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How and Why We Use Guiding Principles

Guiding Principles in Software Development

Guiding principles are exactly what they sound like: fundamental guidelines driving an organization, department, or project.

We’re big fans of guiding principles, especially at the project level. Looking back at the guiding principles during a project reminds us why the project exists in the first place. Throughout a project, especially if it’s a long-term ongoing project, it’s easy to lose site of the big picture. They also help us make decisions when two competing ideas are presented. When this happens, referencing the guiding principles can help us determine the right direction to go.

We set guiding principles at the beginning to help get team members on the same page and document why the project exists.

Guiding Principles for Creating Guiding Principles

Defining rigid goals and objectives (think formal SMART goals) for a project is daunting for a lot of people. By using guiding principles, we set the stage for projects without investing unnecessary amounts of time in a formal process. We usually spend around a half-hour documenting, revising, and agreeing upon a project’s guiding principles.

Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly a time and place for more formal SMART goals (yearly company strategic goals, as an obvious example). Guiding principles simply help capture the essence of a project when full-blown SMART goals aren’t an appropriate time investment.

Here’s what guiding principles are to us:

  • Three to five statements that cover elements of the project like:
    • Why the project exists
    • What success looks like
    • Constraints to work within

A Hypothetical Example

Let’s pretend we’re working with a client on a custom software system to take their proven customer service process and build a web-based customer portal.

Some guiding principles might be:

  1. Decrease end-to-end service time for customer tickets
  2. Reduce the number of calls to the customer service center
  3. Build the system around the existing proven customer service process
  4. Provide the same, or higher, level of service that currently exists

As you can see, these aren’t specific or measurable, but after reviewing this list, a team member would quickly understand the big picture behind the project.

Have questions about guiding principles? Reach out.

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