Why Requirements Are Like Journalism

Earlier this month, the Silicon Valley Product Management Association kindly invited me to participate in a panel discussion about the state of PM as a profession. Since the role has wide responsibilities, the conversation ranged widely, but we did dwell a great deal on requirements. One participant asked, "If you could pick only one source of information for requirements, what would it be?" My response was a little tart: I hate that question, because there's no way to answer it.

First, no single type of information will be sufficient to answer a substantive question. Requirements are an exercise in triangulation. Is it worth pursuing a project? You could count the number of people who have asked for it, but that's hardly a reliable basis for making a potentially expensive investment. The next logical questions -- Why do they want it? How important is it? Do we really understand the request? -- require a conversation with at least a couple of potential consumers of this technology.

Second, the question determines the type of information needed to answer it. One type of market development question, such as, is there opportunity for us? requires market-level data. A different market development question, do people in this market need a different mix of functionality in our product? leads to an investigation of potential use cases.

The people responsible for requirements -- product managers, in the tech industry -- have no training in selecting the questions to ask, or the right way to ask them. Which is odd, because you might define the PM role as the questions person, delving into markets, users, competitors, stakeholders, business problems, and a towering pile of other topics.

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Dont' Like Documentation? Think Of "Persistent Communication" Instead.

Scott Sehlhorst has an outstanding post at Tyner Blaine about documentation. Not technical documentation, but the information you write down to make the development process work. By work, I don't mean just the activities within the development team, but also the rest of the value chain, too.

Scott is talking about the role of documentation in Agile development, but his points are relevant to any team, Agile or not. Agile creates greater sensitivity to the issue, since too much documentation can cripple the team's velocity. Of course, the lack of documentation can damage the team's success:

 

Some collaboration is transient – communication happens right now, and is only important right now.  Other communications are persistent – the collaboration happens right now, but we need to remember later what we agreed upon and why.

 

Scott's post is a great illustration of what I was discussing yesterday about treating requirements as conversations, not dictionaries. Requirements are part of the conversation, but a lot of the same content that defines what to build, and why, gets recycled later when you need to describe what you built, and why. For example, personas get passed around quite a bit among groups. Perhaps the originate in the development team, but people in sales, marketing, support, and other downstream groups have a keen interest in that information. 

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Requirements Are A Conversation, Not A Dictionary

During a briefing earlier this week, Jama Software's CEO Eric Winquist showed us a slide separating the repository of a requirements management system from the collaboration that happens around requirements. I really liked the slide because it nailed an important point about both the requirements process and the tools that try to support it.

Ever had one of those "So what?" conversations about requirements? The one in which someone looks at your carefully crafted bit of product requirement genius and says, "So what am I supposed to do with it?" If not, you probably haven't been a PM, so you should stop reading now. If so, you've experienced first-hand that requirements are not just a big Lego box full of information, from which people will easily construct something meaningful. Or, to use a different metaphor, the requirements repository serves the function of a dictionary, describing the things that matter in the universe of technology that we can build. No matter how big, precise, current, or clear the individual bits of information may be, they don't automatically add up to something that someone could use.

The first generation requirements tools were, in essence, dictionaries. Like the Oxford English Dictionary, an important measure of its success was completeness. Since the human brain couldn't retain and organize this information effectively, and Microsoft Office proved to be incapable of handling information complexity, then teams embraced tools like Borland (now Micro Focus) Caliber and MKS Integrity.

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