into a partnership that is strong in these seven components you have the potential to create synergy and reap some amazing benefits. True synergy comes about when two (or more) people work together to create results that would have been unobtainable independently. In a synergistic partnership 2+2>4 and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Exit mobile version