What Color Is Your Unicorn?

ArgonDigital - enterprise automation experts

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[SPOILER WARNING – ArgonDigital asks that any Lisa Frank fans please not read this article]

A: Unicorns don’t exist.

This is a commonly known fact in most circles, but not in the requirements game. There is a strong tendency for a lot of people to spend a lot of time discussing intricate details of systems that don’t, can’t, and will never exist. I have seen weeks of heated arguements over what color the unicorn should be only to have the belated realization that it never mattered in the first place. Time and resources are wasted, slowing the project and frustrating participants. At the end, either the work is abandoned because it’s not in scope, or, worse yet, a developer is driven insane developing a unicorn management and coloration system only then to discover that a key component of the system doesn’t really exist.

Why Unicorns?

Why does this happen? Because “unicorns” are interesting and fun to talk about, they also do “magic” things, like cover for missing information. Does that make unicorns exist? No. I find that when “unicorns” start popping up in requirement conversation, it’s indicative of:

  1. A premature jump to design and implementation
  2. Dodging a hard or open question relating to requirements
  3. Unclear understanding of system inputs and dependencies
  4. Unclear business objectives
  5. Implementation bias towards “hot new technology” or pet solution

Managing Your Unicorns

You don’t need a golden bridle to rein in the fantastical, just some presence of mind and a few directed questions to gently reset the conversation back to reality. Here are some suggestions.

  1. Is an ungulate monoceros currently in scope?
  2. Unicorn? Interesting… What is it the unicorn does that pleases you? (Use the description of the unicorn to glean the underlying requirements)
  3. What is the business objective that the unicorn will help acheive? Is the unicorn the only way to do so? Why? (Again, use the description to glean the underlying requirements)
  4. What are the inputs and outputs of this system? Do they currently exist? (Be especially gentle with this one– people can get a little upset when they have to face reality that maybe unicorns won’t be able to solve the problem.

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