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The needs of the client are formally addressed in the Business Case. This document describes what the client is trying to achieve, the benefits the client expects to gain, and the costs they expect to pay.
If the Business Case is approved, the project manager works with the client to understand their needs at a more detailed level. This results in a Project Charter. The Charter specifically describes the needs of the client in terms of objectives, deliverables and success criteria. The Charter also describes additional aspects of the project that need to be managed for the project to be successful. This includes project assumptions, risks, constraints, detailed costs, etc.
If the Charter is approved, the detailed needs of the client are gathered in the business requirements. The business requirements describe the features and functions the client desires, the level of quality they expect, and other expectations related to the deliverables of the project.
One of the primary reasons that projects struggle is that the project team does not fully understand the client's needs. This leads to rework, missed expectations, extensive changes and ultimately delivering late and over budget.
It is important for the project manager and project team to understand that the true needs of the client may or may not be the same as the needs that are expressed to you in the Charter and the business requirements. In many cases, the client does not understand their true needs when the project starts. The true needs can sometimes evolve over the course of the project. Likewise, the client may have a vision of their needs, but they may have a hard time expressing the needs to the project team.
The project team must focus on the expressed needs of the client and use the expressed needs as the basis for the approval of the Charter and business requirements. However, knowing this idea of expressed needs and real needs, the team must be diligent to ensure that they do as good a job as possible uncovering the true needs of the client.
You can ask the client what they need and the client may tell you. But are they expressing their real needs? Gathering requirements involves more than just asking a few questions and then building the solution. Projects with any degree of complexity requires a formal process to ensure that all of the requirements are accurately gathered, reviewed, documented and approved.
You validate you are hearing the real needs by asking good questions, asking targeted follow-up questions, gathering input from all key stakeholders, asking more questions when requirements don't seem to make sense, etc. If your approach to gathering information from the client is shallow and hurried, you will end up with information that might not reflect what the client really needs. The closer the true needs of the client are to their expressed needs, the closer you will be to getting the project right the first time.