To be agile at requirements
modeling you need to be in a situation where it is
possible to succeed, and for many project teams this
unfortunately is not the case.
Very often requirements modeling efforts are
undermined by your environment – it is common to
discover that an organization’s culture isn’t
conducive to effective software development efforts or
project stakeholders do not understand the implications
of their decisions.
In this article I identify common challenges, or at
least issues which are perceived as challenges, that
many development teams face when it comes to
requirements modeling and discuss potential solutions
for dealing with those challenges.
These common challenges are:
Limited access to project
Project stakeholders do not
know what they want
Project stakeholders change
Too many project stakeholders
want to participate
Project stakeholders prescribe
Project stakeholders are unable
to see beyond the current situation
Project stakeholders are afraid
to be pinned down
Project stakeholders don’t
understand modeling artifacts
Developers don’t understand
the problem domain
Project stakeholders are overly
focused on one type of requirement
Project stakeholders require
significant formality regarding requirements
don't understand the requirements
This happens time and again – for
some reason senior management is willing to invest in
the development of a system, sometimes spending millions
of dollars on it, but is unwilling or unable to provide
you with the right people to tell you what the system
needs to do. This
is often the result of a serious lack of understanding
of how software is developed, that developers need
active support of project stakeholders to be successful,
or because they’ve always worked this way and simply
don’t know any better.
The first step to address this
problem is to communicate to your project stakeholders
that you need to work with them closely, that they must
invest some of their valuable time to work with you.
In some situations there isn’t an identifiable
user of the system yet, this is often the case when you
a developing a shrink-wrapped product for sale or a new
web-based system for use by your (potential) customers,
and therefore a surrogate user should be identified.
Good candidates for surrogate users are marketing
and sales staff that are familiar with your customer
base, the person(s) who had the
initial vision for your
system, or the potential customers themselves (you may
need to work with your existing client base to discover
what they want of a new system or simply hire people off
the street that fit the identified customer profile for
your product). My
experience is that you can always find someone to
provide requirements for your system, and I’ve been in
many situations where people were convinced they
couldn’t possibly find someone to work with.
Remember that your project stakeholders include
more than just direct users of your system, although
also recognize that you are going at risk if you do not
include some direct users in your software development
For more details, read
Techniques for Eliciting Requirements for a range of
options that you can apply, not all of them depend on
constant access to stakeholders. Also,
An issue related to having limited
or no access to project stakeholders, and often a reason
why your access is limited, is because some or all of
your project stakeholders are at another location(s)
than the development team.
This is a common problem for projects within
large organizations, projects that have been outsourced
to an external organization, or projects performed by a
consortium of organizations.
There are several ways to address this situation.
First, attempt to co-locate the developers and
project stakeholders that can actively participate with
the team – as I discuss in the
communication article the best way to communicate is face-to-face at
that fails your next best strategy is to have your
project stakeholders on site with your developers on a
part-time basis and available via other means the rest
of the time (in my
communication article I discussed alternatives means of
communication such as email, videoconferencing, and the
use of collaborative modeling tools).
I was once involved with a 300 person project
where some of our project stakeholders were on the floor
actively working with the developers one week out of
every three and available via phone and email the other
two weeks and that worked reasonably well.
The next best solution is to fly the developers
to the project stakeholders and have them work with the
I’ve tried this on several projects,
successfully, although have noticed that this is very
tough on the people who end up doing the traveling
(usually me, but luckily I like to travel). Another
alternative is to place business analysts, people
responsible for working with project stakeholders to
understand their needs, at the disparate locations and
have them work with the development team to define the
course you can combine these techniques as needed.
This issue should motivate you to
spend some time modeling, exploring with your project
stakeholders what their needs are and what is important
to them. The
business world is complex, project stakeholders will
very often sense that there is a problem or opportunity
that should be addressed but they don’t know how.
This is completely and utterly normal.
Have you ever redecorated a living room, or
simply re-arranged furniture?
You know that you want a better living space, but
you often don’t what you want.
Perhaps you look in some magazines at pictures of
other living rooms, you visit furniture stores, or
simply look at how your friends have organized their
you’ve had difficulties defining a vision for a living
room, imagine how difficult it must be for your project
stakeholders to identify what they want a system to do.
Start by accepting that this
situation as the norm.
Tell your users that if they can’t tell you
exactly what they want that it’s okay, all they need
to do is tell you what they want you to work on right
with the redecorating analogy, perhaps you don’t have
a vision for the entire living room yet but you could
start by focusing on installing book shelves.
Focus on the aspects of the system that they have
the best vision, model that small portion, and implement
a working system (along the lines of the practice
it With Code) that they can work with and provide
you feedback about.
If they aren’t able to identify requirements
for even a small part of they system, you may not even
be sure that you want books in your living room at all,
then start by exploring how they currently work.
By modeling existing work processes you will gain
a better understanding of what they do and what their
potential needs may be and worst case can suggest some
potential requirements to them.
Project stakeholders are people,
yes they really are despite your darkest suspicions, and
people change their minds.
Ever arranged furniture in your living room into
a configuration that you just knew was going to work,
but when you stepped back to look at it you realized it
wasn’t what you wanted?
If you’ve done that with something as simple as
furniture arrangement what are the chances that your
stakeholders will change their minds about something as
complicated as the system you are building for them?
One hundred percent.
The first step to addressing this
issue is to accept reality and follow AM’s principle
Embrace Change. The next step is to explore whatever is changing, that’s
what modeling is all about, because you will often find
that either they didn’t know what they wanted in the
first place (see above) or perhaps you didn’t
understand what they were asking for.
As you are working with your stakeholders you
want to build an understanding of their perspective and
their terminology, to both ensure that you do not have
differing assumptions and to improve the quality of
communication between you.
I was involved with the development of an
administration system for an e-commerce system, for
which we had fairly specific requirements.
The first week we put up two web pages, one that
presented a home page containing menu items of critical
functionality and another that enabled administrators to
perform a high-priority function.
We built exactly what our stakeholders asked for
and when we showed it to them they realized that what
they originally wanted wasn’t going to work well and
had us refactor it.
Change happens. Finally, when you are exploring an area of your system that
your users have changed their minds about you may
discover that the real problem is that your stakeholders
simply don’t understand the problem they are trying to
address, an indication that you need to hold some sort
of visioning session with them, or individual project stakeholders
have different visions that are not being properly
managed. Your best bet is to adopt an
agile change management approach, not a traditional
change prevention approach.
The system that you are building
must reflect the needs of several constituencies,
including direct users, senior management, your
operations and support staff, and your maintenance
of these groups have different priorities and goals, as
do individuals within these groups.
There will be conflicts, conflicts that must be
Once again, the first step it to
accept the situation.
Somebody is going to have to negotiate to
identify what the priorities for your system will be. Note what I just said – you need to identify the priorities
for your SYSTEM. Each
project stakeholder has their own priorities, and
that’s fine, but your goal it to settle on priorities
for the system and that will often be different than
those of individuals.
One approach is to simply identify someone(s) who
can represent the larger group of project stakeholders
and let them work this out.
You may also decide to lead the negotiation
efforts yourself, but this can be time consuming and
could result in ill-will towards you and your project
team – my advice it to let someone else do your dirty
work if possible. If
the negotiation efforts fail then your last resort
should be to call in the gold owner,
the person paying for your project, and ask them to
arbitrate a solution.
I once worked on an e-commerce system that was to
be deployed internationally.
Some of my stakeholders wanted to support several
languages – American English, British English,
Spanish, German, Japanese, and Cantonese at first – so
we could serve each major market uniquely.
Other stakeholders wanted to get our system up
and running quickly and wanted to deploy it in American
English only because they felt that this would be
acceptable to our customers (okay, sometimes your
project stakeholders are clueless).
We couldn’t come to an agreement on this issue
so I had the issue pushed up the management chain
and the decision was to support American English only
for the first release and then evaluate the need to
support other languages when it proved necessary (which
it quickly did).
Sometimes you discover that you have too many people
offering to work with your project team.
This is often the case at the beginning of a
project when excitement about it is too high or your
project is a “political winner” that people want to
be associated with.
The best solution is to thank everyone for their
enthusiasm, to make them aware that you have more help
than you currently need, that you have selected a
portion of them to work with you, and that you will call
on them in the future if you need their help.
Whenever I’m in this situation I’ll try to
pick the best people for the job, looking for project
stakeholders that are likely to provide the best insight
and who are willing to invest the time to work with my
will also ensure that I do not alienate the people that
don’t immediately work with my team, we may want to
work with them in the future to provide specific
expertise or simple to act as a sounding board for what
we’re doing – often the project stakeholders who are
actively participating with a project team will become
too familiar with the system and loose perspective and
be unable to identify potential problems, thus it is
valuable to have access to a qualified outsider.
I’ve been in situations where a
project stakeholder has said that we need to use a
specific technology, such as "Oracle vX.Y.Z"
to solve a problem when what I really needed from them
was behavioral requirements such as “Customers need to
be able to deposit money into an account".
Yes, there are always technical constraints that your
team needs to be aware of, perhaps what your stakeholder
was really trying to communicate was the fact that
Oracle is your organizations corporate database
times the real issue is that your stakeholders are
having difficulty differentiating between requirements
for a system and architectural alternatives for a
system, perhaps the person is technically oriented and
hence likes to focus on technical issues, or perhaps
it’s something as simple as them having just read an
article in the most recent issue of Business Week that
described a successful project using Oracle databases.
The best approach to dealing with
this issue is to define the rights and responsibilities
of project stakeholders to help put a
framework in place which enables you to focus their
efforts on defining what the system will do and the
developer’s efforts on how the system will do it.
Another tack would be to ask the stakeholder
“if you had that technology in place, what would it do
for you that’s important” or “how would you use
this technology” in an effort to identify the actual
In many organizations people have
been doing their jobs the same way using the same tools
for years – they may not have ever seen another way to
do things nor have they thought it could be different.
They may also be scared of change, perhaps
they’re afraid they won’t have the skills required
to work with the new system or they will be replaced by
it, and are motivated to formulate requirements in terms
of what they are comfortable with.
The best approach is to talk about the current
situation with them, to identify what works well and
what doesn’t, and to explore how the current situation
came about. For
example, you’re working on the
SWA Online system and
are identifying requirements when one of your project
stakeholders tells you that customers can only order ten
things on any given order?
that’s the way that it’s always been done in this
company and that’s the way it has to be in the new
Needless to say you decide to question her about
this and soon discover that the current system is based
on a process where customer service representatives
input orders that come in via mail and fax, and the
order forms only have ten lines on the page and knowing
this the builders of the original green-screen system
built screens that only allowed ten order items.
You point out to her the true reason for only
supporting ten order items, lack of room on the paper
form, and show explain to her that you can easily build
a system that allows more than ten items.
After awhile she realizes that it’s possible to
do so, particularly when you visit the web sites of your
competitors and see that they don’t have this preset
Project stakeholders will sometimes
give vague requirements because they don’t want to
commit to a specific answer.
The problem is that they’re afraid to be wrong
– their previous experiences with serial approaches
has taught them that it’s too expensive to reimplement
a changed requirement and therefore you have to get them
correct up front. They
very likely sense the impossibility of doing so and
therefore choose not to commit.
To address this problem impress on
your project stakeholders that you are ready to embrace
change, that you are taking an iterative and incremental
approach that reduces the cost of change, and that your
goal is to identify and implement the best solution for
them which means that some requirements will evolve over
do exactly as you say, be receptive and supportive of
change – over time your stakeholders will learn that
they can make a decision today and safely change it
tomorrow if needed.
When you deliver working software each iteration,
software that your stakeholders see evolves as their
understanding of the system evolves, their fear of
committing will quickly dissipate.
The vast majority of project
stakeholders, and I suspect the vast majority of
developers, have not received a formal education in
is very likely that they don’t know how to read a UML
activity diagram, or a data model, or a UML use case
diagram because that’s not a skill that is required of
their day-to-day job.
The problem is that they need to understand the
artifacts that you are working with in order to
understand what it is that you are trying to communicate
to them and to become active members of your modeling
Your first step is identify
artifacts that your project stakeholders will need to
understand so you know which ones to focus on.
This is where the practice
Use The Simplest Tools
helps you – if you strive to model with simple tools
such as index cards, paper, and
POWs you reduce
the learning curve for your stakeholders.
The second step is to teach these techniques to
your stakeholders, I prefer a just in time (JIT)
approach where I do a brief tutorial during a modeling
session on the proper application of a technique when we
first need it and then dive right into applying the
technique at that point (I’m also a firm believer in
I’ve also given brief tutorials that overview
common modeling techniques at the beginning of a project
to give stakeholders a feel for what they’ll be doing
and provided them with reading material, typically The
Object Primer 3/e: AMDD With UML 2, that describes the
techniques in detail.
Following the JIT approach to training I’ve
taught techniques such as CRC modeling and essential UI
prototyping, both of which use simple tools, in less
than fifteen minutes each to project stakeholders that
had never modeled before.
I’ve taught more complex techniques, such as
flowcharting or class modeling, to stakeholders over a
period of time so as to build up the techniques slowly.
The third step is to build working software based
on their models, providing concrete feedback as quickly
as possible. When
you do this the models are no longer abstract, your
project stakeholders readily see that their essential UI
prototype created from flip chart paper and Post It
notes has become a functional HTML page and that their
CRC card describing the concept of a customer has been
reflected in the functionality of the software.
Sometimes you will find that your project stakeholders
are providing you with great usage requirements, perhaps
in the form of
use cases or
usage scenarios, but are
falling short when it comes to non-behavioral
requirements (or vice versa).
This is a very good indication that you aren’t
working with the right people, perhaps you’re missing
someone that represents a major constituency such as
your operations and support staff, and therefore need to
reconsider the mix of project stakeholders that you’re
working with to model requirements.
A common problem at the beginning
of a project is that the developers don’t understand
the problem domain, making it difficult to communicate
with your project stakeholders.
This is understandable, just like it isn’t part
of the day-to-day job of a stakeholder to understand
modeling it isn’t part of the day-to-day job of a
developer to be an expert at jobs of their stakeholders.
This is why both groups of people need to
actively participate in requirements modeling, they both
have something of value to offer to the overall effort
because everyone can learn from everyone
else. Overtime, by
modeling with others and pair programming,
developers will become
generalizing specialists with an understanding of
both software development and the problem domain.
need to invest the time to learn the domain, they’ll
eventually learn it as the project progresses but will
often find that this isn’t quick enough and therefore
must do something to enhance the learning experience.
Years ago I worked for a company that truly
understood the importance of developers understanding
their business. The
first three days that I worked for the company myself
and another new hire sat through training sessions
presented by Vice Presidents, this was a multi-billion
dollar financial institution, who described the
fundamentals of what their divisions did.
One Vice President trained two, yes two,
developers for several hours in each session.
If your organization isn’t this enlightened
then I’ve found that simply picking up a book that
overviews the domain, introductory college text books
are ideal, are a great starting point to learn the
also a firm believer that developers should read widely.
I read The Economist and
National Geographic on a regular basis in addition to
publications such as Software Development, The
Communications of the ACM, and IEEE Software. By
reading widely I have a broad knowledgebase from which
to work when I get into a new situation.
Many stakeholders perceive
formality – scheduled meetings, official requirements
documents that they review and sign off on, and formal
presentations – as inherent to professionalism. In my experience this expectation is often the result of the
serial software process mindset that our industry has
had for the past two generations, our stakeholders often
don’t know that there is another way to work.
It is also the result of the bad relationship
that the IT community has with the business community
– our project stakeholders don’t trust us to deliver
and insist on greater formality in the belief that it
gives them greater control over the development process
which they often don’t understand.
To address this issue you need to
communicate that there is another way of operating, a
more agile way, and communicate the inherent downsides
(slower development, less chance of understanding the
requirements, greater cost, ...) of their current
approach. Ask your stakeholders what their real goals
are. Is it to develop a working system or is it to
have meetings and produce documentation? If it's
the first goal, which it should be, then ask them why
they insist on this formality. Don’t accept their initial answer and keep digging until
you’re at the root cause.
As I indicate in Agile
Documentation chances are very good
that they don't trust you and this is their way of
holding your feet to the fire.
The next step is to ask them to trust you,
which is often difficult for them depending on how bad
their previous software development experiences have
been, and to remove some of the formality.
Then deliver working software, showing them that
it is possible to be successful without being burdened
by too much formality.
Iterate through cycles of reducing the formality
and then delivering working software until you read a
point where you can work effectively.
A common complaint on non-AM projects is that the
requirements artifacts that are being created by the
business analysts with their users aren't understandable
by the developers expected to implement those
requirements. Luckily, this is a problem that you should
not have on an AM project. First, your should know
your models and know your tools, implying
that developers should have sufficient training and
experience with the artifacts being generated and the
tools used to do so. If they don't then they must
be given sufficient training and mentoring, removing the
problem of simply being unfamiliar with the techniques.
Second, the principle
Incremental Change advises
that you work on your system in small chunks, building
it up over time, a philosophy that is reflected in the
Model in Small Increments. This
avoids the problem of developers being swamped by a
large requirements document that defines too many
requirements to comprehend all at once. Third, the
Active Stakeholder Participation
ensures that your project stakeholders are available to
explain their requirements to developers and that
developers are open to doing so. Fourth, the
Create Simple Content and
Models Simply ensure that your requirements models
are as understandable as possible.
The Object Primer 3rd Edition: Agile Model Driven
Development with UML 2 is an
important reference book for agile modelers,
describing how to develop 35
types of agile
models including all 13
UML 2 diagrams.
Furthermore, this book describes the techniques
Full Lifecycle Object Oriented Testing
(FLOOT) methodology to give you the fundamental
testing skills which you require to succeed at
agile software development. The book also
shows how to move from your agile models to
source code (Java examples are provided) as well
as how to succeed at implementation techniques
(TDD). The Object Primer also includes a
chapter overviewing the critical database
development techniques (database refactoring,
legacy analysis, and
database access coding) from my award-winning
Agile Database Techniques
Agile Modeling: Effective Practices for Extreme
Programming and the Unified Process is the seminal
book describing how agile software developers approach
documentation. It describes principles and
practices which you can tailor into your existing
software process, such as
Rational Unified Process (RUP), or the
Agile Unified Process (AUP), to streamline your
modeling and documentation efforts. Modeling and
documentation are important aspects of any software
project, including agile projects, and this book
describes in detail how to
architect, and then
design your system in an agile manner.
The Elements of UML 2.0 Style describes a collection
of standards, conventions, and
for creating effective
UML diagrams. They are based on sound, proven
software engineering principles that lead to diagrams
that are easier to understand and work with. These
conventions exist as a collection of simple, concise
guidelines that if applied consistently, represent an
important first step in increasing your productivity as
a modeler. This book is oriented towards
intermediate to advanced UML modelers, although there
are numerous examples throughout the book it would not
be a good way to learn the UML (instead, consider
The Object Primer). The book is a brief 188
pages long and is conveniently pocket-sized so it's easy
to carry around.
translation by Gao Lucky
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description of what we do, and how to contact us, can be
found at Scott W.
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