How "bad" requirements can stifle innovation

A great way to curb innovation and creativity is to impose improper limitations.

Limits by themselves are not bad. Clearly a project needs to operate within a set budget, resource allotment and delivery schedule. These types of constraints can actually spur creativity and novel solutions.

But let's think about business requirements and how improper requirements can hinder the process of innovation. More specifically let's examine how requirements that are not design independent can unfairly constrain a solution to a business opportunity (or problem.)
Many times during my requirements gathering and elicitation engagements I have heard subject matter experts and clients tell me their requirements based on existing applications and functions. They assumed that the products delivering the new capabilities they desired would actually be enhancements to the existing applications. In truth, the eventual solution may be based on an existing one (particularly with software products), but this is not always the case.

Suppose our company designs cars. The newest set of requirements for the upcoming model year state the driver has the ability to:

  1. Determine where he / she is (e.g., location) at all times.
  2. Receive driving directions to a user specified address.
  3. Interact with the system through the car's dashboard.
By themselves, these requirements seem fairly benign. Suppose our project advanced to the stage where we are developing a solution to meet these needs. Our team decides that a global positioning system (GPS) is required. Based on the third requirement, it is decided that an on-board system similar to Onstar is appropriate. Implementing this solution requires our company to purchase units of the GPS product and integrate it into our assembly (line) process.

Nothing appears terribly wrong with the proposed solution, but what if the car model in question is marketed to first time car buyers and students (people who want to be sporty but on a budget.) Large scale changes to an assembly line are costly. Acquiring GPS units and integrating them into a car's electronics are expensive. The cost of the new model will increase as a result.

Because of the third requirement we have ignored other solutions that may have been more optimal. Perhaps we could have offered portable GPS systems (e.g., Tomtom's) to people who purchased our vehicles. Our needs would be met in a more cost-effective manner.
The third requirement constrained our innovation and creativity to the point where a more optimal solution was missed. This is how a requirement that is not design independent can stifle innovation and creativity.


Roger L. Cauvin said...

Great post, Marcus! One of the things that design-free requirements do for us is free us from the preconceived solutions to a problem. A fundamental part of innovation and problem-solving is understanding the problem independently of the possible solutions.

Stewart Rogers said...

Therefore, I like the idea of using problems to drive the innovation versus the requirements.

Marcus Ting-A-Kee said...

Excellent point Stewart!

Marcus Ting-A-Kee said...

Why do clients sometimes place design elements into their requirements thereby losing design-independence?
Is it because they do not understand the potential impact? Because they believe they are being helpful (and reducing the amount of time required)? Or simply because they do not realize they are doing it?

Stewart Rogers said...

The latter, they don't know any better.