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Requirements and Expectations in Project Management
By Bernadette St. John

One of the most critical factors for project success is to meet (or beat) the customer’s expectations. Sounds easy enough, but unless you can read minds, it can be a challenge to really know what the customer expects. Documenting and discussing requirements upfront is one of those steps we all wish we could skip or at least get through faster, but not doing it well usually leads to disconnects and frustration further down the line.

Customers are usually too busy with their day-to-day responsibilities to devote much time to thinking through in detail what they need from a project. They either assume that the project implementers understand their needs as well as they do (very unlikely), and are surprised when the resulting deliverable lacks something that ‘obviously should have been there’. Or, customers do not think through their own requests in depth and, once implemented, have to deal with the unintended consequences of their request.

Project implementers are often eager to get on to development or other project work and will gladly move ahead, filling in the missing details with their own understanding of what the customer must want.

Until we can get that ESP1 module developed, good requirements are the best way to avoid a disconnect between customer needs and project deliverables further down the line. So the challenge is to make the requirements process as efficient as possible. Here are a few things I find helpful.

A picture is worth a thousand words – screen mock-ups go a long way to setting a shared expectation of how something will look and work. For a large project, wireframes are invaluable, but for smaller projects even reviewing simple mockups can bring disconnects to light early on.

Templates – having a requirements template helps make sure you cover all the key areas of a project’s impact (functionality, process, performance, organizational impact, etc.) If the project is developing or implementing something that has been done before, start with what we know about the topic based on past experience with the customer or in the industry at large. For example, if the project is to implement social networking applications on a website, create a template of existing social networking functionality and identify features that are standard and those that are less common. This will allow a more efficient requirements discussion with the customer, as the focus can be on desired functionality, priorities and what’s missing, rather than starting with a blank slate.

Lessons learned – This is another step that we tend to give short shrift to because there are always other tasks or new projects that have a greater impact on project schedules. But taking time to note the lessons learned during a project and reviewing lessons from past projects can help us stop making the same mistakes over and over again. And a disconnect between customer expectations and the delivered product due to incomplete or unclear requirements is often heard during the lessons learned exercise.

1ESP: Extrasensory perception, the acquisition of information by means other than the five human senses.

Bernadette St. John is the Director of Digital Media for Questex Media Group, a global business-to-business integrated media and information provider, headquartered in Newton, MA. Bernadette is responsible for the project management and operations functions of the Digital Media Group. Bernadette has 10+ years of project management and software development management experience and is a member of the Mass Bay chapter of the Project Management Institute. Bernadette maintains Bernadette’s blog, a professional blog where she writes about Project Management.

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