You've probably heard of projects in your business, or elsewhere, being managed with very little in the way of formal requirements.

The managers say things like: 'It's important to be flexible,' and 'We're adapting to market conditions as the project progresses.'

It's fine to be flexible and to adapt to market conditions, but neither of those situations negate the need for some level of formality around what it is you are supposed to be doing on the project. You can flex and change with the change management process - project methodologies already have a mechanism for keeping things flexible.

In my experience, the risk of not having formal requirements is that you don't know what your stakeholders are expecting. You've been asked to deliver something, but no one is clear exactly what or how it is supposed to be done. To me, that is setting yourself up for failure.

The team pulls in different directions. Stakeholders seem unhappy but can't explain why. There's endless conflict and the priorities change daily with no control. Frankly, that's not an environment I would want to work in.

So how do you convince the management team that there is value in being a bit more structured and formal with requirements? Here are 5 benefits you can share with them to help them understand the rationale behind setting out what you are going to do - even if it then changes later.

1. Changes Slow Down Project

And, in some cases, cause it to fail to deliver anything of value. The more changes you have on the project, the more time it takes and the more it costs. If time and cost are important to you, defining enough up front to avoid last minute changes will be worth your while.

The more effort you and the stakeholders put into thinking about what the project should deliver, the closer you can get to delivering that right the first time.

2. Clear Requirements Lead to Better Budgeting

Project sponsors are generally quite concerned about money and how it is being spent. You can't control your project budget or forecast your costs if you don't know what you are supposed to be delivering. You just can't - you've got no idea what work you'll be doing next week, let alone how much you're going to pay for it.

Better requirements equals better cost control. The clearer and more stable your requirements, the easier it is to get your budget looking realistic. Then you can track and manage it more easily and stay closer to your original cost estimates.

3. Clear Requirements Help Manage the Timeline

What is true for your budget is also true for your schedule. You can't plan work if you don't know what it is going to be, or if you know it's going to change next week.

If you have a clear idea of what it is you are delivering, you can plan for that. You can book resources to do the tasks. You can make it so that everyone knows what is expected of them. You can let other project managers know when the individuals will be available for different projects. Everything works more smoothly!

With detailed information about requirements, or at least a good indication at the beginning, you can more accurately forecast when the project will stop.

4. Approval Encourages Engagement

Part of talking about and documenting requirements is to get them approved. That could be as easy as sending someone an email setting out what you discussed in a meeting earlier that day. The point is to get formal buy in for what is going to be delivered. When people have formally accepted something, it is more likely to happen and they are more likely to support the effort.

Improving the level of buy in you secure at this early point in the project will pay off later too. The senior management team are likely to invest more time in the project if they feel they have a stake in it. And your team is going to feel like there is more consideration from management, so they are working on something that people care about, and that has a positive impact on morale.

5. Documentation Makes the Project 'Official'

If you aren't clear what it is you are supposed to be doing, do you even have a project at all?

Writing down requirements and getting someone to sign them off makes them feel more formal and official. You are working on something that 'exists' because you have a document to say so - even if that document is electronic and only attached to an email in your sponsor's inbox.

Setting out the requirements in writing - even with a big caveat saying it all might change - increases commitment from everyone and gives you a formal mandate to deliver those things.

Not having documentation around your project requirements can be an awkward situation because it leaves you open to too many changes. One of the biggest issues is that you don't know when you have finished. How can you, when there was never any definition about what 'done' would look like? These types of projects drift into business as usual and the team often loses interest because it's not clear to see what progress is being made towards an end goal.

So what can you do to prevent this on your project? Talk about these benefits with your project team and client or project sponsor. Present them with your version of requirements (put together with input from your project team). Talk to them about the change management process and how they can still be flexible as the project progresses. Then start your project on a stable footing.


This article was written by Elizabeth Harrin.

Elizabeth Harrin is the creator of A Girl’s Guide to Project Management, which she started in 2006. She has won a number of awards for her internationally popular blog: "A Girl's Guide To Project Management." She also authors two additional blogs, regularly featuring interviews she conducts with industry experts: "Talking Work,"  and "The Money Files," on Gantthead.