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Who Should Define the Business Need?

Ask a business analyst (BA) who should define the business need and you might hear that it is the BA’s role to do so. After all, the business need defines the business problem or opportunity, which BAs have to understand in order to recommend appropriate solutions. BAs know that all requirements should link to the business need, so it is important to spend the necessary time to truly understand it.

 Ask a project manager (PM) the same question and chances are they will say the same thing–that they are the ones who should determine the business problem or opportunity. They know that their project will not succeed if it does not help support organizational goals and if it does not solve real business problems. The business need becomes the project’s foundation. Just as requirements link to the business need, so does each project objective and deliverable. Since PMs are accountable for meeting the project’s objectives, many PMs want a part in defining the business need.

Who’s right? Who should define the business need? Does it really matter? I think it does matter, because the person who articulates the business need usually ends up owning the project. I do not believe it is in the best interest of the organization for either the BA or the PM to take ownership of the project. That is, they both need to be accountable for delivery of the end solution and for ensuring that that solution meets the business need, but not for the need itself.

Before we look at who should define the business need, let’s describe what a business need really is and its interrelationship with the project and the requirements. In order to meet its goals, an organization usually undertakes many projects, and the projects that have the greatest chance for success are those that help the organization reach its vision, strategic direction, and business objectives. Ideally projects are prioritized based on business need (problem/ opportunity) and the business case (costs vs. benefits), because the need describes the pain and the benefits describe the relief.  So before a project can really begin, the business need and business case are defined, either formally or informally.

Defining the business need occurs before the project is sanctioned by the project charter, that important document is ideally written by the sponsor, often with the help of a PM. The information in the project charter, including a high-level description of the end product or solution, is input into the requirements processes, which in turn produce the requirements that are input into the definition of scope at a level of detail sufficient for the planning processes. Of course, the requirements get further elaborated during the one or many phases of business analysis work, but each needs to help solve the original business problem or contribute to the business opportunity.

So who should define the business need? The PMs, because they have to meet the project objectives? The BAs because they have to define the solution requirements? I’m going to suggest that the person or group requesting the project should define the business need, and that person or group needs to be high enough in the organization to sell the idea, to get the organization enthusiastic enough about the endeavor to fund and prioritize it, and to rally the necessary business resources. I believe this responsibility is best handled by a sponsor, steering committee, regulatory or compliance body, or a fairly high-level Subject Matter Expert (SME). Project managers and business analysts are most effective when they are neutral facilitators, not owners. Both roles need to make recommendations and can certainly recommend which projects to undertake, but they are not the ultimate decision-makers.  They work with and advise decision-makers. However, when PMs and BAs move away from advising and into decision-making, facilitating and advising become far more difficult.

Although it’s the requesting organization (to use PMBOK speak) that defines the business need, I believe that the BA is in the best position to work with that person or group to help them articulate the real need and the extent of the need. BAs can help describe how bad the pain is or how great the opportunity. I think there is a vital difference between defining the need and helping the requestor define the need. That difference is one of advising versus deciding. And the PM? Although the PM can advise the sponsor on the writing of the Project Charter, the bulk of the project management work begins once the project has been approved and sanctioned and authority given to the PM.

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Elizabeth Larson

Elizabeth Larson, has been the CEO for Watermark Learning as well as a consultant and advisor for Educate 360. She has over 35 years of experience in project management and business analysis. Elizabeth has co-authored five books and chapters published in four additional books, as well as articles that appear regularly in BA Times and Project Times. Elizabeth was a lead author/expert reviewer on all editions of the BABOK® Guide, as well as the several of the PMI standards. Elizabeth enjoys traveling, hiking, reading, and spending time with her 6 grandsons and 1 granddaughter.