Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice on how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on a real-life situation. He then offers a solution, using practical project management techniques.

The dilemma
I ran into Larry as I was leaving a meeting while he was waiting to use the same room. I asked him how his project was going. He replied quickly that the clients were dragging their feet approving the business requirements. I told him I would stop by later and get a quick status.

I popped in to see him a few hours later. “What’s up with the business requirements?” I asked. “Sounds like the approvals are getting bogged down.”

“You might say that,” Larry said. “The legal department is not used to having to give formal approval to business requirements. Maybe it’s their background of having to approve and sign detailed legal contracts that’s making them spend so much time pouring over the requirements, but I am having difficulty getting them to commit to the sign-off. I had a similar struggle getting them to approve the project definition.”

“Have they given you a reason for their hesitation?” I asked.

“I have stressed to them the importance of validating these requirements,” Larry said. “Because we are then going to develop the application based on those requirements, legal is concerned that they are going to miss an important requirement. So they are sending the requirements definition to people all over the department to get input.”

Gathering and approving business requirements is one of the most important steps in any project, so Larry and I discussed the effect this delay would have on his project. It turns out the approval process was supposed to have been completed last week, and this time lapse is now starting to cause other activities to be delayed.

“I told the clients that the delay in approving the requirements is starting to hold up other aspects of the project,” Larry said. “However, I have also stressed to them the importance of having these requirements be correct and complete.”

Mentor advice
I thought to myself for few seconds. “That’s the second time you’ve mentioned the importance of getting the requirements correct,” I observed. “That may be causing their reluctance to give a formal approval. But have you also talked to them about the scope-change management process? That might be what is needed to break the impasse.”

On many internal projects, clients are normally not asked to provide written approval for business requirements. They may be asked to validate that the requirements are “close enough,” but they are not always asked for formal approval.

The reason you should have the major project documents formally approved is to be assured that the document was read, understood, and agreed to. It is one thing for a client to say that a document looks good, but there is much more ownership and accountability implied when the document requires formal approval.

On the other hand, business clients can rarely define every requirement and foresee every implication that may result. In the same way, project managers cannot foresee every risk or problem that may come up on their projects.

The business requirements are a living document that may require updates during the project. The key to successfully managing the project is not to force an initial lockdown of the requirements but instead to make sure that there is agreement on a process for revising the requirements when needed. That is the purpose of scope-change management.

Scope-change management ensures that changes to project scope and requirements are recognized and then managed through an agreed-upon, standard process.

Larry has stressed the importance of getting the requirements right the first time. However, the up-front definition of requirements is rarely perfect. In the situation he faces today, he should ensure that the requirements are substantially complete and correct and that there is a process that can be initiated when changes are required.

This process includes documenting the proposed change, understanding its effect on the project, and then taking the value of the proposed changes and the impact to the sponsor (or designate) for approval. If his legal clients understand that, they should have less need for further review and should be comfortable to approve the business requirements so that the project can move forward.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

Speeding a slow approval process

How do you speed up the process of a project that can’t seem to get off the ground because of approval problems? Send your comments to us in an e-mail or in a discussion.