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Adrian M.
Adrian M.

The Popcorn Way and the Business Analyst

The problem: Do you know when you’re done?

Given a specific project with a reasonably defined charter and clear business goals you, the business analyst, set out to elicit and document the detailed business requirements.

So when do you stop?

Whether you lead a team of business analysts or you do the work yourself, you probably struggled trying to determine when you should be done gathering the requirements?

If you are a perfectionist, or know one, you’ll realize that it is possible to spend unlimited time trying to discover new requirements or to refine existing ones. However, in real life and real projects the customer cannot (and will not) spend unlimited amounts of money to build a system.

At some point you have to draw a line in the sand and say “We’re done… at least for now!” The crux of the matter is to determine when we’re done.

One of the most often quoted heuristics offered to answer this question is the 80/20 rule (or better yet the 20/80 rule). That is, spend the 20% of effort which uncovers 80 % of the requirements.

That’s easier said than done!

How do you know that 20% has gone by or that you have uncovered 80 % of the requirements?

To tell you the truth – I have no clue!


The Solution: The Popcorn Way

With the charter and goals of the project in mind, I estimate (or guesstimate) upfront how long I think the requirements gathering activities should last….

… and then I use The Popcorn Way.

I found the technique on the back of my microwavable popcorn bag.

I goes like this:

  • Microwave popcorn on high for 2.5 minutes (on 500 Watt microwaves) *
  • Listen for the distance between pops
  • When the distance between pops exceeds 2 seconds, turn off microwave.

* Note: the actual popping time may vary.

By now you’re probably thinking that I’m going crazy… and maybe I am… but that’s a topic for another time.

If you translate from Popcornish to English, it goes like this (see basic language lesson in appendix):

  1. Elicit, document, and analyze requirements for {estimated duration} using {available resources}
  2. Pay attention to the information that you’re getting and determine the duration between discovering new requirements or significant changes to existing requirements.
  3. If distance between requirements is less than {the threshold for your situation and project}, then end the requirements gathering activities.

* Note: the actual total duration may vary due the type of project and the characteristics of the analysis team.

The basic thought is that during the requirements elicitation process it comes the time when you, the business analyst, realize that you’re finding less and less requirements even though you may be getting more and more information.

When you come to that realization – it’s time to stop – at least for now.

Putting in into Practice

Once you have mastered The Popcorn Way your gut will guide you.

You will be able to clearly spot the requirements silence.

You may be only part way during your estimated duration yet you’re not getting any new requirements or significant changes to existing requirements.

Stop! You’ve probably over-estimated.

Or, you may find yourself scrambling for the pen and paper (or typing 100 words per minute) trying to capture all the requirements flying at you… In this case, you’re definitely not yet done. Should you find yourself in this predicament after your estimated duration elapsed, you've most likely under-estimated the effort.

The Dangers of not following The Way (the Popcorn Way, that is)

I’ll keep this very simple:

  • If you stop too early you’ll have un-popped kernels => you've missed critical requirements and, from business analysis perspective, you failed.
  • If you wait too long you’ll burn the popcorn => you've wasted valuable time and probably made real requirements indistinguishable from the fluff. Again – this is not a desired outcome for a business analyst.

Do you use the popcorn method? Do you know when you’re done?

I would love to hear from you! Happy Popping!

The Appendix: Basic Popcornish Lesson

  • to Microwave (v.) = to elicit, document, and analyze
  • popcorn (n.) = requirements
  • 2.5 minutes (n.) = the up-front estimate or guesstimate
  • microwave (n.) = business analyst or business analysis team
  • 500 watts (n.) = an attribute which measures the caliber of your team
  • distance between pops (n.) = time elapsed between receiving a new requirement or making a significant change to an existing requirement
  • 2 seconds (n.) = the longest time your situation (you can replace with organization, team, management, etc.) will allow you or your team to stay idle while waiting for a new requirement or a significant change to an existing requirement

Your turn: How do you know when you're done or when you should be done?


This entry was published on Dec 03, 2014 / Adrian M.. Posted in Elicitation (BABOK KA), Analytical and Problem Solving Skills. Bookmark the Permalink or E-mail it to a friend.
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David Wright posted on Tuesday, December 16, 2014 11:29 AM
It depends on how you are eliciting the requirements. If you are analyzing a process to elicit what a solution can do to improve/automate that process, then your scope is the activities and steps in that process, plus interfaces to components external to the process. So you are done when you have detailed the steps to an atomic level (i.e cannot be broken down any further) and identify the steps that need to be supported by the solution and, just as important, which don't need support.
If you are doing reporting/analytics requirements, the popcorn method can work. The overall scope of a solution for these requirements is that use of the solution will generate more requirements, so such a solution is never really 'done'. ...but you need to deliver the first version, so I would stop as requirements for reports or questions to be answered start to diminish as you describe.
David Wright
Eric Provost posted on Friday, February 6, 2015 10:31 PM
Your post inspired me :-)

I just published a new recipe to complement the Popcorn Way; you can find it here:
Eric Provost
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