itmWEB Research

An itmWEB Classic Whitepaper

Requirements Gathering: First Impressions Count

Focus Area: Project Management for Systems Development

Author: Russ Finney

Year: 2002

Requirements gathering is by far the most interesting, yet the most inexact (from a systems perspective), part of the total process. This is truly the act of going from "thin air" to a clearly defined set of business requirements. It can be a time of both excitement as well as deep risk. The prospect of thoroughly examining a business area and defining all of the perceived needs can be a very stimulating situation, yet in the back of the System Builder's mind those subtle doubts still lurk. Questions like these soon begin to surface:

  • Will we uncover everything?
  • What if we miss the mark?
  • How will we know when we are finished?

Even after these fears subside, the pressure still remains to drive out the "correct" business system solution.

Many systems professionals approach the requirements gathering effort with a mental state which demands that they appear to be an "expert". Very quickly, and with very little fact collection, they begin to espouse technical solutions to barely understood business problems. This is a mistake! Rule number one of requirements gathering should be: Don't start giving answers before you have even asked the questions! If the luxury of time for analysis is available, use it! Solution development should not begin until the requirements are fully understood. One way to make this job easier is to take the client perspective. Before the discussions even begin about what the existing business needs really are, the analyst should endeavor to mentally switch to a client perspective of the situation. Doing this takes substantial preparation, adequate time, and a willingness to listen and learn. No excuses permitted!

Jot Down a Note!

Many business analysts do not even realize they possess one of the most powerful and effective requirements gathering tools available: a pencil! At this point in the process, details, issues, and requirements begin pouring in at an ever increasing rate. During numerous formal requirements sessions, informal meetings, and casual conversations, ideas surface which must be recorded for later consideration. All too often, instead of these ideas being written down, the information is stored in what James Martin likes to refer to as a "meat machine". People elect to rely on their biological memory instead of a making tangible record.

Numerous concerns spring from this practice:

  • The ideas can be forgotten.
  • An analyst may leave the team taking important knowledge away in his or her "meat machine".
  • A systematic review of the ideas, issues, and requirements discovered to date is not possible thus making it difficult to insure that everything has been addressed.
  • The analysts must depend on "memory jogging" events to occur to bring the idea back out into the open.
  • The business client's confidence is diminished when no written record exists of the discussions.

The writer Ralph Waldo Emerson used to advise "take notes on the spot, a note is worth a cart load of recollections!" Not only does note-taking capture important information, it can also be done in such a manner that it actually enhances the image of the business analyst.

One of the greatest compliments which can be paid to another person is to write down their idea, an act which signifies the idea's importance. This relatively simple gesture can increase business client confidence, decrease worry about forgetfulness, underscore clear understanding, and signal the importance of each person's thinking.

Not writing down important ideas, even though they may be remembered later, can lower the confidence of the business clients, can decrease the amount of input from the business clients, and can impact the perceptions held by the business clients. In some cases, a lack of note taking may be interpreted as a lack of analyst understanding or unfounded analyst indifference to important points.

It is critical to realize that note taking is a double-edged sword, if done correctly it captures important information and actually compliments the business clients, if ignored, it can negatively impact the image of the analyst. An IBM corporate saying which emphasizes this point is: "what is not on paper has not been said". This attitude is should be adopted and practiced at all times by the successful business analyst!

Credibility Builds Confidence

Here are a few credibility dos and don'ts which are worth remembering:

  • Be aware of your body language.
  • Be aware of your appearance.
  • Use good judgement when asking questions.
  • Allow others to talk.
  • Avoid daydreaming in meetings.
  • Always take notes when important points are made.
  • Learn the business and the associated terms.
  • Demonstrate integrity in everything you do.