Why should we establish acceptance criteria in advance?

Everybody knows what the project is trying to deliver and we've been through the requirements too many times to remember, so we all know what the customer expects. Why bother establishing acceptance criteria in advance?
"I'd really love to meet the expectations of my stakeholders—if I only knew what they were!" If you'd like to avoid misunderstandings during the hectic middle stages of a project, it's a good idea to start defining a clear set of acceptance criteria, up front. Stated simply, acceptance criteria are the minimal set of requirements that a solution must meet before it can be accepted, tolerated, approved, embraced, and chosen. Defining acceptance criteria in advance establishes a solid set of ground rules that will help everyone make decisions calmly and wisely, uninfluenced by the "passions" and confusion of the moment.

Here's an example. A vendor has been on site for a week. The project team members' thinking is clouded from spending late nights hammering out a rigorous proof of concept. Thankfully, the acceptance criteria were defined well in advance, when cooler heads prevailed. Voila! The team simply consults the criteria and quickly makes a well-informed decision, unbiased by distractions, emotions, or the latest phone call with the vendor.

That's just one example of the value of carefully studying the requirements and defining acceptance criteria based on what's truly critical, and what's flexible, adjustable, or replaceable if a better solution comes along. Of course, some of your business partners may assign high priority to a requirement, even though it doesn't meet the acceptance criteria. With the acceptance criteria in hand you'll be able to "adapt and survive" by adjusting the work, time, and energy in a way that keeps the project moving forward.

In addition, defining the acceptance criteria ahead of time gives everyone working on the solution a shared understanding of what's acceptable. Naturally, this is a faster way to work toward a common goal than if everything has to be negotiated in the moment. Terrible chaos reigns when one team member thinks A is more important than B, and another thinks B is more important than A. Clearly establishing at the start that A must be included for the project to succeed but that B can be included later on eliminates prioritization madness.

Well-defined, well-documented acceptance criteria help everyone know what level of quality is good enough to support business value, while preventing non-value-added items from stealing time and energy. However, be aware that even the most carefully defined acceptance criteria can create risks when it comes to contractual language. For example, specifying acceptance criteria too precisely in a contract may not leave room to negotiate with the vendor, or to adjust the criteria without engaging in an unnecessarily long, formal change process. But more often than not, the benefits of defining acceptance criteria greatly outweigh the risks.

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