How many cooks are in your kitchen? Or, to use a less politically-correct analogy, what's the chief-to-indian ratio in your village? If you're trying to count them, there are too many.
There are as many ways to address this problem as there are stars in the sky. (Well, I live in a populated area, so we don't see a whole lot of stars. But there are some, I'm sure of it.) There can be a product owner at whom the buck stops for requirements, there can be quick feedback cycles to identify and correct problems as early as possible, there can be drawn-out analysis and charting of requirements to validate them, prototyping to validate them, etc.
But somehow, we often find ourselves back in the position that there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Requirements are coming from too many people (or, more appropriately, too many roles). This doesn't just end up killing the Single Responsibility Principle, it dances on the poor guy's grave.
Let me tell you a story. Several years ago I was a developer primarily working on a business-to-business web application for a private company. The company, for all its failings, was a stellar financial success. Imagine a dot-com-era start-up where the money never ran dry. I think it was this "can't lose" mentality which led to the corporate culture by which pretty much anybody could issue a requirement to the software at any time for any reason.
One day a requirement made its way to my inbox. On a specific page in the application there was a table of records, and records which meet a specific condition need to be highlighted to draw the attention of the user. The requirement was to make the text of those table rows red. A simple change to say the least. And very much a non-breaking change. So there wasn't really a need to involve the already over-burdened QA process. The change was made, developer-tested, and checked in. Another developer could even have code-reviewed it, had that process been considered necessary.
Around the same time, a requirement from somebody else in the business made its way to another developer's inbox. On a specific page in the application there was a table of records, and records which meet a specific condition need to be highlighted to draw the attention of the user. The requirement was to make the background of those table rows red. A simple change to say the least. And very much a non-breaking change. So there wasn't really a need to involve the already over-burdened QA process. The change was made, developer-tested, and checked in. Another developer could even have code-reviewed it, had that process been considered necessary.
Both requirements were successfully met. And, yes, the changes were successfully promoted to production. (Notice that I'm using a more business-friendly definition of the word "successfully" here.) The passive-aggressive side of me insists that there's no problem here. Edicts were issued and were completed as defined. The professional side of me desperately wants to fix this problem every time I see it.
Sometimes requirements, though individually well-written and well-intentioned, don't make sense when you put them together. Sometimes they can even be mutually exclusive. The psychology of this can be difficult to address. We're talking about two intelligent and reasonable experts in their field. Each individually put some measure of thought and care into his or her own requirement. That requirement makes sense, and it's necessary for the growth of the system to meet business needs. Imagine trying to explain to this person that their requirement doesn't make sense. Imagine trying to say, "You are right. And you over there are also right. But together you are wrong."
To a developer, that conversation always sounds like this:
Someone wanted the lines to be red. Somebody else wanted them to be drawn with specific inks. Somebody else wanted there to be seven of them. Somebody else wanted them to be perpendicular to each other. And so on and so forth. In the video all of those requirements came filtered through what appeared to be a product owner, but the concept is the same. And to a developer there isn't always a meaningful difference. "You" made this requirement can be the singular "you" or the plural "you", it's just semantics.
Remember that "business-friendly" definition of "successful"? That is, we can all work diligently to achieve every goal we set forth as a business, and still not get anywhere. The goals were "successfully" met, but did the product successfully improve? We did what we set out to do, and we pat ourselves on the back for it. All the while, nothing got done. Each individual goal was reached, but if you stand back and look at the bigger picture you clearly see that it was all a great big bloody waste of time.
(If your hands-on developers can see the big picture and your executives can't, something's wrong.)
Creators of fiction have presented us with this group-think phenomenon many times. My personal favorite, for reasons unknown to me, is RoboCop 2. If you'll recall, RoboCop had a small set of prime directives. These were his standing orders which he was physically incapable of violating. They were hard-coded into his system, and all subsequent orders must at least maintain these:
- Serve the public trust
- Protect the innocent
- Uphold the law
- (There was a fourth, "classified" directive placed there by the suits who funded his construction, preventing him from ever acting against them personally. That was later removed.)
There's lots of precedent for "directives" such as these. Much of the inspiration clearly comes from Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics. Hell, even in real life we have similar examples, such as the general orders presented to soldiers in the US Army during basic training. It's an exercise in simplicity. And, of course, life is never that simple. Asimov's stories demonstrated various ways in which the Three Laws didn't work as planned (or worked completely differently than planned, such as when a robot invented faster-than-light travel). And I'm sure any soldier will tell you some stories of real life after training.
But then fast-forward to RoboCop 2, when the special interest groups got involved. It became political. And his 3 directives quickly ballooned into over 300 directives. Each of which, I'm sure, was well-intentioned. But when you put all of them together, he became entirely unable to function. He had too many conflicting requirements. Too many individual "rights" added up to one great big "wrong."
(Parents of the world would be perplexed. Two wrongs don't make a right, but two rights can very easily make a wrong.)
Is your business environment a dizzying maelstrom of special interest groups? Do they each have an opportunity to individually contribute to the product? Is this helping the product? Which is more important to the business... Appeasing every group individually or building a compelling product?