Who needs requirements?

On my other blog, I posted an entry on how agile approaches in a way dispense with the idea of requirements; instead a business need is translated directly into code (skipping the requirements step), with tests providing an objective way to see whether the result is acceptable.

This idea disturbs many government IT and procurement professionals. It shouldn’t.

Perhaps it will ease people’s minds to think of an agile process as something like a procurement done with a Statement of Objectives. In place of system requirements the government, throughout the course of development, presents the contractor with business needs, and the contractor is free to provide a solution without constraints. For the same reason that this is often good practice in contracting, it is also good practice in software development. I am not saying that agile procurements should be done through a Statement of Objectives (a good idea in some cases), just pointing out the underlying similarity in concept.

One objection I hear is that without requirements, we cannot contract for services. Even if we could, how could we have a fair competition, since contractors bid on how they would address requirements? The trick here, I believe, is to distinguish between contractual requirements and system requirements. There is no rule that says that the contract or the RFP must include system requirements. Of course it must include some sort of requirements. The requirements depend on the basis for the competition – for example, if a procurement is for development services, we can state requirements for the services – required skills and experience, management approach, etc. Or we can state requirements for the business needs to be fulfilled. Perhaps the following comparison is in order: if I wanted security guard services I could specify that the security guards need to prevent people we don’t trust from entering the building. The solicitation does not need to list the names of the particular people we don’t trust.

A second objection is that we need the requirements to know whether the contractor or the project team has performed well. That seems to miss the point. If the requirements are satisfied but the product doesn’t meet the business need, then no one has been successful. We should gauge success by business value produced, business needs met, quality of work, customer service, and so on. Or we can judge the contractor’s success at meeting the business needs developed in the “conversations” with users. We don’t need system requirements in the solicitation to do this.

The main point to keep in mind is that better results are obtained by working from business needs directly to system development. Best results are what we want. We might have to change how we set up our contracts to get there. There is no conflict, from what I can see, with the Federal Acquisition Rules.

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