Asking requires listening and writing down what you hear!

Asking requires listening and writing down what you hear!

Asking stakeholders to describe or define requirements is the most common way to develop requirements for projects. Specific techniques include talking to stakeholders in the hall informally, interviews and questionnaires and very formal Joint Application Design (JAD). These techniques are popular because asking and talking to people is easy and opens a dialog. However, while stakeholders may know their business need, they may not know the details of what they really want and need. Moderation and planning are critical for making all of the techniques in the category as effective as possible for creating an initial backlog. Examples of how moderation and planning could be implemented in two classic “asking” techniques are shown below:

Joint Application Design (JAD) is a very formal technique that is an off-shoot of Joint Application Development that evolved in the 1970s. JAD is highly structured approach to developing the requirements and design for an application or project. The process is based on the interaction between key roles (sponsor, subject matter experts including business and IT participants, facilitator, scribe and potentially observers). The process requires all roles. It should be noted that the JAD process was one of the earliest techniques used to embed business and IT personnel for any substantial period of time. The process (documented many places including Wikipedia) has a number of key steps that provide a structured approach for interaction and generating information. Setting the goal (one of the key steps) of the JAD acts as an anchor for the process and provides a tool for the facilitator to re-focus the process if it wanders off course. In order for a JAD to work, up-front planning is mandatory. The participants need to be carefully identified, the goals of the JAD identified and a detailed agenda with supporting documentation needs to be developed. Preparing for the JAD can take as long as the session itself. JADs typically run three to eight days and participants typically were sequestered from the typical working environment during the session.   The combination of skilled facilitator and structure help IT and business participants interact in a creative and productive fashion. Overall JAD is a very powerful technique, however the structure and overhead tend to make it more difficult to apply.

In its classic form, JAD is viewed as less than Agile. Historically it was used to develop the much abused, big up-front design (BUFD). Agile principles call out the concept of emergent design, while eschewing the BUFD. The practice of Agile  is generally more a reflection of finding the balance between what needs to be known and what needs to be discovered. I have used the formal structure of the JAD process as a tool to initiate Agile projects very successfully by refocusing the goal to build an initial product backlog. The combination of structure and facilitation is more valuable when a team is addressing a new business area or in matrix organizations where teams are assembled for each new project.

Interviews are another of the classic “asking” techniques. Interview techniques can range from formally scripted question and answer sessions to loosely guided discussions. Formal interview techniques begin by developing a set of questions to be asked during the interview. In formal interview situations, the responses to the questions in the scrip and any follow-on questions captured as close to verbatim as possible. A legal disposition is an example of a formal interview. They require the interviewers to prepare for the interview not only by developing the set of questions to be asked, but also to gather information about the general outline of the answer they are going to receive. A good interviewer is rarely surprised by the answer they receive. Informal interviews are typically less structured, however they still require preparation. In less formal scenarios I generally recommend developing a loose set of framing questions (framing questions capture the direction of interview without being specific) so that the interviewer develops a goal for the interview and then plans the approach to attain that goal. The framing process is important in case the interviewee throws a curve so that interviewer can gradually guide the interview back to the correct track. Take notes (do not trust your memory) in all interviews. While informal interview seem more like common conversation, interviewers that are good at the informal technique tend to good counter-punchers (able to deliver well formed follow questions that keep the interviewee talking) however even in an informal interview, the interviewee must always their ultimate goal in mind. In both formal and informal situations, if the interviewer is emotionally involved in what the answer should be, consider using a facilitator or external interviewer.

Asking stakeholders for requirements is a tried and true method to generate an initial backlog. Asking should not equate to ad hoc or mere order taking. Asking requires preparation to be effective whether using formal techniques based on JAD or informal interviews. As an interviewer you need to map out where you want the session to go and then act as the guide.