Last week I asked whether design-by-committee is ever a good idea. This week’s question derives from my experience on one of those design-by-committee projects. In this particular project, I worked on a development specification. The approval list for the specification was several dozen names long – presumably the length of the approving signatures list should provide confidence that the review and approval process was robust and good. As part of the review and approval process, I personally obtained each signature on the original document and gained some insight into some of the reasoning behind each signature.

For example, when I approached person B for their signature, I had the distinct feeling they did not have time to read the document and that they were looking at it for the first time in its current form. Now I like to think I am a competent specification author, but this was a large document, and to date, I was the only person who seemed to be aware of the entire set of requirements within the document. Well, person B looked at the document, perused the signature list, and said that person E’s signature would ensure that the appropriate requirements were good enough for approval.

When I approached person D, they took two minutes and looked at two requirements that were appropriate to their skill set and responsibility and nothing else within the specification before signing the document. When it was person E’s turn at the document, I once again felt they had not had time to look at the document before I arrived for their signature. Person E looked at the signature list and commented that it was good that person B and D had signed off, so the document should be good enough for their signature. In this example, these three signatures encompassed only two of the requirements in a thick specification.

Throughout the review and approval process, it felt like no one besides me knew all of the contents of the document. I did good work on that document, but my experience indicates that even the most skilled engineers are susceptible to small errors that can switch the meaning of a requirement and that additional sets of eyes looking over the requirements will usually uncover them during a review. Additionally, the system-level implications of each requirement can only be assessed if a reviewer is aware of the other requirements that interact with each other. The design-by-committee approach, in this case, did not provide system-level accountability for the review and approval process.

Is this lack of full coverage during a review and approval cycle a problem unique to this project or does it happen on other projects that you are aware of? What process do you use to ensure that the review process provides appropriate and full coverage of the design and specification documents?

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