Every project begins as an idea—a strategic move towards conquering a larger objective. Hidden within this idea lies a complex web of sub-ideas, intertwined goals, and organizational nuances that hail from various origins, helping propel your project toward success. But hey, as a project manager, are you supposed to be an all-knowing oracle, magically aware of these intricate details?
However, it is your mission to coax this intel from your project sponsor or client, so you can fully grasp the vast scope of the project you're orchestrating. That's where requirements gathering comes in—a project management practice that's all about unearthing and documenting those golden nuggets of information, ultimately illuminating the path toward delivering a top-notch project.
Gathering requirements might sometimes feel like a rollercoaster ride, revealing fresh insights at every twist and turn through every chat or deliverable analysis. But, by adopting a steadfast approach to seeking and recording these project requirements, you'll strut toward project completion with unshakable confidence in its scope, quality, and impact.
Documenting requirements starts early and continues throughout your project
When you're gathering requirements for a project, you'll want to follow an approach that allows you to start at a higher level by understanding project goals and how your project's key stakeholders envision your project helping to meet those goals. Once you have that baseline understanding, you'll dig deeper into and define the more discrete details of the project, as they may relate to intended actions or behaviors, design, function, and technology.
When should I start documenting requirements?
The answer is simple: the earlier, the better! You should start the requirements documentation process before your project gets off the ground. During the project initiation phase or sales process, your team should begin to grasp the project goals and some of the finer details of the desired outcomes. These crucial conversations set the stage for defining your project's scope.
Requirements gathering can be a thrilling (and occasionally maddening) experience, as you'll pour your energy into defining and finalizing them, only to watch them morph and evolve. This means you'll need to establish a solid project baseline, align your team with the requirements' status at the project's outset, and keep an eye on them throughout the journey.
Your requirements documentation should hit that sweet spot, providing enough detail to ensure you and your team are confident about what you're building and why while remaining adaptable to track changes and accommodate new requirements as your project flourishes.
Embrace the ever-shifting landscape of requirements gathering, and remember that as a project manager, you're the conductor orchestrating this intricate process. Keep a watchful eye on the effort involved in managing requirements to ensure you're staying within the bounds of your project's scope and remaining realistic based on your current plans and resources.
The key to a strong project plan
Requirements gathering is only a small part of the project planning process. What matters the most is involving your team and stakeholders from the start in a well-defined process. Our complete guide to project planning can help you become a master planner with a human-centric approach from beginning to end.See more
Six steps for an effective requirements gathering
1. Begin with business requirements
Early conversations about the need for a new project are typically led by a specific business need or goal. For example, an organization may aim to increase attendance at its events in the next year. One tactic that will help the organization meet that goal is redesigning its events registration website. That project gets funded based on that need, and discussions begin.
In the early pre-project stage, it's a good idea to encourage the folks defining and scoping the project to dig in on business requirements. Because when the new project is assigned, the team should begin the project knowing these things:
- What are the goals of the project?
- How will we measure those goals?
- Are there any specific functional or technical requirements?
- Is what we're aiming for achievable within our budget and timeline?
When you ask these types of questions and make time to discuss responses, you'll gain information that will shape your project and minimize issues with missed expectations and scope creep. Plus, the information these questions yield can make it easier for teams to find and focus on the right solutions quickly and focus on resolving unanswered questions or problem areas, as needed.
2. Delve into project goals
Simply put, your stakeholders or clients know what they want, but they don't always know what they need or how it can be created. It's your job to facilitate direct conversations between your team and stakeholders about project requirements.
There's a good chance stakeholders aren't thinking about the project or features and functionality the way you do. While you and your team may hold a variety of tools in your kit to help you create a variety of deliverables and projects, your stakeholders are standing by with a budget and a timeline, expecting you to make them the right thing. The work it takes to get to a successful delivery might be a black box to them, so they don't even know where to start when communicating needs, desires, or requirements.
Here's the thing: gathering requirements doesn't have to be difficult, but it can be time-consuming. It's an investment well worth your time, and all you have to do is ask your project stakeholders what they're looking for and why. You'll want to take a more informed approach, depending on what you're building and who you're speaking with. It's best to create an interview guide or a list of topics and questions before jumping into meetings, just to be sure that you're focused in your meeting. Before scheduling those meetings, ask yourself these questions first:
- Do I understand the business and its goals, and how our project goals map to it?
- Is there any confusion about the project and its goals? Why?
- What requirements can I glean from the scope, project brief, or other project documentation? What gaps exist?
- Is there any question about what can be done within the project scope?
- Will these requirements help me to set the proper expectations?
- What's the best way to discuss a specific requirement? (Should it be explained? Can I show examples of similar products or features?)
- Have we engaged the right people to answer these questions? (Or, who else should we talk to?)
3. Engage with stakeholders
Once you're prepared and have a solid understanding of your project goals, scope, and existing requirements, it's best to schedule meetings to dig into precisely what folks expect of the project you're producing. Below are a few example questions you might opt to ask your stakeholders to confirm your current understanding of the project and to dig deeper into what your project requires, in their opinion:
- What are your goals for the project?
- Do those goals translate to any specific features or functionality? If yes, let's discuss them in detail.
- Is there technology involved? If yes, what is the technology?
- How will we measure the project's success?
It's also important to note that sometimes you'll have specific questions about a part of the project that will impact a particular stakeholder. For example, you may be working on a website design project where stakeholders want to publicize events on the new site. They aren't doing this anywhere online now, so many questions will come up about how to successfully meet their needs.
As you might imagine, one goal or idea can turn into several questions determining the finite detail of what needs to be produced. And, unless you're working with duplicate projects or within the same organization, there's no way to templatize this level of requirements gathering. It comes down to having a conversation and understanding needs.
➡️ Learn how to build strong relationships through stakeholder engagement.
4. Put it all on paper (or screen)
The answers to the questions you ask your stakeholders will lead to more specific requirements, which will need to be documented in a tool or spreadsheet so you can track them through to completion.
There are many ways to document and track requirements. You should explore the tools and options available to you and your organization but know that you can always fall back on a simple spreadsheet that can be shared, reviewed, discussed, and agreed upon.
Create a requirements document that includes the following fields:
- Requirement name and number – A unique name that describes what is being built and can be easily referred to. Numbering requirements can be helpful when you're working on larger, complex projects.
- Requirement description – This should be a simple statement that defines the overall requirement and the need it fills.
- Category – Categorizing your requirements can help you to keep track of specific goals, functionalities, or work streams.
- Notes – You'll always want a place to include notes, particularly when a requirement evolves.
Here's an example of what that spreadsheet might look like:
5. Keep tabs on requirements and communicate
While some initial requirements may evolve throughout your project, it's typical for most of them to be determined early on, allowing you to get the work done. At this point, the focus should be on finalizing, communicating, and tracking the established requirements to ensure the designs can be effectively executed.
How you communicate your requirements will depend on your team's dynamics. In an ideal situation, your team will be involved in creating the requirements documentation and familiar with the discussions. However, sometimes you might work from a spreadsheet without everyone's input. Regardless of your circumstances, it's essential to arrange working sessions to ensure that the design and development teams can discuss the designs and how they should translate into a fully functional product.
Details are crucial in this process. By reviewing designs and requirements with the team responsible for executing the plans, you'll achieve more efficient outcomes. Picking up files and reading a spreadsheet doesn't provide the same level of detail and context needed for the project. While your documentation will be thorough, reviewing and communicating it effectively will help ensure tasks are completed according to your requirements document the first time around.
6. Stay vigilant and adapt
Beginning your project with thorough requirements documentation puts you in an excellent starting position.
You'll quickly gain a clear picture of what needs to be done. However, remember that your requirements might—and likely will—evolve. Throughout your project, you may need to update your document to accommodate new decisions, technical requirements, or other connected project risks, issues, questions, or requirements.
What is most important in gathering requirements is that you share any new or updated requirements with your team and commit to having open conversations about how these evolutions might impact your project timeline and/or budget. This proactive approach will help ensure that your team is always on the same page and can adapt to changes effectively.
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Use your requirements document as an extra to-do list
Your requirements document serves as an invaluable supplementary to-do list for your project. As your team progresses through the build phase, each completed requirement should be reviewed, tested, and marked as completed.
Requirements gathering is a crucial process for a successful project. Investing time and effort into thoroughly understanding and documenting every aspect of your project will make you more likely to create the right solution the first time.
This approach leads to numerous benefits that project managers appreciate: meeting goals, staying on schedule, keeping work within a budget, and satisfying stakeholders.