Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Defining and Redefining Requirements

Its been crazy-busy at work. In addition, its summer which means lots of stuff to do in the garden and around the house. Time for other activities has been pretty rare. Sometimes, "other things" kick in.

Last Friday I mentioned I was a bit "under the weather." The worst part was the enforced physical idleness - not "not doing anything" idle, but not able to do the things I otherwise would do or needed to do. So, I've been catching up on my reading.

One book I've been reading is by Rebecca Staton-Reinstein called Conventional Wisdom How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers. Its been an interesting read.

Vignettes from the (United States) Constitutional Convention give a framework for the lessons provided in contemporary case studies. The book is laid out by "Articles" - mimicking the US Constitution. That got me thinking about previous teams I've been a part of, and how un-like the Framers some of them functioned.

My blog post from Friday contained, well, remembrances from a past position. One thing from that was the Forced Best Practices environment. There were a fair number of people who wanted to do good work. There were others who tried to "follow the process" come-what-may. This created a potential for people to derail projects they wanted to fail, or, to assert their authority and dominate the process, inspite of what those tasked with running the project wished to do. In short, the project leaders/managers for a fair number of the most productive projects found a way by-pass the "official" process and focus on what needed to be done.

One of the tactics among those intending to derail the process was to bemoan "thrash" or "continually revisiting things we already decided."

On the surface, this makes a great deal of sense. After all...

Time is money and once a decision is made we must move forward because otherwise we're never going to make any progress. Once we have a direction we most move immediately. We must act. If we find weve acted wrongly, act again to correct it. They may well cite Ulysses S. Grant (who is eminantly quotable, by the way) on always moving towards objectives and "retreating forward."

The problem is, as the framers of the Constitution knew, one decision informs another. The deliberations around one topic may shed light on other topics. If the deliberations shed light on a topic that was "settled," the framers considered it entirely reasonable to reconsider that topic and any other previously settled decision that may be impacted.

What an amazingly time consuming process. Is it reasonable in today's software development process to see this as a reasonable approach? Can we really consider, or reconsider requirements that were "defined" two hours ago? What about two weeks? Is two months out of the question?

When a software project runs into an "issue" with requirements - why is that? Did the scope change? Did the requirements change? Did the "users" change what they wanted? Or did the understanding of the requirements change?

Are there presumptions in place that "everyone" knew, but did not communicate? Was the understanding match among all participants?

I'm not a world famous testing guru. I'm not a sought after speaker for software conferences and conventions. I'm not a famous historian or student of history. I do software testing for a living. I've seen some really good projects and some that were absolute trainwrecks. Some of those can be categorized as U. S. Grant did that "errors were of judgement, not intent." Where do we lowly software testers fall?

My assertion is, requirements will almost always be revisted. Sometimes it will be in the "requirements discovery process" other times it will be while the design is being worked in. Other times, while program code is being written, mis-matches or conflicts may be found. Occasionally, software testing will find inconsistencies in requirements when they "put all the pieces together."

Each of these instances is a far more expensive exercise than taking the time to revisit requirements and discuss them fully. What precisely does a phrase mean? What is the intent of this? Most importantly: Do the requirements work as a whole? Do they define a complete entity?

Do they summarize what the project team is to address? Do they describe the business needs to be fulfilled? Does everyone share the vision that is needed to fill those needs?

Defining your requirements does not mean that you need to know how the team will meet them. That is what the design process is for. If you can define the needs - you can define the way to fill those needs.

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