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Embrace changing requirements

July 11, 2020

I’ve worked for a few different companies over the years, some small and some big, and one thing that really sets the tone for a lot of inter-team interactions is how the company deals with changing requirements.

Larger companies, and some small/medium companies that feel like they need to start the transition to a larger company, have a tendency to lock in requirements at the start of a piece of work. The developers and the BAs want to have a document that lays down exactly what will be built before any work starts, and have processes in place for changes once work has begun. This is often adopted as a way to protect developers. For smaller companies there will have been incidents in the past where pieces of work have ballooned in size, and this obviously leads to the work taking longer than planned, and this in turn often leads to negative consequences for the developer. The solution someone arrived at was the rigid requirements process, and now everything runs more smoothly.

Except things probably aren’t actually running smoothly under the surface. What’s most likely happened is you’ve traded the issue of ever-changing requirements for a different problem; nobody’s getting what they want any more.

There are two primary reasons for this: firstly, people rarely know exactly what they want; and secondly, when they do know, they suck at articulating it properly. Because of this, when you have a rigid system that asks for all requirements to be defined up front you get an imprecisely worded attempt at describing something that was only ever half an idea in someone’s head anyway.

My experience has been that this goes double when talking about reports, inevitably if someone specs a report and you produce the report to their spec, what you’ll hear is something like “well, that’s good, but looking at it what I really want to know is…”

So, what do you do? You can’t go back to the old way, because the business needs some ability to plan how long things will take, but the new way means the dev teams aren’t delivering value a lot of the time. Often companies don’t address this directly, and you see a lot of bitterness appear between the dev team and the rest of the business as a result. The business resents having to specify everything to the nth degree, and still not getting something they want at the end, and the dev team resent doing exactly what they were told to and getting criticism for it.

The answer, in my opinion, is to embrace the fact that requirements will change and work with the business to deliver valuable work. You probably read that sentence thinking it sounds nice, but doesn’t offer any practical advice, and you’re right. That is the mission statement, not a roadmap of how to get there, but there are some more practical steps you can take:

Define a goal for the piece of work, rather than an exact specification. So, maybe instead of defining every item in a report, you have a goal something like “produce a financial report to provide monthly key metrics on our clients”. Maybe you would have a bit more detail in there, but it wouldn’t define every item in the report. Agile proponents will recognise this as being similar to the user story one-line descriptions that usually begin with “As a user I want to be able to …”

The flip of this is continue to reject requirements changes that completely transform the work, or are effectively new pieces of work entirely. So, if part way through developing the monthly client financials report you get a request that it’s now needs to hook into the internal time tracker system, the HR system, and the billing system, to provide extra details, that’s a fundamental change to what you’re doing so there needs to be a new estimation and a change to the plan. Similarly, if you get a request to add a second report on client loyalty, that’s a new requirement and needs estimating and scheduling separately.

Code with extensibility in mind. It should be easy to change details of your code to adjust to changing requirements. If you make your code overly complex, or put everything in one big procedure, or have steps that are tightly coupled together, it will be harder to adjust when the requirements shift.

Keep defining your understanding of the requirements as you go, and checking with the business stakeholder.

Keep producing prototypes and sharing them with the business stakeholder.

These two go hand in hand with the next one: make sure the business stakeholder is available throughout the process. If they are, and if you are communicating your vision and progress with them, and if you are getting timely feedback from them, then you have a fighting change of producing something they will be happy with at the end.

None of this is easy, and if your company is wedded to a fully waterfall approach it can be flat out impossible to achieve, but if you can make it work there are a lot of benefits. In my current job, I’ve spent some time moving one of the projects I’m on to this more collaborative approach, and people are starting to notice that it’s working. I’ve been able to make this happen as just a developer, with no authority over requirements or project management at all, just by regularly checking in with the business sponsors, and being open to requirement changes. It’s helped that the business sponsors have made themselves available for this, not all business sponsors will and at that point you can either give up or start raising things with managers and aiming for a more formal change in how your company works. That may be the next step for me, and, if I do go down that route, having this existing project as evidence will be a key part of my argument.

Some people may be looking at this and thinking that this is only relevant to waterfall companies, or companies that have adopted agile light practices, but I have seen companies adopt every bit of scrum but still falling into these traps.

In conclusion, requirements will change, it’s a fact of development that pretty much nobody knows exactly what they want at the start of a bit of work, and you can either ignore it or embrace it. If you embrace this fact, and work with it, you increase the chance that you will produce software that adds business value, and ultimately that is what we should be aiming to do.

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