Effective requirements collection, management and traceability plus smart PM practices equals project success.

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How do you run your virtual meetings?

Meetings, bloody meetings! We all remember the video John Cleese created many years back (well, some of us do, anyway), and the recent video "“Conference Call in Real Life” that is great for some big yuks. But how do you run effective virtual meetings?  

I felt prompted to write this article when I saw the many comments after a colleague posted a link to the “Conference Call in Real Life”. I thought this demonstrated that there may be a need to provide a few guidelines on how to conduct virtual meetings effectively.  Professional behavior in virtual (and, of course, in-person) meetings is the key to success.

Collecting requirements virtually is becoming more and more common as organizations try to keep costs low.  So it is more important than ever to use virtual meeting tools effectively. But it isn't all about tools.  As is so often the case, it is more about the people who use the tools.  After all, a wise man once said that a fool with a tool is still a fool.  

So, let’s get on with it, shall we?

Tips for Meeting Chairs

So, you need to have a virtual meeting.  Well, guess what?  Just a like an in-person meeting, you need an agenda.  Send it out ahead of time and ask that people prepare. Be clear about the meeting purpose and objectives. If it is a recurring meeting, allow people to make agenda suggestions in advance in case there are burning issues they feel need addressing that you didn’t think or know to include. 

When you communicate the agenda, lay out the ground rules for the upcoming meeting.  You can probably derive some ground rules from the following tips designed to help you engineer a successful meeting:

  • Tell attendees you’ll be sticking to the agenda and that “other business” can be addressed at the end of the meeting if there is time, otherwise the item needs to be added ahead of time to a future meeting.
  • Everyone is expected to “arrive” on time. In the meeting announcement, include immediate methods for testing the desktop sharing/presentation software that will be used so technical glitches can be identified and solved in advance.
  • Provide a phone number for road warriors or those who will not be connected. Ideally, though, everyone will join via computer so they can see shared screens.
  • Display action items on a shared screen. If they are not accurate, attendees are expected to speak up.
  • Input is expected, but one person will not be allowed to “hog” the floor.
  • For small meetings, ask people to locate to a quiet area and keep their mics on so everyone can hear what is going on. If someone is interrupted, stop the meeting until they are free again, just like in an in-person meeting when the board room door opens and someone interrupts.
  • Insist that attendees use headsets with microphones. Those built into computers are not good enough – they will make you sound like a robot, or like you are in a cave, extraneous noises will be picked up and echoes may result. 
  • Use a solid internet connection. If your wireless connection is flaky, use a wired connection. 
  • If material is being presented for review during the meeting, ask that it be sent around in plenty of time before the meeting so it can be reviewed, especially if feedback is being sought.
  • Create a collaboration site for storing meeting minutes, or if it is a project meeting use the project repository. I use SharePoint for this.
  • If a formal presentation is to be delivered, ask everyone to go on mute until it is time to ask questions or make comments. This is not a time to multi-task, though. It is only to make sure the speaker can be heard.
  • Record presentations and post them to the collaboration site. Make sure you let everyone know it is being recorded, and remember to click the record button before introduction of the speaker.
  • Start the meeting five-ten minutes early to ensure there are no technical glitches.
  • Check meeting tracking beforehand so you will know who to expect.
  • Send a communication five minutes in advance to all invitees to announce that the meeting will begin in five minutes.
  • Don’t start the meeting until everyone is there, or you have allowed sufficient time for laggards (I use five minutes as a guideline). Assess whether to cancel the meeting if key people are absent or not enough people show up.
  • Let people know how to use the chat window, and whether you will accept private chats.  If questions and comments may be typed in their entirety in the chat window for addressing at the end of the meeting, say so.  This is an effective way in very large meetings to handle Q&A without interruption while allowing attendees to ask questions or make comments while content is fresh in their minds.
  • Consider the use of cameras. They are not usually necessary for meetings where everyone knows one another.  But if there are new people, and they are comfortable with it, you can use cameras for a round-table introduction.  If they are not comfortable with it, consider using still pictures.

As mentioned above, you need to share decisions made and action items to which attendees commit during the meeting with the group. I find most virtual whiteboard tools are cumbersome, so I usually share a document using a word processor like Word or Google Docs. 

If you are an ambidextrous cranial sort who can take notes while thinking, chairing and talking, you can do this yourself.  Otherwise, ask a colleague in advance to take on that responsibility. But watch what is being typed, because it has to be accurate and reflective of what everyone agreed. 

Make note only of important items and action items that have been agreed, including who is responsible and when the item is due.  You can send these notes to meeting participants directly after the meeting.  No more creating minutes after the fact and having people disagree with what was written since they will already have seen what was recorded during the meeting.

Highly visible decision logs and active action item lists on your collaboration site are priceless.

Noise can render a virtual meeting ineffective.  Be sure extraneous noise is addressed politely and firmly. If you have to, force mute.  Occasionally, people are interrupted and don’t control the situation well, talking with the intruder and failing to go on mute. You can mute them and decide to continue the meeting or not.  You may need to use alternate means like their cell phone to communicate with them so they know they have committed a virtual meeting sin. This is the same as if someone gets up from an in-person meeting and leaves the room.  Should you continue the meeting?  Your call… maybe ask the person or the attendees as appropriate.

Having trouble getting some people to contribute? Try doing a round table about a specific issue, suggesting that each person talk for no more than a minute or two and that if they have nothing to say, just “pass”.  Some people are too shy to interject, but are happy if they have time to think about what they want say and know they will receive the “talking stick” eventually.  Start with someone you know won’t mind talking to give the more introverted a chance to collect their thoughts.

Tips for meeting participants:

  • Review all materials sent in advance of the meeting and make notes so you will cover the points you feel are important.
  • Behave as if you were in an in-person meeting. Avoid distractions.    Respond.  Participate.
  • If you have something to say, and you can’t get a word in, use the meeting chat function as instructed by the chairperson or use the “raise hand” function if there is one and the chairperson has said it is in play. 
  • Don’t hog the floor. If the chairperson indicates you are taking too much time, respect the interjection and allow others to speak. Be concise, brief, to the point.
  • Don’t make noise. Be aware of where your microphone is in relation to your mouth.  Heavy breathing is never appreciated.  If you hear it and it is not you, and the chairperson is not reacting, politely, perhaps with a little humour, announce that it appears someone is chewing on their microphone, or an obscene caller seems to have joined the call.
  • Be humorous. It’s alright to have fun at virtual meetings, as long as meeting objectives are met and time is not wasted. This doesn’t mean you should tell jokes.
  • Don’t interrupt speakers. It is up to the chairperson to manage people who are speaking too long. If you feel the meeting is not being managed well, consider private messaging the chairperson.
  • If you see anything inaccurate being shown in the shared action list, speak up, particularly if it is your action.
  • Be respectful. Take notes. Ask questions. Make comments. In a few words – be fully engaged, be present.

There is a certain degree of flexibility with virtual meetings that can save time and money, and you can take advantage of easy to use features (like record and share screen) that are sometimes more difficult to do in an in-person meeting. 

Virtual meetings don’t need to be like the Virtual Meeting in Real Life video, as humorous as it is since it is so very close to the reality of those in first-time virtual meetings. Let common sense, respect and preparedness rule the meeting, and success will be yours – and your team’s. 


Posted on: May 02, 2016 09:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Requirements That Make You Laugh

Have you ever run into a dangling participle or an object/verb mix up that made you laugh as you were reading requirements documents?  While this may be funny at the time, it can lead to some very serious consequences at other times.

For example, I once saw this requirement:

"The officer holding the handheld device must be able to plug into the USB port of the computer in order to charge the unit and transfer data."

When I read it, I did a double take, and read it again.  Now, we all know that the handheld device had to plug into the port, but really?  Grammatical rules tell us the officer would be plugging in, not the device, and ... well... I don't even want to go there!  Was it a simple typo?  Or was the person writing this in a big hurry?  Or was grammar and sentence structure not their strong point?

I'm sure I have made plenty of grammatical errors in this and past posts, so I am steeling myself for the result, but I am willing to take the risk!

So here is my "ask" as they say in the Telecom industry:

Have you run into any hilarious sentences in requirements documents?  Or have you run into any that were misunderstood up until the time of user acceptance when no one found it funny?

Post your responses here!






Posted on: January 28, 2016 03:04 PM | Permalink | Comments (17)

PMI's New "Requirements Management - a Practice Guide" - Another Layer of the Project Foundation

The newly minted “Requirements Management – a Practice Guide” from PMI has been available for free download for a few weeks now.  Have you downloaded it?  If so, what do you think? 

The Core Committee spent a lot of time and effort to produce it, so we owe copious amounts of gratitude to them, and the twenty-eight content reviewers, the PMI Standards Program Member Advisory Group and the three production staff. 

If you haven’t already downloaded it, click here.

You’ll find that this 56-page guide (not including the index and appendices) is written in a familiar way with textual descriptions, contextual and activity diagrams.  As stated in the introduction, this new guide serves as a bridge between the PMBOK ® Guide and the recent Business Analysis for Practitioners: A Practice Guide. The PMBOK Guide addresses good practices for requirements management, and the BA for Practitioners Guide describes what a BA does and how to apply requirements development and management skills to project tasks.  Intended for PMs and anyone doing requirements work, the Requirements Guide defines processes for requirements development and management.   

What is a Requirement? According to PMI, it is “A condition or capability that is required to be present in a product, service, or result to satisfy a contract or other formally imposed specification.” 

Requirements Management is about establishing a baseline and then ensuring it is traced (did the project implement everything it was supposed to?), managed through change control (if anything changed from the baseline, was it done in a controlled and approved way?) and updated (did the desired product, service or result of the project change, and if so, were the requirements related to the change appropriately captured in a new baseline?).

Requirements Development involves eliciting and identifying requirements, planning, analysis, documenting, specifying requirements and the necessary validation and verification.

The activities described in the Guide, paraphrased:

  1. Needs Assessment – Identifies the business problem or opportunity at a high level – normally before a project starts, but could be examined again if the situation changes before the start of the project or during the project.
  2. Requirements Management Planning – Part of the plan for how the project will be managed (the “Project Management Plan”, this describes the activities that will be carried out for the overall approach to requirements development and management.
  3. Requirements Elicitation – The drawing out of information from stakeholders to ensure a solid understanding of business needs, and to gain some idea of how the solution should address these needs.
  4. Requirements Analysis – Breaking the business needs down into requirements that fulfill the goals and objectives and can be actioned.
  5. Requirements Monitoring and Controlling – Ensure requirements end up in the solution and that any changes to requirements are made only when approved.
  6. Solution Evaluation – Validation that the solution meets the expressed business needs, and possible identification of new requirements that could lead to future refinement or new solutions. 
  7. Project/Phase Closure – Transition from a development state to a state off maintenance.

As you might expect, the Guide describes all interactions with the five Process Groups and ten Knowledge Areas.  The types of requirements defined are probably familiar to most people – those required by the business, usually expressed at a high level, those required by stakeholders, solution requirements, both functional and non-functional, transition requirements, project requirements, quality requirements and program requirements.

Techniques for eliciting requirements are also in the guide, comprising interviews, workshops, focus groups, brainstorming, questionnaires/surveys, analysis of documents and interfaces, prototypes and observation.

The Guide tells us that good requirements are unambiguous, consistent, correct, complete, measurable, feasible, traceable, precise and testable.  In an adaptive life cycle, they must be independent, negotiable, valuable, estimable, small and testable.

It also delves into backlog management and prioritization, and various models, including Scope (context, ecosystem, goals/objectives, features and use cases).  It discusses functional decomposition and feature trees, and various process models (process flow, use case, user story) and rule models (business rules, decision trees/tables), and a favorite of mine, data models (ERDs, data flow, data dictionary and state diagrams/tables). 

The Guide draws our attention as well to interface models, that is, what occurs between systems and/or users, considering report definition, flow of data between systems, user interfaces, and tools like wireframes, and the tabular N2 model.

There is much value to be found in this Guide.  I’ve only very briefly touched on bits and pieces of it here.   Armed with it, the PMBOK Guide and the Business Analysis Practitioners Practice Guide, a project team can’t go wrong when it comes to translating business needs to appropriately detailed requirements that can be traced, confirmed and verified - and, of course, translated into that infamous product, service or result required by the business.

Go get it while it is still free!

Posted on: January 14, 2016 09:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Data-Driven Requirements Gathering

Early in my career I was fortunate to have a mentor who was very data driven.  He believed that data in its purest form would help describe the processes that you might want to implement in a system, but that process analysis alone would not properly define the data and in fact, might very well define it improperly due to the usual insular aspect of looking at some processes and not all, of necessity given scope and budgets.

When I think about this at a high level in terms of typical data entities and processes, I have to believe that the metrics would support such a conclusion.  If we look at any particular organization, the number of processes operating on the same, similar or related data will be very high, yet the number of entity types the organization deals with will be very low in comparison.

So let's look at a very simple example, a basic course registration system.  Here are the entity types we'll deal with:

  1. Student
  2. Course

Here are some business rules around the data:

  • A student can register for up to eight courses.
  • A course can have up to one hundred students.
  • Students can see who else has registered for a course

From this simple example, I conclude that we have at least the following potential processes:

  1. Registering for a course
  2. Seeing details like who is teaching a course, costs of courses
  3. Listing who is also registered for a specific course
  4. Updating or deleting a course registration
  5. Finding out if I am allowed to delete a course registration
  6. Finding out the rules and timelines around course registration
  7. Withdrawing from a course after I have already started attending it
  8. Listing all courses I as a student am registered for
  9. Displaying detailed information about a course I am registered for, or courses for which I am not registered
  10. Plotting course schedules on a calendar so I can generate an agenda for myself
  11. Show ratings for each course
  12. Show ratings for each instructor
  13. Show the marks I have achieved for each course by term and final
  14. Show a history of my marks in the timeframe I select
  15. Show a graph of how my performance has changed over time
  16. Show a graph of how instructor performance has changed over time for selected courses or for all courses he/she teaches
  17. Update course information - new courses, remove or archive courses, update who is teaching a course
  18. Update student information - new students, remove or archive student information, update student demographic, biographical information and other information 

.... and so on ... and so on... and so on...

All of the processes I listed come directly from the two entities, student and course, along with the attributes each has and the relationships they have, one with the other.  I am sure with a little extra thought, the list could be doubled.  I am also sure that some of the processes listed have nothing to do with a student registration system, and more to do with other systems, and so could serve to put some rope around both the data (and its attributes) and the processes to be able to plan multiple projects as part of a program.

Furthermore, since we all know there is a many-to-many relationship between Courses and Students, we are probably missing an Entity Type - one that is fairly obvious anyway - something called "Course Registrations" which becomes a one-to-many relationship with each "Kernel" entity type, resolving the many-to-many relationship by adding the "Associative" entity type.  And we won't even get into the difference between registrations and transcripts, whether things like marks even belong in this model, etc.

I obviously invented  a lot of the processes I listed, and they would likely be very different if I actually had stakeholders to help me along (or would they?).  It may reveal new business rules, such as those student registration privacy or restrictions on instructor performance data, or the absence of processes, such as being able to label other students who are your friends, and seeing which courses they have registered for. 

A very simple example, of course, but from two entities (which eventually became three), I was able to derive at least 18 processes (some actually have multiple processes per line), and I did that as quickly as I could type.  Confirmation with the stakeholder would take much longer, of course.

Trying to create a long list of processes and then deriving the data from them, rather than letting the data drive the derivation of processes, is, I feel, much more complex, time consuming and subject to errors and omissions.

What do you think?  Are you process driven, or data driven?  Were you one and became another at some point in time? 

Before you answer, remember the CRUD (or CUDDL) I mentioned in a previous post.  Don't know what that is?  Look up "Of CRUDs and CUDDLs"  :)


Posted on: November 04, 2015 11:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

When do requirements need to be completed?

People often ponder whether requirements for an IT project should already be in place before a project begins, whether they should be detailed at the front end of a project, or whether they should be refined as the project progresses.  The answer is not simple, and has a lot to do with the sort of project you are running.

We would all likely agree that no project can even be chartered without some level of requirements being in place - high level business requirements at the very least.  But it is a rare project that will kick off to the resounding thump of a multi-hundred page business requirements document. Most waterfall-type projects have the creation of the BRD as an early step in the project. Most Agile projects will have high level requirements, often in the form of user stories.  And then there is everything in between.

But there's the rub.  What apporach and methods are being used on your project?  Is it waterfall?  Is it one of the Agile approaches?  Can requirements change while the project is in motion?  Might such changes alter the direction of the project?

I would hypothesize that requirements can and do change on any project, regardless of the project methods being used.  Remember the old requiremernts freeze?  "You must sign here, and we will build what you have asked for.  No changes wiil be permitted from now until project end."  Seems almost hilarious now, doesn't it?  The only freeze that would really be in effect is the one that freezes you out of any more work with that client.

So - still we are left with question, "When do requirements need to be completed?". The question itself might be a tad banal. Before we design, before we build, before we test... requirements must be clear.  Do we need a 50 pound signed off document early on?  Maybe... if we are designing and building software to run a space shuttle.  But do we need it if we are only configuring an ERP package?  Or designing a web site?  Or might we need only story elaboration a bit at a time when we have a fully engaged and knowledgeable Product Owner?

As with most questions in this field the "It depends." answer pops to mind.  It depends on so many factors, including contract types, that the answer will shift like the sand dunes on the Sahara.  

It's getting cold in here. Must be those frozen requirements. 

Posted on: May 22, 2015 11:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

- George Bernard Shaw