The cost of not being clear about what you want

Papers and post it notes spread out on a table

3 minute read

Organisations are often provided products and project outcomes that do not meet their expectations, and much of the fault may lie in the ambiguity of their initial requirements.

New work from the ANU Research School of Management’s Dr Mehdi Rajabi Asadabadi explores the factors at play between purchaser and provider, with a focus on the implications for large-scale organisations such as government agencies.

“In modern contracting approaches the purchaser does not become involved in the process of how the provider constructs the artefact. Given this, it becomes crucial for the purchaser to clearly define the requirements in order to eliminate possible misinterpretation. An incorrect interpretation of the requirement by the provider may result in a delivered product that suffers drawbacks and does not satisfy the purchaser,” says Mehdi.

Mehdi suggests that automated natural language processing techniques could be used to detect ambiguous words and statements in requirement documentation. This would reduce the likelihood of an end product being unsatisfactory and diminish the costs and time involved in fixing issues with the product after it has been delivered.

In the dynamic between purchaser and provider, it is initially more attractive to the purchaser to use vaguer terms in describing their requirements, as a way of masking gaps in their knowledge. This benefits the provider, who is able to interpret the ambiguous requirements in a way that saves them money and time, thus producing a less satisfying outcome for the purchaser. The provider can then charge additional fees for bringing the outcome into line with what the purchaser had intended.

“What makes this situation even more interesting is that the power of the purchaser to enforce the provider’s cooperation to resolve ambiguity diminishes over time, and is at its highest before the contract is awarded,” Mehdi explains.

Much of the previous research in the area of requirement ambiguity has been limited to software development, but Mehdi’s work highlights an approach that would fit the needs of broader sectors like government.

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