How to nail your next requirements workshop

de Sergiu Pocan

How to nail your next requirements workshop
Organizing a successful requirements workshop can be a great way to collaborate with key stakeholders and subject matter experts (SMEs).

It helps generate ideas for new features or products, reach a consensus on a topic, or review requirements or designs. In this guide, we will use the 5W1H method to help you plan and succeed in your future requirements workshop.

What is a requirements workshop?
According to the IIBA’s Business Analysis Book of Knowledge, 3rd edition, the requirements workshop is a focused event attended by key stakeholders and subject matter experts (SMEs) for a concentrated period of time. A workshop may be used to generate ideas for new features or products, to reach a consensus on a topic, or to review requirements or designs.

Workshops can promote trust, mutual understanding, and strong communication among the stakeholders and produce deliverables that structure and guide future work efforts.

When we think of a workshop, the image that comes to mind is a facilitator leading a group of people through some activities. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

To organize a successful requirements workshop you need to go through the steps below:
1. Define the purpose, goals, and objectives.
2. Determine who should attend.
3. Create a detailed agenda.
4. Determine the appropriate time and length of the meeting.
5. Determine the best meeting format and location.
6. Send out the meeting invite and agenda several weeks in advance.
7. Facilitate and lead the workshop.
8. Document and summarize the action items.
9. Send out a meeting summary.
10. Follow up on action items and schedule additional meetings as needed.

Why should you organize a requirements workshop?
The requirements workshop is useful if:

– the project is high-risk and high-impacting
– you need to elicit many requirements in a short period of time
– multiple people share the knowledge (especially if they tend to provide conflicting information)
– you need agreement or complex decisions
– you need to get buy-in from the stakeholders

However, there are some drawbacks:

– Requirements workshops can be expensive and difficult to organize.
– Involving the wrong people makes workshops ineffective.
– Unless they are correctly facilitated, they can lead to people not contributing.

There are also cases when a requirements workshop is not advised. For example if:

– the project is small and low impacting, the cost is not justified.
– you don’t have a sponsor or decision-makers involved. The outcome will not be validated and will need future meetings.
– you need to elicit specific detailed requirements. In that case, having a large group of people is an improper use of their time.

Who should you invite to the requirements workshop?
Below is a list of roles you should consider inviting.

Project Sponsor
The project sponsor pays for the project and workshop, champions its success, and is the tiebreaker. Without a sponsor, your workshop (and likely project) is bound to fail. If they are not available for the whole period, have them be present in key moments of the workshop. For example, to present the objective and when important decisions need to be made.

Decision Makers
The decision-makers can prioritize. Their buy-in on the decisions and outcome of the workshop ensures the project’s continuation beyond the initial meeting.

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)
The subject matter experts provide valuable insight into business rules, constraints, and how the business operates in practice. The SMEs can be domain subject matter experts or implementation subject matter experts. For software development projects it is recommended to include an architect or a senior developer. They will provide valuable technical insights.

Project Manager
The project manager can help act out and follow up on topics identified during the workshop.

People impacted
It is important to have at least a representative of the people impacted (many times these are the actual end users). They don’t have decision making power but they can provide crucial information that other people may not be aware of.

The facilitator must be a neutral person to the topic in discussion. A person that is not impacted by the topic of the workshop can help lead the participants toward the goal in an unbiased way.

Scribe (recommended)
The facilitator needs to be fully engaged with the participants. The scribe will take notes during the workshop.

Timekeeper (optional)
The timekeeper is in charge of making sure the facilitator and participants keep to the agenda and do not exceed the allotted times. The scribe can also take on this role. It’s not always a separate person. Or you can use a simple timer app.

In some cases you may not have additional resources, so the facilitator is the only one from the three above. In that case make sure you pause to take notes of important discussions. For transparency you can write your notes in a visible place, such as a whiteboard or flip chart. Alternatively, you can record the session(s) with the participants’ agreement.

Observer (optional)
In some cases, an observer may also be present. This person doesn’t contribute. They observe the proceedings. Usually, it is a person that is there to learn or someone from HR.

When should you organize a requirements workshop?
You can organize the workshop at any stage of the project. Indeed, you can organize it whenever you need to pull in a lot of brain power from the project team.

Workshops are usually organized at the beginning of an initiative, but also to clarify certain aspects of the project.

In terms of timing, the workshop should take place after you’ve gathered some initial information you’ve agreed on a topic. And, of course, when the critical attendees are available.

The length of a workshop is determined by the activities planned, but it can go from one day to several days. Do not keep people longer than necessary.

Where should you organize the requirements workshop?
In-person, face-to-face workshops should be organized offsite to avoid office distractions. That can mean a hotel conference room, a co-working space, or, if you’re external to the customer, it can be in your offices.

The space where the workshop takes place must be well suited to the type of activities you plan to include.

For example, the space may need to have:

– whiteboards or flip charts
– free wall space for post-its
– a sitting area and a standing area. If people are going to be sitting for long periods make sure there is proper seating available.
– relaxation area
– area to serve food/drinks
– projector screen
– free space to perform any activities that require movement

How to hold a requirements workshop?
Now that we’ve covered what a workshop is, why you would need one, who to invite, and when and where to organize it, it’s time to look at how to facilitate it.

Before the workshop
Like Benjamin Franklin said, “by failing to prepare you are preparing to fail”.

To prepare for a successful workshop I like to use the 7Ps framework by James Macanufo to consider seven areas for which to prepare:
– Purpose
– Product
– Process
– People
– Preparation
– Practical Concerns

Let’s dig into each one of these areas.

The first question to answer is do you really need a workshop? It’s worth going over the questions from the Why section. Is this a high-impacting project? Is the knowledge shared by multiple people? Do you need buy-in from multiple stakeholders? Does the company need to make important decisions?

The decision to organize a workshop requires research and interaction with the stakeholders. They must agree that it’s in everyone’s interest to use a requirements workshop.

If the workshop is required, then identify its purpose by thinking of what you are trying to achieve. Perhaps you need to optimize an existing process, identify a new one, get agreement on a subject, or get some decisions on a set of topics.

Once you identify the purpose, validate it with the project sponsor. Then ensure that the purpose is well communicated.

Ask yourself what it is that you want to have at the end of the workshop. Perhaps you need to have a process established, a set of decisions, high-level requirements, an agreement on a topic, or a set of priorities.

Having the outcome in mind will help guide you through the activities to tackle. For example, if you want to have as an outcome a new process, then you will have to schedule a process mapping exercise.

In this section, list the activities needed to achieve the workshop’s purpose and outcome.

Some activities include:

– active introductions/icebreakers
– topics to discuss
– brainstorming
– affinity mapping
– process modeling
– prioritization
– root cause analysis
– functional decomposition
This will determine your agenda. Add breaks and associate the necessary time slots. And add enough slack in case certain activities take longer than expected.

One common mistake is to cram too many activities in one day. People need time to get into the mind space of a topic. And they need even more time to start thinking laterally.

This section covers the people that you should invite. I’ve already listed out the roles that you should cover. But I would like to highlight again the importance of having the project sponsor present.

You also need decision-makers, subject matter experts (developers, power users, trainers, user agents), and impacted stakeholders.

Think again about your workshop purpose and outcome. Identify who the participants are and how they can help you achieve them. Ensure participants understand the purpose of the workshop and why it’s important/useful for them to participate. The famous “what’s in it for me?”

Ensure participants understand the purpose of the workshop and why it’s important/useful for them to participate. In other words, “what’s in it for them.”

You should aim to have between 6 and 10 people in the workshop. If you need more attendees you will need additional facilitators. Split participants into small groups to get the most out of them.

Alternatively, invite additional participants only in certain parts of the workshop.

Another way to think of the recommended number of attendees is the two-pizza rule.

In the pitfalls section, think of the things that could go wrong and identify if you can prevent them. If not, what can you do about them?

You can use the Inversion technique to think of things that could go wrong, but here are a few common pitfalls:

participants are not engaged — involve only the right people that understand what’s in it for them. Get their feedback on the activities. Also, setting ground rules at the beginning of the meeting helps.
off-topic discussions — use the parking lot.
discussions monopolized by certain attendees — use post-its to let everyone have their say. Or ask the other participants their opinion first. Or if all else fails, use ELMO
unproductive conflicts during the workshop — think of ways you can handle the conflict
logistics could fail — make sure you have either backup or support available
room that is not appropriate for the activities — check the room before the workshop. Then either make changes to the room or find a better room.
Is there anything that should be created/discussed before the workshop?

For example, you might need:

a slide deck to present the context of the project,
additional information to send to participants before the workshop (or to have during),
materials to use during the activities,
copy of the agenda for everyone,
set of questions to use during the workshop.
You may be responsible only for some of these items. But you must make sure that the people responsible for the items prepare them in time for the workshop.

For the final P, think of the things you need to have set up for the workshop to ensure it runs smoothly. Some things should be arranged well in advance. Others you can do on the day. For example:

send the invitation to the workshop including an agenda,
make necessary travel arrangements,
book location and catering as needed. You don’t want your participants to be hungry or thirsty or sleepy,
setup logistics (post-its, markers, notepads, pens, flip-charts, projectors, etc),
send a meeting reminder with location details and start times,
prepare the room for activities,
if the workshop is over several days think to make arrangements for the evenings,
make sure participants can easily access the meeting location
By covering these seven areas you should have a pretty good idea of what you need to prepare for the workshop.

Template and examples
To help you apply this framework I’ve created a Miro template that you are welcome to use.

In addition, you can find an example of the 7Ps technique in this article in the BA Times.

Facilitating the workshop
You’ve prepared for the workshop, and now the time has arrived for the workshop to begin. Here are some suggestions to help you successfully facilitate.