Well formed outcomes are essential in defining or gathering requirements with a client. In fact, they are (or should be) the requirements.
An outcome is the answer to the question ‘what do you want to have happen?’. However that is not enough to get the requirements right. A well formed outcome is an outcome which satisfies certain reality tests. Outcomes which aren’t well formed are usually difficult or even impossible to deliver.
All the discussion of well formed outcomes has to take place in the context of these principles:
1 Whenever anyone tells you what their problem is, all you know at that moment is that that is not the real problem.
2 If you ask someone what their business needs, they will tell you what they want. There is a huge difference between
People rarely think with sufficient clarity: this makes it hard for someone gathering requirements to be sure they have nailed what the client business needs. It can be convincing, but is it right? So let’s define terms:
The client has pains, difficulties, troubles: these are symptoms.
The symptoms have one or more causes: these are the issues.
It is important to be able to differentiate these two terms, issue and symptom. The issue comes first in time and gives rise to the symptoms. So, if Fifi is annoyed because she has to stay late to complete the business mailings each day, because the printer is slow, the issue is not ‘Fifi is annoyed’, nor is it ‘Fifi has to stay late’. These are symptoms of the issue that ‘the printer is slow’. They may be issues for Fifi, but they’re not issues for the business.
An issue should be capable of being expressed as:
X [the issue] is giving me pain because of Y [the symptom].
As a service provider, the issues are usually the things you can directly do something about (eg, install a faster printer) as opposed to things you indirectly influence (eg, Fifi’s state of mind).
Once the symptoms and issues are sorted out, it is possible to ask the client ‘what would you rather have happen?’: these are the outcomes.
The outcomes can be achieved in one or more ways: these are the solutions.
Again, it is also important to differentiate between outcome and solution. If you install a faster printer, Fifi is happy because the printing gets done more quickly. In that sentence, ‘installing a faster printer’ is the solution; ‘the printing getting done more quickly’ is the outcome (and Fifi being happy is an effect—see later).
All too often one hears ‘we need a database/piece of software/faster comms’ as proposed outcomes. They’re not. They are solutions to an (undefined) outcome.
In the example, I would say a better expression of the outcome is probably ‘to have the printing finished before the end of the working day’. This could be achieved by deciding not to write so many letters, writing shorter letters, starting the print run earlier, extending the day and paying Fifi overtime, and so on. There will always be many solutions.
Choice of solution is partially dependent on resources.
Resources may also restrict all the outcomes being implemented. But for each implemented outcome there will be effects.
The client needs to be clear about, and be able to differentiate, these six stages:
Symptoms — the ‘pain’ the client has
Fifi has to stay late, the print run extends past the end of the day etc
Issues — the causes of symptoms
the printer is slow
Outcomes — what the client wants to be the case
the print run completes before the end of the day
Resources — what does the client have, or can call on, to achieve a solution?
money, time, space etc
Solutions — what needs to be done to achieve the outcomes
install a faster printer, start print run earlier etc
Effects — what will it be like after the solution is implemented?
Fifi is happy.
This is the order in which you’ll probably discuss the stages with client. Chronologically, the sequence is:
If this looks unnecessarily complicated, it simply reflects the reality when clients present with problems and you have to provide a successful solution. It has one big advantage: by getting the client to think about their issues—indeed the whole business—in a way they never have before, it means they are less likely to fall back on preconceived ideas and more likely to work things out from first principles. This means they will be less attached to their personal needs and more likely to follow you in thinking in terms of what the business needs.
by Jeremy Marchant . © 2014 Jeremy Marchant Limited . added 20 july 2014 . image: Free images