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Requirements gathering techniques: your step-by-step guide

By: Nicholas Mistretta

Imagine for a minute that you are building a new product, starting a new business, or launching a new project. What do you think the first step would be? Well, since you’re a MindManager blog reader, I’ll assume you’re already pretty bright, and because the title tells you what this article is about, I’ll assume that the intrigue is a bit sparse. The answer: You gather all of the requirements that are necessary. This article will talk all about the requirements gathering techniques you’ll need to be successful.

Requirements gathering, for those of you who did not read the last article in this series, answers the question: what is required to successfully launch your project, start your business, or build your new product. If you don’t know exactly what you need, how will you know where to begin?

The requirements gathering techniques you’ll learn today will answer that question above, so you can increase the odds of being successful. And no one begins a new venture intending to fail, do they?


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Requirements gathering questions you should ask

However, there are several requirements gathering questions you should know beyond the what. Knowing what the project is, well, that’s an obvious question that needs to be addressed. But there are others, such as:

  • Who is this project for and who will be involved in executing it?
  • When do we need to finish the project; is there a deadline or multiple milestones?
  • Why are doing this project, which speaks to motivation, and this is important and sometimes overlooked.
  • Where… may or may not be applicable, but if it is, it should be asked.

Do you want to know the most common utterance in the history of mankind after a project fails?

Well, the requirements were not clear to us.

10 requirements gathering steps you need to complete

Every new product, venture, or business has certain requirements, from a software product to a backyard swing for your daughter and her friends. The requirements gathering steps that follow will make sure that you approach this project the right way and with all the information you need to ensure its success.

Step 1: What are the goals or objectives of the project?

In some cases, this may feel like a no-brainer, but still, you shouldn’t take this step for granted. If you get this first step wrong, you’re certain to fail, and you’ll waste a lot of time and money going through the other nine steps as you stray further and further off the right path.

Let’s say your project is simple – your daughter wants a swing for the backyard, but she doesn’t want a normal swing set like all the other kids on the block have. She wants something unique and knowing this objective will help you make sure to give her a swing that she will enjoy.

In this instance, your daughter is the stakeholder. In normal business environments, stakeholders can be business partners, manufacturers, board members, or department managers. Make sure you understand who this project is for and what their objectives and goals are.

One requirements gathering technique that is useful is brainstorming. You’ll want to get as many ideas as possible, whether you’re trying to solve a problem or identify an opportunity. Brainstorming works best if it’s done quickly and all ideas are written down. You can go through them later and weed out those that aren’t very good.

Step 2: Document every requirement

What do your stakeholders require from this project? Interviewing them and getting their input is a crucial step in the requirements gathering process, but you’ll have to do it the right way. Otherwise, you’ll leave that meeting thinking you know what the goals and objectives are and later begin to realize things aren’t quite as clear as you had thought.

The first requirements gathering technique during this step is to take very detailed notes, but this still isn’t enough. Make sure you ask follow up questions, especially if you’re unsure about something. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t make any assumptions.

If your daughter tells you she doesn’t want a normal swing, you want to understand what her idea of normal is. And besides that, does she require anything else from her ideal swing set?

Step 3: Make sure your documentation is transparent

Imagine that you’re in a stakeholder meeting. You’re taking notes and asking questions. They understand what they want. You understand their requirements. Perfect, right?

But, what if your understanding isn’t the same as theirs? Your stakeholders will want to know your understanding or interpretation of their requirements. This is how you guarantee that everyone is on the same page. This is how you get buy-in and avoid hearing weeks or months later: This isn’t what we asked for.

Go through your notes after each stakeholder meeting. Add relevant requirements you just learned and remove irrelevant requirements. Basically, just clean them up before handing them off to your team.

If your daughter’s idea of a perfect backyard swing is a tire swing, and you begin the project by cutting down the one tree big enough to support a tire swing, whoops. While your daughter may except the whoops defense, your business stakeholders likely will not.

Step 4: Consider any missing ingredients

An often-overlooked part of the requirements gathering steps is making sure you get input from everyone who matters. So, ask yourself and the stakeholders if there is anyone else you should talk with.

Should you get some input from the end users? Are there hidden stakeholders who aren’t primary decision makers but still have influence? The opinions of others may be important, and you’ll want to consider this an important requirements gathering question when you meet with stakeholders.

If there are end users or hidden stakeholders, get feedback from them. Maybe all you’ll get is validation that you’re on the right track, but you may also identify a new requirement you didn’t already have.

If your daughter’s friends’ opinions matter to her (duh, of course they do), you may want to consult with them before you begin.

Step 5: Assume nothing

Your requirements gathering process is coming into focus and you think you understand what everyone wants, but do you really? This requirements gathering step is about making certain that all parties understand the goals and objectives and that no rock has been left unturned.

Look over your notes from every stakeholder meeting. Are there any lingering questions that weren’t asked? Did you really listen to what they wanted? (After all, listening isn’t what we humans do best. Waiting for our turn to talk is more our specialty.) Make sure you’ve weighed everyone’s input, heard every voice that matters, and gathered all opinions from everyone involved.

Requirements gathering techniques are useless if you make assumptions when you should be posing follow up questions instead.

Step 6: Listen between the lines

We are focusing a lot on listening, because this is an important part of any successful requirements gathering step-by-step guide. Don’t just listen to what your stakeholders do say. Also pay attention to what they don’t say. (Yes, it sounds a bit Zen.)

Transparency is hard to come by and people are often misunderstood or afraid to speak or make assumptions. You’ll want to cut through all of that and get to the nut of the matter. Active listening is an important requirements gathering technique and it goes well beyond what we consider ordinary listening skills.

Has anyone ever said to you: It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it? Consider this, too, when meeting with your stakeholders. Your job is to get the whole story in the requirement gathering process and that includes unstated objectives and finding pain points that the stakeholders themselves may not even be aware of.

Don’t just ask what kind of swing your daughter wants. Also ask her what she doesn’t want. Knowing that will keep you on track and better prepare you to give her a swing that won’t just collect dust.

If you suggest an idea for a swing and your daughter folds her arms and says, yah, that sounds pretty good, that’s not an invitation to begin building a swing set. That’s an invitation to ask more questions.

Step 7: A wish list isn’t a goal

Clients and stakeholders can be finicky and difficult and there’s no getting around that. If they ask for the moon, you’ll have to tell them that the moon just isn’t available right now.

Make sure you (and they) understand the difference between a goal and a wish. There is no Santa Claus. There’s no gypsy hiding in a bottle granting wishes. You may encounter a situation where a stakeholder says something like, it’d be really nice to have _____, but _____ is about as likely as the Cubs winning the World Series (Oh darn, we can’t use that anymore to represent the impossible.)

Be as clear and transparent as possible and prioritize goals and objectives that are possible, not wish lists that more appropriately belong in a letter that begins with Dear Santa. And communicate that in a way that everyone understands.

Step 8: Focus on requirements, not tools

When going through your requirement gathering steps, make sure you’re in the right mindset. Your job now is making sure you understand the what – what is required? The how will come later. So, fight the urge to skip ahead in your mind and think about how you’ll execute the project.

If your daughter is telling you what she wants and what she doesn’t want, and if you’re reading her body language as well, you can’t also be making a mental list of supplies you’ll need from the hardware store.

Everything has a rightful place. Requirements gathering is mostly about listening, not doing.

Step 9: Get confirmation

Oh, what a happy day! You’ve listened till your ears were about to fall off. You fought the natural urge to talk and you paid attention to body language and what wasn’t said. You became a listening jedi. And this is the step where all of your requirements gathering techniques finally pay off.

This is the time to review everything with your stakeholders. Every detail. You present it all. You wait for the official go-ahead. And then you exhale a big sigh of relief.

Step 10: Remain agile

How is there another step, you’re asking yourself right now? The answer to that is simple: Humans are inherently fallible.

Even when you’ve done everything right in the requirements gathering process, there are still things you might miss. Priorities may change, and plans, too. You should plan for this.

Understand this is likely to occur and make room in your timeline for unseen circumstances. If you don’t, your timeframe will grow and you’ll have to tell your stakeholders that it’s going to take a little longer than you thought.

Remember, the stakeholder, like the customer, is always right. So, if after all of this work, your daughter tells you halfway through the job (after getting confirmation from her and her friends, mind you) that she has decided that she wants a pony instead of a swing. Well, there’s no amount of planning or foresight to see that one coming.

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