Why We Should All Stop Creating Requirements Documents

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I know what you’re thinking–you’re reading the title of this blog and wondering what’s wrong with me.  Did I have a stroke?  Have I been spending too much time around cowboy developers?  Am I disconnected from what business analysts are actually doing?  Not at all.  Let me assure you that I am ok.  I am probably healthier than I have ever been. I am still working on projects, and I haven’t spent time around any cowboy coders for about two years now.  In fact, my project work over the past several years has led me to the conclusion that none of us, as business analysts, product managers, or requirements engineers should be producing requirements documents. Those artifacts that many of you and your business/technical stakeholders know and love–the MRD, BRD, SRS, Functional Spec–all need to die quickly.  Here’s why:

1. Requirements Documents are Unmanageable

Practically the only thing you can reliably manage in a requirements document is the document version, and maybe the change history.  But this is only because SharePoint and Word do this for you. There is no way you can use a requirements document–whether it be written in Word or captured in Excel–to manage traceability from business objectives, to features, to models, to model elements (e.g., Process Flow steps), to requirements, to business rules without an excessive amount of manual effort and pulling of hair/gnashing of teeth. The problem becomes exponentially worse as your project increases in complexity. If I change a step in a process flow, and all of my requirements are managed in Word, how do I find all the requirements that are related to that step in the process flow, and how can I be sure that I have caught them all? If my business objectives change, and I have multiple requirements documents, how can I determine which requirements are impacted? In the initial phases of a project, requirements should be changing constantly as we gather new information.  If you are agile, requirements are changing all the time (this is a good thing).   How can you manage changes if your information is scattered across several artifacts, with nothing to rely on but your memory and maybe a spreadsheet which you have to manually update?

2. The Distinction Between Different Types of Requirements Documents is Artificial

Organizations are really good at establishing processes for software development, with stage gates and deliverables for each gate. For example, during the initial phases of a project (sometimes called envisioning or “pre-planning”), product managers tend to produce a Project Charter or a Marketing Requirements Document (MRD). Planning phases tend to produce a Business Requirements Document (BRD), and design phases tend to produce a Functional Specification or System Requirements Specification (SRS). Each deliverable tends to repeat or rehash a lot of the same information. But generally speaking, organizations are really bad about managing this information and referring to it in a consistent manner. If I make an update to the MRD, and my BRD and SRS refer to something the MRD said, how will I know which documents to update and which updates to make? Furthermore, one project’s BRD might be another project’s SRS–the level of detail I capture in any given SRS is relative the level of detail I captured in the related BRD. The information in the SRS depends on and includes information in documents that were created earlier in the SDLC, so why do we produce completely separate documents?

3. Documents are Disposable

I feel like I can be brief with this point: I will give a hundred dollars to anyone who has gone back and read a BRD more than a year after a project is launched.  Shouldn’t a set of good requirements be reusable across multiple projects?  After all, you spent thousands or maybe millions of dollars to write your MRD, BRD, and SRS. If they sit on a dusty (virtual) shelf after project launch, how will you continue to gain value from them? How many times have you had “requirements deja vu”–begun a requirements document only to realize that you wrote almost the exact same requirements 3 years ago? Do you remember where that BRD is, and can you easily find the relevant requirements out of the thousands that you wrote previously to reuse?

Ok, I can’t really give each of you a hundred dollars, but you get the point.

4. Documents Make the Wrong Parties Responsible for Approving Requirements

How many times have we as business analysts been asked by our project managers, “So when are you going to get these documents approved?”  It’s perplexed me for years now why BAs have this ownership. Requirement approval should be owned by the project stakeholders, but if requirements are captured in a document, and the BA owns the document, then the BA, by a false implication owns the requirements approval. Every BA around the world experiences the frustration of sending countless emails to stakeholders, keeping track (usually in a spreadsheet) of which stakeholders they’ve contacted, which have reviewed, and which have signed off. As a former colleague of mine used to say:  “We have computers. Shouldn’t the computer be able to do this for us?” For stakeholders who haven’t signed off, we have to waste way more time than we should bugging them for their approval, and keeping track of what we need to change in order to gain their approval, rather than spending our time what we should be doing–updating requirements and controlling scope.

 

So, if all of these reasons point to why documents are bad, then why are we still using them? That’s a good question. I think many organizations on some level intuitively know probably just about everything above is true, but they are stuck inside of their current processes:  “We must create a BRD using this template because that’s what the project management office says we have to do. If we don’t, then we won’t be able to get the next round of funding.” This is ridiculous. What most project management offices  actually care about is that the project documentation contains certain information at a certain level of detail and that certain stakeholders sign off on it–or at least, that’s what they should care about.

But don’t fret– there are ways to accomplish this without traditional requirements documents. Stay tuned for a follow-up post on how.

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