Four Things Strategic Initiative Leaders Need to Know About Requirements

Requirements are the #1 cause of project failure and frustration. Because strategic initiatives are programs composed of projects, a project-level failure could compromise the performance of the entire strategic initiative. The logic is straightforward: requirements quality influences project outcomes; a failed project will undermine strategic initiative performance.

The implication:

To turn vision into results, leaders need to be proactive with policy for capturing and managing requirements.

1. Requirements Flow From Strategic Vision and are Distinct from Solution Design

Perhaps one of the most important of all strategy tools is a strategic vision statement. A well-constructed vision statement describes the future-state target for the strategic initiative. Since the vision is the target, the strategic initiative is the means to achieve that target. Stated differently, the vision is the “what” and the strategic initiative is the “how.”

Usually, strategic vision statements are abstract. To turn “vision into results,” we leaders need to systematically decompose that vision. We do this by working to better understand the vision; that is, make it more specific by better understanding the problem or opportunity.

Here is the best definition of a requirement:

A requirement is a description of a verifiable future state in which a customer, user, or stakeholder expects to experience benefits that are sufficient to justify investing resources to develop a solution.

Parsing this definition into its essence yields five important insights:

  • Requirements describe a future state. Requirements perform essentially the same function as a vision statement.
  • Requirements (the what) are not the same thing as a solution (the how).
  • Stakeholders expect to receive benefits.
  • The benefits must justify the investment of resources.
  • Requirements are verifiable. The solution developer (or the project manager) must compare the solution to the requirements to see if the solution has the expected functions and performance. The definition implies that requirements are agreements or promises.


Commonly, strategic vision statements include things that people consider
wants or needs or wishes or desires. Often, you will hear the phrases, “must haves” and “nice to haves.” Here are two rules:

  1. If a customer (or end user) declares something is must have or a nice to have, pay attention. This declarations is useful for prioritization.
  2. If a technical person is offering an opinion on “nice to haves,” work to validate it with the customer. Often, technical people have the opinion that nice-to-have implies that the request is frivolous.

2. Capture Requirements by Leading With Questions

The nature of strategic initiatives is of coping with ambiguity, where much of the ambiguity concerns clarifying the nature of the problem or opportunity. The leader applies the “Chief Learning Officer” role and asks lots of questions.

Here are some of the questions that I use in placing requirements into the process:

  • I ask this question, Why are we doing this? (This is the first question in the tool that I call the Four Driving Questions.) I look for the strategic context and rationale for the question. I listen closely to the answers I continue to explore and probe.
  • Second, I ask, Who are the stakeholders and what benefits do they seek?
  • Thirdly, I keep in mind that people will commonly confuse requirements with solution design: the requirement is the ‘what does done look like?” and is distinct from the ‘what do we want the solution to do?” To reiterate, Requirements are the “What” and design is the “How.”

3. Managing Requirements – Integrate them into Program Governance

Programs management is a structured approach to organizing projects to gain synergies. Each project is likely to treat requirements differently. I find it quite useful to include requirements in our strategic initiative planning discussions. I want to hear the project managers’ concerns, and gain agreement on governance questions such as these:

  • What will be the common conventions for identifying stakeholders, asking questions, making decisions, and documenting requirements?
  • Who will have responsibilities for what?
  • How will the program establish policy for consistency and quality?
  • Are the advantages of centralizing repositories of requirements worth the expense?
  • How will we tie requirements-solution verification to benefits realization?
  • How can we provide early warning metrics if there is a problem with requirements?
  • How will we iterate? Strategic initiatives usually apply iterative design approaches. The path-finding approach described in this article provides useful metaphor for working into the complexities of a strategic initiative.

4. Conclusion: Some of the Hardest Work in a Strategic Initiative is Requirements Capture and Management

Requirements capture and management is an important strategic initiative competency. It is hard to implement for at least three reasons:

  1. People need knowledge. The need to understand the definition terms like requirement, design constraint, validation, and verification. They need to understand that a vision statement is an abstract requirement. They need to understand their organization’s business model and metrics.
  2. People need skill. They need skill in asking questions and organize information.
  3. People need desire. Requirements is a discipline that requires effort. In time-crunched and resource limited environments, people need to apply their knowledge and skills in a disciplined way. They have to be prepared to work in a structured way and withstand pressures to discard proven methods for requirements capture.

To summarize, people need intelligence and skill to know what questions to ask and how to ask them. They need to step out of their comfort zone and interacting with people to capture information and make decisions. Finally they need to organize and specify the information so that an expert can design a solution that meets the requirements.

Recall the logic introduced at the opening of the article: requirements quality influences project success outcomes that influences strategic initiative performance.

These four things are a good start for the leader. What else do you recommend?

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About Greg Githens

Thought leader who helps others think strategically, make strategy, and turn vision into action. Coach, advisor, board member, and hands-on leader. Seminar leader and speaker of popular offerings "How to Think Strategically & Apply Business Acumen" and "Leading Strategic Initiatives (Program Management)." Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation.
This entry was posted in Program & Portfolio Management, Success Principles for Strategic Initiatives, Useful Practices & Management Tools and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Four Things Strategic Initiative Leaders Need to Know About Requirements

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