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Best practices for requirements in agile: Forget about agile

Yesterday I got together with Robin F. Goldsmith, president of consultancy Go Pro Management Inc. and our resident requirements expert, and asked him, “What are the best practices for gathering requirements in an agile environment?”

His advice? Don’t worry about how agile methodologies change the requirements gathering process. “The best practices for gathering requirements are the same regardless of the methodology you use,” Goldsmith said.

Goldsmith went on to explain that agile isn’t necessarily a totally new way of doing things. “The premise of agile development is to focus on very small pieces and get them done. To my thinking that has always been the approach people have used when they’ve gotten things done,” he said.

The hard part is figuring out which pieces to work on, and for that you need “a structured and systematic way of understanding the big picture,” he said. “So the starting point for meaningful requirements discovery is to start at the top, to get the big picture. Then you analyze and prioritize and select those pieces that you want to drive down to more detail.”

According to Goldsmith, one of the common traps that IT pros fall into when discussing requirements is wanting to provide a solution — a product or system — before determining at a high level what the business really needs. Agile can actually exacerbate this issue.

“The problem with agile development is that it’s driven by a programmer, and the programmer doesn’t know to find out about business requirements. The programmer wants to find out what program they should write,” he said. “The context that they’re in, especially driven from the programming perspective, pushes them into saying, ‘What do you want me to build?’ not ‘What should what I build accomplish?'”

To complete any software project successfully, you need to work closely with your users and help them “understand what they need to accomplish before they try to settle on a solution,” Goldsmith said. “That’s true whether it’s agile or any other methodology.”

Got a question about requirements? Submit your question and Robin Goldsmith will answer it in his Ask the Expert section on

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