Protect Your Requirements from the Curse of Knowledge

November 11, 2010

In the business world, the things we DONT say often result in incomplete requirements documentation that can lead to contracts lost, tarnished reputations, emotional anguish, wasted time and wasted money. Fortunately, there are ways we can improve our chances of success.

Imagine you have recently graduated UABs IEM program and have started your own business. You are about to deliver a product to your first customer. You and your team have been working on this project for several months and feel very satisfied that the project meets all customer requirements. Your implementation is impeccable. You present the fruits of your labor only to find out that your customer is not at all happy. It appears some key element is missing. Instead of hearing songs of praise in your honor, youre hearing How could you have possibly missed that very important thing? I thought you were the expert! You immediately pour back over your requirements documentation with the urgency of a mother bear searching for lost cubs only to find out that every requirement has been designed and implemented. Your requirements gathering method was systematically executed and the requirement document was met yet this knowledge is very cold comfort when your customer is clearly not happy. What happened?

The problem is that as people formulate ideas of what they want, much of what is in their heads can remain unspoken. The customer is probably not aware that these ideas are not communicated and probably thinks you should just know. Chip and Dan Heath refer to this phenomenon as the curse of knowledge in their book Made to Stick. Lots of research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators.

To make matters worse, people actually think they are doing a great job communicating when they are in fact not getting their idea across to their audience. The Irish playwright and co-founder of the London School of Economics George Bernard Shaw lamented, The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

The processes of business analysis and requirements documentation are designed to systematically catalog and prioritize what the customer wants from your product or service. But even with these tools it is very risky to rely on people to communicate well enough for the kind of knowledge sharing required for complex projects. Communication of crucial ideas is inadvertently shut down and key implicit (to the customer) requirements are not made explicitly (to you) into the documentation.

The costs of incomplete requirements can be very high. According to the Business Analysis Benchmark Report released by IAG Consulting in 2008, 68% of companies are more likely to have a marginal project or outright failure than a success due to the way they approach business analysis. IAG Consulting goes on to list delivering [less
than] 70% of the target required functionality
as a principle cause to such failure.

To avoid the frustration and pains of failure, you need to get the right information from your customer. Jill Richards PMP CSM and founder of Inovacent Solutions, LLC offers the following two creative questions you can ask your customer (Lemen).

1. Often times, at the beginning of a project I will ask the key stakeholders this question (please note that my background is Information Technology, so modify the question for your applicable industry): Picture the first week that this new system is live. It is completed, and your team is using it. They love it! It is working so well, its doing everything you were hoping for. It is great. It is working amazingly well. You are so glad we did this project for you! Tell me why. What is it doing? Why do you love it so much? Why is your team so happy? What problems is it solving, and what opportunities is it creating? Why is it that great?

2. Then, I will ask key stakeholders a similar question, just in a different way: Now Id like you to once again picture the first week this new system is live. Keep in mind Im not trying to panic you, so relax But we have to talk about it to be prepared. Its the first week with the new system, and its a catastrophe! Your team is so frustrated!! They despise this new system, and wish we never did this project! Tell me why. What specific problems are they having? What are the impacts? Why is it that terrible?

These open-ended questions focus on end results, help bring out what is most important to the customer and open up the dialogue that helps reveal those requirements hidden by the curse of knowledge.

Works Cited:

1. Ellis, Keith. The Impact of Business Requirements on the Success of Technology Projects. BusinessAnalystTimes. http://www.batimes.com/articles/the-impact-of-business-requirements-on-the-success-of-technology-projects.html

2. Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Made to Stick. Random House, Inc., 2007

3. Lemen, Kestrel. Business Analysts Need Creative Questioning for Better Requirements: What Are Your Best Questions? The ASPE SDLC Blog. 15 Sept. 2010. http://www.aspe-sdlc.com/blog/?p=1355

By: Chris Acree

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