When you’re eager to embark on a project that’s “going to change everything”—it can be tempting to hit the ground running.
However, with most critical projects, slow(er) and steady—more tortoise than hare—wins the race. This gives you the bandwidth to get organized and execute your project with greater chances of success.
Part of that paced, methodical approach to project management is making sure there’s time, attention, and budget for a discovery phase. As such, in this post, we’ll cover a lot of territory:
- What is the discovery phase and its advantages
- Discovery phase steps to include in your project plan
- Typical project discovery phase outputs
- Project discovery phases for digital or technical projects
Discovery Phase Definition
A formal project management plan is a necessity for any project to have a fair shot at positive results. As a roadmap of the project development process, the milestones, and final destination—it’s an invaluable tool.
One of the first sections of that plan should be for a discovery phase. (You may need to do a pre-discovery phase to determine the scope and inclusions for discovery.)
The project’s discovery phase is when you’ll:
- Do market research
- Conduct stakeholder interviews, which can include external stakeholders - current clients, prospects, channel partners….
- Define functional requirements and technical specs
- Do technical research
- Begin forming and gelling as a project team and establishing roles and responsibilities
- Determine and document assumptions, constraints, dependencies, and other factors that may impact the project
- Start to conceive the “shape” of the project plan—e.g., tasks, timeframes, KPIs, resource allocation, etc.
- Finalize technical planning
It’s essentially a period in which you’re bringing together the proper people and gathering required information to properly plan and execute your overall project.
Discovery as a Stand-Alone Project
Sometimes, the discovery phase is conducted as its own encapsulated “mini” project. Organizations may choose this route if:
- The scale of a project is significant, it crosses multiple department processes - or simply appears overwhelming. Big, costly, lengthy, or complex projects may benefit from being carved into smaller, more iterative units. This can make the larger more manageable by spreading out the investment, workload, impending changes, and so on.
- They want to use it as a test case. It’s common to do a pilot project to see how it is to work with a new service provider, internal slate of team members, technology, etc. You get a little taste before committing to a giant bite.
Benefits of Doing Discovery
Pressure to deliver, resource limitations, lack of buy-in from project champions or stakeholders, lack of clarity—there are plenty of excuses for skipping the discovery phase.
However, understanding how your business profits from a thorough discovery effort can counter nay-saying. Getting clear on why your projects should prioritize including a discovery phase, and building consensus on its value and ROI, also makes it easier to convince any skeptics among your ranks.
Discovery Reaps Rewards
By treating discovery as a legitimate and obligatory element of your project planning, you’re setting you’re your project up for good things, like:
- Fewer mid-/downstream “surprises” (i.e., accounting for things that you should have known about)
- Mitigating many uncertainties and being more resilient to unexpected events that do arise
- Lowering total project costs in dollars and other resources -”measure twice,...”
- A smoother, more streamlined project—who doesn’t appreciate greater ease and efficiency?
- A happier, higher-performing project team
- Project deliverables or outcomes that are more valuable or effective
- More satisfied stakeholders (e.g., customers, users, employees, partners, investors)
Discovery makes for a better overall project. Improved projects have better results. More favorable results lead to business wins—such as:
- More profits
- Lower expenses
- Optimal operations
- Competitive advantage
- More loyal clients
- Reduced worker turnover
Ironically, perhaps, a discovery project may also prove that an intended project isn’t viable as originally conceived. This is incredibly valuable—and much better to find out early on. It gives you the opportunity to rethink your project or shift the investment elsewhere.
Discovery Phase Project Plan
Whether your project’s discovery phase is a component of a broader project plan or a self-contained and independent initiative, it should have structure and intent. This will help ensure that your project fulfills its objectives.
Discovery Phase Checklist
So, what are the pieces? What dimensions should your discovery phase plan incorporate?
It’s likely to vary to some degree for each project or enterprise—no two are exactly alike. That said, every project discovery plan should at least consider the following components:
- People. This includes anyone working on the discovery phase directly, such as employees, consultants, partner agencies, etc. It should typically also include those who are not part of the project team but who are affected by the project outcomes (e.g., employees working in other departments, customers, suppliers, vendors, or regulators)
- Deliverables. What is your discovery project supposed to generate—a report, data, KPIs?—and how are these items to be packaged—documents, CSVs, a multimedia presentation? Knowing what you’re on the hook for at the outset helps focus and steer your plan - and deliverables should be designed to be actionable inputs to future stages, and both respect and communicate at the appropriate level for each key stakeholder group..
- Systems. You’ll want to determine what technology, processes, and workflows will be required to do discovery.
- Schedule. Having, at minimum, an estimate of end-to-end project duration and turnaround times for subtasks is useful. It also re-enforces having a definitive start and finish to the project—so it doesn’t fruitlessly fizzle out or drag on forever.
- Budget. Discovery isn’t free. As with many things worth doing—adequate investment of resources is needed. Purposefully dedicating the necessary funds, facilities, and people time (buy-in, SLT messaging) in advance will start your project out on solid footing.
- Operating environment. This could encompass everything from assumptions and constraints to dependencies and your competitive landscape. You want to recognize and account for the tangible and intangible that could impact your discovery phase project.
Project Discovery Phase Activities
The beauty of the project discovery phase is that it tends to be simple and rather straightforward. Your primary goal is to accumulate the requisite inputs to be able to plan and execute well on later project phases. It doesn’t take a lot of complex steps to accomplish this.
The main tasks of a discovery project include:
- Assembling your project team
- Doing stakeholder consultation and research (maybe including some experiments or proofs of concepts)
- Recording and sharing your findings
- Leveraging your findings to better articulate future project stages (e.g., timelines, budgets, roles and responsibilities, software specs, etc.)
- Developing and committing to actionable next steps
Project Discovery Phase Deliverables
At the end of your project discovery phase, you should have a substantial amount of information and insights. Bundling them up in a meaningful way makes all those details and data actionable.
The main deliverable of the discovery phase is typically a detailed and refined plan for the remainder of the project. If discovery was done as its own project, the deliverable may be a proposal for possible projects to undertake at some point down the line.
What’s included in that revised project plan or proposal is based on your needs and nuances. Most include in-depth details about things like:
- Detailed specifications
- Terms and considerations
It’s answering all the “who, what, when, where, how, and why” questions.
Discover Splice’s Discovery Prowess
Discovery is one of Splice’s love languages. We speak it fluently!
Our Solution Design group are experts at digital transformation initiatives—and discovery is an integral part of our projects. We think it’s a major contributor to project - and our clients’ - success.
Discovery, a Key to Digital Transformation Success
Discovery is a crucial stage for any project. It can reveal potential issues, surface needed information, and help make a project more cohesive. Not only does a discovery phase provide much-needed direction, it can make your project and its deliverables better.
While a project discovery phase doesn’t have to be complicated, it does have many different aspects to consider. This is especially true for digital transformation projects. Thankfully, Splice is ready to help you with your discovery journeys.
We specialize in insight-gathering methodologies, research and planning for digital transformation projects, delivering successful innovation for B2B and B2C companies, as well as community and non-profit organizations. Discovery is a backbone to better outcomes—which is why it’s core to our engagements. Now it’s your turn to take advantage of our expertise.
Frequently Asked Question, Answered
What is discovery?
It’s a project phase — or sometimes its own stand-alone mini-project — during which an internal project team or external service provider collects relevant and necessary information that will be used to guide future project stages and decision-making.
What kinds of information is gathered during discovery?
All kinds! It can vary greatly depending upon the project for which discovery is being done. That said, it’s common to collect competitive, operational, and customer information. Internally focused discovery may examine operational processes, human resources, policies, and other employment details.
Why is discovery important?
The goal is to get as much data and other relevant details as possible related to the project before the main phase of the project kicks off. Measure twice, cut once- as above. By starting with a solid foundation of knowledge, the rest of the project can run more smoothly, be more streamlined, and have a clearer roadmap to success.