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September 15, 2023

Getting project requirements right

Project Management
Jerzy Żurawiecki Content Specialist @BigPicture

Projects need requirements like fish need water. No requirements means no deliverables. No deliverables, no success. But just having project requirements isn’t enough.

Learn what project requirements are. (There’s more to them than you think!) And master strategies to make and manage them. Because when you get project requirements right, you avoid problems down the road.

What are project requirements?

PMI’s PMBOK defines a project requirement as “a condition or capability that is necessary to be present in a product, service, or result to satisfy a business need.

In simpler terms, project requirements answer the question: What does the team need to accomplish so the project is successful? The requirements represent the stakeholders’ expectations of what the project should achieve.

Why do project requirements matter?

Requirements drive and shape your project. They serve as the foundation of the project’s scope. Team members know the expectations, and what they need to do in order to fulfill them.

Requirements also establish project goals and parameters, which act as guardrails. Knowing what not to do is as important as knowing what to do!

Clear requirements empower the project team to focus on execution because they don’t need to ask as many questions. That impacts cooperation between stakeholders, the project manager, and team members.

Last but not least, requirements serve as points of reference for everybody. Project teams can use them as a guide. They can check if their work aligns with expectations at any time. (Teams should do this often!) The project manager outlines the scope, deliverables, and timeline, which must align with stated requirements. Stakeholders refer to the requirements when evaluating the project’s deliverables.

Types of project requirements

We can divide the requirements into three categories: business, stakeholder, and solution. All three should find their way into your project charter. Check out a quick breakdown of each project requirement type below.

Business requirements

This requirement type concerns the strategic needs and objectives of the organization. It answers the question: What does the business need this project to accomplish? How does this project fit into the company’s roadmap? After all, every individual project should serve the greater whole.

When stakeholders think of requirements with long-term goals, the deliverables directly contribute to these objectives. That’s the crux of business requirements. 

Stakeholder requirements

While some requirements focus on business needs, others focus on what specific stakeholders need. That’s the focus of this category.

The business leaders who sponsor or have a vested interest in your project probably have different requirements than customers or end-users of your product or service.

In fact, depending on the project management approach, even the form of requirements might differ. For example, Agile practitioners create user stories to gather information about a desired functionality. You write these from the end-user’s perspective, with their expectations in mind.

Solution requirements

The last category is more product- or service-specific. Solution requirements focus on the characteristics. This group of requirements is more technical (it’s often called a “technical requirement”) and emphasizes the product’s behavior and how it works.

There are two groups in this category:

  • Functional: what the product does — features and functionalities.
  • Non-functional: general properties — performance, reliability, security, etc.

Here’s a cheat sheet that summarizes everything we’ve covered so far:

A cheat sheet, explaining what project requirements are, why they are important, and what type of requirements there are.The next part is essential if you want your projects to succeed. It’s what makes requirements worth their weight in gold.

Main characteristics of requirements

Effective requirements share certain key characteristics. They are: 

  • Specific
  • Accurate
  • Understandable
  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Realistic

Requirements must tick these boxes for managers and the project team. The project manager might consider a requirement to be specific and understandable, but the project team might  require additional information.

If any of these categories fall short for either your PM or the project team, ask follow-up questions to ensure alignment across all project participants.

Managing project requirements – key processes

No one’s saying it’s easy to stay on top of the requirements throughout the project’s life cycle. But it can definitely be easier if you implement the right processes.

Just follow the Requirements Management Process. Here’s what it looks like

A chart showing the processes of project requirements management.

Seem complicated? It’s not, we promise! Let’s break it down.

Planning

This approach boils down to the creation of a document called a Requirements Management Plan. The 7th Edition of the PMBOK offers a great explanation of the RMP. “This plan is a component of the project or program management plan that describes how requirements will be analyzed, documented, and managed.

The benefit of creating an RMP is that it provides a blueprint for the later steps of the requirements management process.

You need key stakeholders to review, understand, and agree to the RMP. Then, everyone needs to abide by it. That’s the tricky part. Otherwise, your RMP can’t work.

Development

In the Development stage, your requirements start to take shape. This phase consists of three processes.

  • Gathering and Elicitation
  • Definition
  • Analysis

Gathering & Elicitation

Without stakeholder involvement, there are no requirements. So start by compiling a list of the project’s stakeholders.

Then, get the stakeholders in a room (or on a call) and interview them. You can talk to them individually or set up a group brainstorming session. The latter enables stakeholders to bounce ideas off of one another and consider different perspectives. The PM should facilitate the conversation to keep it on track.

Once you have a general idea of their expectations, ask follow-up questions. This helps ensure everyone understands the requirements, so you can communicate them clearly to the project team

If a meeting isn’t doable, you can use questionnaires or surveys. But chances are, unless you have a conversation, you’ll need to follow up with stakeholders for clarification or more details.

Definition

After gathering the requirements and getting all the details, it’s time to organize them. That’s where Definition comes into play. The most crucial aspect of this category is documentation. 

Project management practitioners have been handling requirement problems for a long time. Some requirements were unclear, others were incomplete. In some cases, stakeholder engagement was insufficient. 

These challenges led to the creation of a Product Requirements Document (PRD). It outlines all the elements required to ensure requirements are clear and understandable. What should find its way into the Product Requirements Document? Here’s a shortlist

  • The goal of the product
  • Who the end user is
  • The constraints: time, scope, cost
  • Who is involved: stakeholders and team members
  • Business requirements
  • Stakeholder requirements
  • Solution requirements
  • Acceptance criteria
  • Success metrics

Proper documentation is all about accessibility. The PRD must be available for all project participants. Team members should be able to look at the requirements at any time to confirm that their work contributes to the project’s goals. For stakeholders, keeping track of requirement changes made by other stakeholders is essential.

Simply put, when everyone has access to requirements, it’s easier to be on the same page.

After you’ve gathered requirements from all stakeholders, review them. It might seem like an unnecessary step, but it’s not. This is your chance to double-check the list of expectations for all parties. It might provide stakeholders with ideas for changes or help spot and solve potential conflicts.

Analysis

Just because a stakeholder wants something, that doesn’t mean you should do it. With finite time, resources, and availability, not all requirements are doable. That’s why it’s crucial to assess the requirements.

Here are some factors to consider

  • Which requirements have priority?
  • What is the impact of each requirement?
  • Are there any dependencies to take into account? If so, what?

The business needs and potential gains will always take priority over stakeholder desires. Other factors include time- and cost-effectiveness and the effort required to deliver them.

Verification

After confirming all the requirements, all that’s left to do is satisfy them. Naturally, that’s the hard part of every project. However, establishing verification processes means the project manager and the stakeholders have ways to check if the work progresses in the right direction. That’s what this step is all about.

Setting regular meetings with project team members and stakeholders is an effective practice. That way, the people doing the work can discuss progress with those setting the expectations.

Alternatively, project managers can report progress instead of taking the project team’s time. However, that means the manager is in frequent contact with the project team, or they have a tool that enables accurate progress tracking.

Change Management

When projects evolve, the changes often cause confusion. But you can prevent these problems by implementing effective change management. This involves setting up a system that controls changes and how they affect everyone involved in your project.

A Requirements Change Management Plan should answer the following questions:

  • Who gets to make changes?
  • What does the approval process look like?
  • Who is informed about the changes and when?
  • Where is the change cataloged, and who is responsible for that?
  • What is the impact of the changes?
  • What is the cost of the changes? 

Some of these questions matter more to stakeholders, while others mostly concern the project manager. But if your plan covers all this, the project team will be set for success right out of the gate! (And don’t worry, you can always make adjustments as the project progresses.)

Now, you’re on your way to mastering the project requirements. To succeed, you’ll need good communication and engaged stakeholders. But with the right approach and processes in place, you’ll get there. And it’s definitely worth the effort!