Crafting Clear Project Requirements

Learn how to write well defined requirements that will improve project accuracy, reduce scope creep and improve outcomes.
Gillian Laging
7 min

The Blueprint to Project Success: Crafting Clear Project Requirements

If a business has been engaged to provide a service, they’ll likely ask their clients what the requirements are (in one way or another). Yet it’s debatable whether most businesses go deeper than a superficial understanding. Despite the fact that unambiguous project requirements are the cornerstone of successful execution in professional services.

Research shows that projects are 97% more likely to succeed if clear requirements are completed before the project begins (Impact Engineering, 2024).

It’s a challenge because requirements are time consuming to do well. Sometimes, it can be made more challenging by clients that may not fully know what they need themselves.

This article delves into the art of defining requirements and their impact on the overall scope of work.

Projects, Scopes of Work, and requirements

"Project" – a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a product, service, or result.
"Scope of Work"– the deliverables or features of a project.
“Project requirements” – The fulcrum that connects the project with the scope of work. The requirements perform the following critical functions:

  • They provide the blueprint for what needs to be accomplished.
  • They set expectations for both the service provider and the client.
  • At the conclusion of the project, success can be determined by measuring the deliverables against the requirements. ‘Did we achieve what we set out to do?’

The requirements should increase in detail and complexity, proportional to the scale, complexity or risk of a project. However, businesses delivering smaller or familiar projects are not off the hook. Clarity is important for managing expectations for even small jobs. In these situations requirement boilerplates or templates can reduce the time to create the documentation.

The art of writing clear project requirements

Writing clear project requirements requires a comprehensive understanding of the project's goals, client's expectations, and the business’s capabilities. It can be time consuming, and it can be difficult to bill for unless you’ve been engaged for a paid discovery. But it lays the foundation for successful project execution, so this time should be priced into your offering.

An established way to ensure requirements are written effectively, is to use the SMART method (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound).

S - Specific and clear, providing enough detail to remove any ambiguity.

M - Measurable, for tracking progress and determining when the requirement has been met.

A - Attainable, are they realistic and achievable within the project's constraints, such as time and budget? 

R - Relevant, do the requirements align with the project's goals?

T - Time-bound, establish a defined timeline for completion.

Once the requirements have been written, it’s worth circling back to A - ‘Attainable’. This is the downfall of many professional services businesses. Over promising will create friction with the client down the track, and it’s better to spend that effort on education upfront.

The language used in project requirements should be concise and straightforward. Jargon should be removed, or at least explained. If there are a large number of stakeholders involved, the requirements should be simplified as much as possible. The goal is to remove any room for misinterpretation. Ambiguity in requirement statements can lead to misunderstandings, misdirection in work, and ultimately, project failure.

Templates or boilerplates are a good time-investment to make it easier to write consistent and comprehensive project requirements. These documents can also make it easier to empower junior team members to complete the majority of the work, under the guidance of seniors.

Clear project requirements – successful deliverables

The success of a project is deeply intertwined with the clarity of the requirements. Clear requirements act as a roadmap, guiding all parties involved towards shared outcomes. Each team member depends on these requirements to understand their tasks and responsibilities. The requirements may play a slightly different function within each team, for example:

  • Design requires clear requirements to create UX/UI that align with project goals and user needs.
  • Development relies on comprehensive requirements to build functionalities. For larger projects developers may not have a birds eye view of the project, so each requirement must be clear enough to be executed faithfully without full context.
  • Quality assurance uses these requirements as a benchmark for testing whether the deliverables meet quality and performance expectations.
  • Project management uses clear requirements to track progress, make necessary adjustments and ensure the project stays on track.
  • Client services/account management uses the project requirements to ensure client expectations are being met throughout the lifecycle of the project.

Unambiguous requirements minimises the risk of misunderstandings and miscommunications within the team. It ensures that everyone is on the same page about what needs to be accomplished and how to get there. This shared understanding reduces the likelihood of scope creep and facilitates better coordination and collaboration among team members.

The flow on effects of requirements for scoping and quoting projects

The importance of clear requirements extends beyond the operational aspect of projects. They are also critical when it comes to accurately defining the scope of work and providing precise project quotes.

Again, the requirements serve as the blueprint for the scope of work. With detailed information about what needs to be accomplished, it is easier to define the project's boundaries. This further fortifies the project against scope creep, as everything that needs to be done has been clearly documented from the start.

Then, building upon the foundation of the requirements and the scope of work scaffolding, it becomes easier to get the details right when it’s time to quote both budget and effort/time. Once the work has been put into comprehensively outlining what the project entails, it’s possible to create a more precise estimation of the time, resources, and costs involved. Without clear requirements, there's a risk of underquoting or over-quoting, both of which can have serious ramifications.

The flow on effects of the requirements touches all aspects of the project - from administrative and financial planning stages, through to operations and delivery and finally quality assurance.

Getting started

The saying that "the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place," is as true today as it was when it was coined (likely in the 1950’s). That is despite ‘stacks’ of modern communication and collaboration tools at our fingertips.

Problems caused by failing to explicitly define and agree upon project requirements will reverberate through a project and likely lead to failure. But where do you start?

Large, complex projects should include paid discovery. However, there will be times you want to throw your hat in despite not having that benefit. Tenders, for example, are notorious for expecting detailed requirements with sub-optimal information or access.

Here’s one way to get started:

Try thinking of your average, ideal engagement and consider what you’d need to demonstrate in order to win it. This is a good starting point for your template.

  1. Tackle your own services first

Having a solid understanding of your own capabilities is therefore the best place to start. Document each of the services you offer, and the associated cost range (projects with different degrees of complexity are likely to come in at different price points). You can also approach this by quoting by calculating the day rate of resources required for the task. Now you will be armed with a firm starting point that you can align with the project – rather than twisting yourself into pretzels trying to make it fit.

  1. Identify the common ground

Then consider what phases you need to complete throughout the project.

  • Perhaps you like to conduct risk assessments upfront.
  • Or every project concludes with a handover process.

Write down what those entail, this way you’re not re-inventing the wheel every time and the content is consistent with your processes.

In a context where project failure can result in substantial financial losses and tarnish your reputation, the ability to write clear project requirements is a necessity. By refining this skill, project managers and teams will be much better equipped to both meet expectations as well as pivot when necessary.

Why wouldn’t you improve the probability of project success?