Business analysts have a potentially long list of responsibilities and deliverables. Finding the time within a project to include all of the best practices can often be a challenge, and some important techniques, deliverables, and responsibilities are often neglected or ignored simply because there isn’t enough time available. This includes such things as requirements traceability, stakeholder analysis, reports analysis, impact assessments, and handoffs to other project team members. These are often sacrificed for the sake of creating the perfect requirements document, use cases, or diagrams and models. I’d like to focus this article on one of these often neglected work items – handoffs to other project team members.
What is a Handoff?
While working on your project, you spend significant time and effort gathering and documenting requirements, processes, assumptions, etc. You create beautiful scope diagrams, flowcharts, mockups, and other deliverables and when the analysis phase of the project has ended, you deliver your package of requirements to other members of your project team: development, QA, training, documentation, implementation, and possibly others. The process of passing your requirements package to these consumers is your “handoff.”
The Wrong Way
I’ve seen handoffs handled in many different ways. Unfortunately, the handoff is most often performed by the analyst simply dumping their requirements into a shared network folder/site or SharePoint site and letting some or all team members know where to find those documents.
The first problem with this approach is that people don’t read requirements documents voluntarily. I’m sure that you are extremely proud of the beautiful models that you’ve created. You made sure that your requirements are cohesive, complete, consistent, modifiable, correct, observable, feasible, unambiguous, and verifiable. Your UI mockups are beautiful and elegant. Unfortunately, if the intended consumers of your deliverables don’t read them, then your effort has been wasted. Sorry – but this is a sad reality for most projects.
The second problem is that your fellow project team members are generally as busy as you are, and won’t necessarily go out of their way to search for a document to review. Even if they take the time to search for your deliverables, they might only choose to review some of your deliverables and might miss others. If you don’t ensure that sufficient time is set aside to review the deliverables in detail, then you should expect that they will spend little or no time doing this on their own.
A third problem is that no matter how good you think your requirements are, they are almost certainly going to be open to some level of interpretation. If you’ve created high quality requirements, then the level of interpretation might be small, but there will always be some level of interpretation because human beings all have a unique perspective and history that affects their perception and understanding of language and concepts.
In addition, you may have missed requirements required by one of your consumers, or may not have taken their needs and perspectives into consideration when writing your requirements. Every requirements consumer group has a unique set of needs and a unique perspective. One set of requirements can’t possibly fulfill the needs of every group of consumers. The needs and perspective of a development team is not the same as a QA team or as the training team. While you might work very hard to address everyone’s needs, you will inevitably miss something.
If you have missed something and rework is required, it is important that you discover the issue as soon as possible. You certainly don’t want to find out about a misunderstanding or missed requirement during the week before go-live. It would be even worse if the issue is only discovered after go-live.
This is why a well-planned handoff process is an essential part of a business analyst role. This is not something that should be neglected. It should not be done without proper planning and preparation. It should not be skipped over in order to meet deadlines for a project. It is a critical part of the project and you shouldn’t wait until the end of your requirements gathering phase before planning for your handoffs.
What is a Well-planned Handoff Process?
The first step of planning an effective handoff is making sure that you understand the consumers of your deliverables. Before you start your first use case, flowchart, or scope diagram, you should make sure that you have planned your requirements approach based on your project, your stakeholders, your timeframes, your fellow project team members, and more.
Sorry – a cookie-cutter analysis approach is a bad idea. What works well with one group of stakeholders won’t necessarily work well for another group. People have different learning styles. Projects aren’t all the same, either – some require large numbers of interfaces, some require a carefully designed user interface, some are complex and large, and others are simple and small. There are a million variations that will impact the effectiveness of your approach.
So, when you create your analysis approach for a project, make sure that you have carefully defined the deliverables that best fit the project, stakeholders, and project team members. Use deliverables that meet their needs. Create them in such a way that they are easy to understand. Consider framing requirements in multiple ways – modeling requirements with a variety of techniques.
The handoff process doesn’t just happen at the end. It is an important consideration during project planning. It is also an important consideration while you are right in the middle of your project’s analysis phase. Keep project team members up-to-date on important issues. Meet with them regularly to talk about your work – don’t wait until all your requirements workshops have ended. They may have important ideas, questions, or limitations that could greatly affect your analysis.
When you are ready to perform a handoff, make sure that you meet with all of the teams in person, if at all possible. If you have a very small team, you might be able to walk the team through your deliverables all at once, but in most cases you should meet separately with each group of consumers. They all have unique needs and you should focus on those needs. You can’t do that if everyone is in the same room at the same time – you’ll just create an expensive meeting where half the attendees are playing with their smart phones or sketching pictures in their notebooks while they wait for you to finish answering a question that is irrelevant to them.
Prepare carefully for your meetings. Create a detailed agenda and send it out at least a few days in advance. Send advance copies of your deliverables to your attendees. Plan on putting your deliverables on a projector or other large display, but also bring paper copies to the meeting (use recycled paper if you love trees). If you think that the meeting can be completed in 30 minutes, book 60. Prepare to take careful notes, or arrange to have a scribe for your meeting.
If this is starting to sound like I’m repeating the basic best practices for a requirements workshop, then you are on the right track. Why should we treat this any differently? Why would we think that it is less important to be prepared and organized than when we meet with our stakeholders? Why would we think that our fellow team members might not have important input that requires your careful consideration?
When you deliver your handoff, remember that you aren’t trying to simply dump your requirements off to your consumers as quickly as possible. The purpose of the meeting is to ensure that your consumers fully and completely understand the requirements package, and that you can identify any remaining questions and issues. You might not be able to address all questions and issues while in the meeting, so you can expect to follow-up with items after the meeting.
This is one of your last chances to make sure that you haven’t missed anything important. If you haven’t kept your fellow project team members involved during the analysis gathering phase, it is going to be painful to discover anything new during your handoff, but it will be much more painful if you discover it later. Your handoffs should be occurring while you still have access to your stakeholders and subject matter experts, because you will likely need them to help follow up on anything that comes up during the handoff.
Take your time in the meeting. Awkward pauses are a good thing. Give your consumers the time they need to ask questions. Be direct and ask them for input – “John, are these documents acceptable to you? Do you see anything missing that you need to complete your part of the project?”
I’ve never actually asked my consumers to sign-off on a requirements package, but there may be cases where this is a good idea – particularly if a group of consumers works for another organization, or reports to another department. At minimum, you should follow up your meeting with a brief summary and send that to all attendees, indicating that you have reviewed and handed off your requirements to that group, and identifying all action items and follow-ups required.
A good handoff process starts when you plan your analysis approach, continues through the entire requirements gathering phase of the project, and is completed with a series of formal meetings with each group of consumers. If you have carefully considered the needs of your consumers at the start of the project, and have kept them in the loop during your requirements gathering, then you shouldn’t have big surprises during your handoff. That being said, you should still walk your consumers through all of your deliverables, and make sure that they fully understand them. This is your last chance to address potential issues and gaps. Once you your consumers start acting on your requirements, corrections become much more painful and expensive. A carefully planned and executed handoff approach will significantly reduce project risk and improve the chances of a successful go-live.