Learn the Most Important Step in Requirements Gathering at SXSW

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In a few weeks I'll be leading a workshop at SXSW Interactive about the tenets of successful requirements gathering. As I prepare my materials, I've been struck by how frequently I keep delivering the following message in different forms and in different contexts: Before you do something, make sure you know what you're trying to accomplish. Simple, right? Yet in so many walks of life, this basic organizing principle gets overlooked, ignored, or misunderstood. Knowing your goals is an essential piece of successful requirements gathering - and so much else - so let's take a closer look at this important step.

640px-Bernhardt_Hamlet2-1Actors ask "what's my motivation?" not because they are walking clichés, but because they know that knowing what you're trying to accomplish tells you how to act to help you get there. In the world of improvised comedy (where I spend a lot of my free time), motivation is even more essential: you're making it up on the fly, so giving your character a motivation helps you answer the question "what do I do next?" As in improv, so in life.

Far too often, people and organizations dive into projects without first establishing a clear set of goals. I have seen technology projects start time and again with a thorough discussion of features and technologies, as opposed to outcomes and goals. Diving into a project without a clear (and shared!) set of goals and objectives is a great way to waste time, money, and resources. Without goals, you lose a vital framework for decision-making along the way. If your project is like every other project in the history of the universe, the time will come when you have to make some decisions about scope. How do you prioritize two features against each other if you don't know which one contributes more to your goals? The same is true not just for features but for entire projects - if you're not aligning your digital investments with your organization's strategic goals, you're just spending money in the dark. And when you do that, any success you experience is purely coincidental.

"Are we there yet?" Goals not only tell you (and everyone on your team) where you're going, they help you know how close you are to getting there. Success metrics and KPIs should flow directly from your project's (and your organization's) goals to help give you a clear picture of where you are on your journey to achieving your goals. Picking a random success metric is easy - "we need 1 million Twitter followers!" - but ultimately meaningless, if you can't answer the question "why?" A success metric without a goal is just data.

What if you don't know your goals? Then start with what you do know, and ask "why?" Maybe you know that you want a blog on your website. Why? To tell people about your news and updates. Why? To get users more involved. Why? So that they will be inspired to take action on their own to support your cause. Great, that's a goal! Make sure your lofty goals can be broken down into clear, achievable steps ("we want everything to be great all the time" is not an actionable goal). From those steps, you should be able to work your way down to projects and features.

Want to learn more about goals and requirements gathering? Register for my workshop and check out these blog posts below!

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