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Specifications design: a pre sales activity. Really?

Why bother with specifications before kicking off the project?
We all agree on the fact that starting a project without any specification is not far away from suicide. On the one hand, consultants and system integrators often expect customers to produce and document these specifications, but on the other hand customers might not have time, skills or willingness to do that.Collaboration between customers and system integrators often starts much before the beginning of the project, since the scope has to be validated and agreed. Is project specifications design a project itself? Should system integrators do that for free as part of pre-sales activities? Should customers absolutely do that on their own.

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Why bother with specifications before kicking off the project?

Quite often specifications are mistakenly linked to RFPs. RFPs without specifications do not make sense, but specifications are not only useful to benchmark and select potential providers and partners. The goals are diverse and could be split into 6 parts:

Define :Collecting business needs is critical, not only to ensure that the solution to be delivered will meet the requirements, but also to involve future users and stakeholders as early as possible in the process.

Challenge: The needs and requirements that are collected should also be questioned and challenged. We tend to say that what you want is generally quite different from what you actually need, and questioning the requirements early  is very often a time & cost saver in the long run.

Align: every single project you start should not be seen as an IT project but as a strategic project. Silos need to be broken to ensure optimal consistency and alignment between tools and strategy. Every new project is a way to confirm that you (still) have a good understanding of your business and organization, which is not always obvious.

Prepare: projects most often start with great ideas, but are these ideas realistic for your organizations? Are your processes and staff members ready for these changes? Would adoption be optimal across the organization?

Plan: doing a project does not necessarily mean doing a big project and starting with everything at once. Based on the requirements initially collected, you need to decide what is on top of your priorities, and what could be left aside for a further step. Prioritization is critical to identify quick wins, to get users and optimize budget usage.

Budgetize: in terms of budget, you also need to keep an eye on what you plan to do and on the potential ROI (Return On Investment). We tend to say that what is cheap will always be too expensive, meaning that a very affordable project may be a waste of time with zero added value. Projects have a cost, but they should be seen as investments to achieve strategic goals. The link between cost and added value is not exponential and some small - and affordable - projects can bring substantial value.

Who should produce specifications?

This is a kind of a tricky question… And the answer is not as simple as it seems. Let’s start with the two extremes first.

Customers do the specification, document on their own

Customers generally know and understand their business, meaning that they are able to explain their processes, procedures, and strategy. When it comes to launching a CRM project, they will mainly focus on features rather than on added value and benefits. A specification document can quickly become a shopping list with a lack of consistency, due to a lack of perspective. The other issue that might be faced is that when the documentation is passed on to the system integrator, the granularity of the specifications can be very different from what is expected. The system integrator might not be able to exploit this information in a relevant way and may ask to restart the process.

System integrators do the specification document on their own

System integrators know their platforms inside and out but they cannot design specifications based on assumptions only. Although some of these assumptions may be relevant, they have to be verified with the business. In addition to that, in case a system integrator produces specification documents in isolation or interacting with C-levels only, users and stakeholders might feel left aside, which is a real red flag in terms of adoption.

Collaboration between customers and system integrators

Obviously the situation is not black or white, it has to be a subtle mix between customer and system integrator’s inputs and insights. Customers often have great ideas but find it hard to express them clearly and align them with an overall vision. System integrators need collaboration from business teams to validate assumptions, and also to challenge and optimize processes and procedures. System integrators probably know the industry in which the customer is operating and can easily share best practices to ensure project success and adoption.

Where to start from?

Over the past decades, dozens of methodologies have been developed to help organizations model their needs and expectations. Let’s put the emphasis on one of them, SEAM (Systemic Enterprise Architecture Method) developed by EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) and constantly used by Nexell to kick off projects.

SEAM in a few words

SEAM is a systemic method for analyzing the competitive environment of an organization (business unit, department, team) including relationships with customers or users, partners, and market regulators. From this analysis, the main requirements of the IT systems can be inferred. The identification of early requirements is a key factor of success. Requirements should be aligned with the organization’s business imperatives and to understand these imperatives it is necessary to understand the organization’s position within its environment.

SEAM is a method to analyze and design strategies at the business, the inter-company, the company and the IT system levels. It is quickly deployed (usually in less than 3 weeks) and is mainly applied in the requirements and scoping phases. It is also a powerful tool for communicating about projects and strategies, since all the staff members involved directly or indirectly in the project can be part of workshops, no matter if they are entry-level employees and C-Level executives. Earlier in this text we mentioned adoption as a key factor of success, and involving stakeholders from the very beginning is essential. At executive level, the fact of bringing a tinge of academic and scientific flavor is also a good way to reassure the management on the consistency between projects and strategy.

Blagovesta Kostova, a research assistant in the LAMS research group at EPFL, working on the SEAM methodology, participated in one project with Nexell. She shared her reflections about her experience in our workshop: "The Nexell's use of SEAM was very good. The amount and the quality of information that the team was able to collect, as well as the rapport that they built amongst participants in their workshops showed the power of a service-oriented method. SEAM, makes the processes of requirements elicitation and specification rigorous and this rigor brings efficiency."

As you can see, specifications design will define most of the project success, and will also give you maximum control on stakeholders' expectations, scope, planning and budget. Therefore the scoping phase is definitely much more than a simple pre-sales activity that should be taken for granted. This step requires time and effort on both sides and will delineate the success of the entire project.

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