Why You Need the Project Discovery Phase and How To Get It Right

Find out why the discovery stage is the key to achieving project goals, and get helpful tips to complete it successfully.

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Are you a project manager tasked with solving a problem you don't fully understand? Or are you leading a project that needs to get off the ground quickly but are unsure where to start?

Don't worry—you're not alone. Many project managers face similar challenges, especially when working internally within a company.

While it may be tempting to skip the project discovery phase and dive straight into execution, this approach can lead to failure in the long run. Projects that lack structure or identify the wrong goals often fail due to a lack of thorough investigation. That's why conducting a discovery phase is essential before planning your project.

During the discovery phase, you can examine the underlying problems, previous attempts to solve the problem, available resources, and known risks. By gathering this information, you can better decide on project structure, expected outcomes, and planning. Taking the time to conduct a discovery phase can save you from jumping into murky waters and increase your chances of project success.

I'll share my experience and best practices for conducting a discovery phase in this article. By following these guidelines, you'll be well-equipped to confidently tackle any project and increase your chances of success. So if you want to avoid common pitfalls and know what success looks like in your projects, keep reading.

What is the discovery phase?

The discovery phase is an essential first step in the project management process, serving as the foundation for all subsequent stages. It involves extensive research, gathering relevant information, and identifying necessary resources to achieve the desired outcome.

In this stage, project managers and team members act as investigators, delving into the intricacies of the project and uncovering crucial details. The process of discovery involves several key activities, such as:

  1. Research: Conducting thorough research is crucial in understanding the project's context, challenges, and opportunities. This may include examining industry trends, competitor analysis, and exploring potential solutions.
  2. Asking questions: Conversing with stakeholders helps identify their needs, expectations, and constraints. These discussions can also reveal hidden risks and opportunities.
  3. Analyzing data: Analyzing the data collected through research and stakeholder interviews can provide valuable insights and help guide decision-making.
  4. Listening: Actively listening to stakeholders, team members, and subject matter experts allows you to understand the project requirements and objectives better.

Why and when would you need a discovery phase?

A discovery phase is essential for project success, as it clearly explains the project's objectives, requirements, and potential obstacles. As someone who has managed projects, it is convenient when tackling complex problems, when conditions are unclear, or when stakeholders have diverse expectations.

During the discovery phase, I usually dive deep into the project details, exploring the context and identifying the most effective solutions. This helps everyone get on the same page, ensuring a shared understanding of each project goal and objective and preventing any miscommunication or conflict later in the project lifecycle.

Moreover, the discovery phase can be crucial when dealing with changes in the project's context, such as shifting market trends or new competitors. In my experience, reassessing the project's goals and strategies has helped my team stay agile and adapt to these changes.

Lastly, conducting a discovery phase has benefited risk management by identifying potential risks and challenges early in the project. This proactive approach can prevent costly setbacks and ensure a smoother project execution.

What should you do if someone assumes you don't need a discovery phase?

It can be frustrating when someone assumes you don't need a discovery phase for your project. But don't worry; you can handle this situation with grace and confidence by following these tips:

  • Stay calm: Take a deep breath and keep your cool. Instead of getting defensive, calmly explain the importance of fully understanding the problem before trying to solve it. Remind them that just like you wouldn't build a house without a clear blueprint, the same goes for projects.
  • Explain the benefits: Share how a discovery phase helps gather insights, identify potential roadblocks, and determine the best approach for delivering a solution that meets your project sponsor's and key stakeholders' needs. Emphasize that a well-executed discovery phase increases the likelihood of project success and makes everyone involved look good.
  • Use analogies or examples: If they're still not convinced, try using some common analogies or share examples of successful projects that utilized a discovery phase, and explain what could have happened if they had skipped the discovery phase.
  • Be pragmatic and willing to compromise: Emphasize the benefits and be open to finding a solution that works for everyone involved. If they say no, consider incorporating a discovery phase into the project schedule as an analyzing task, even if in abbreviated form.

Remember, discovery phases are an essential tool for project managers, especially for those who are new to the field. They help build confidence in understanding the problem(s) and what is needed before jumping into solutions and guiding teams toward specific outcomes. So, don't skip the discovery stage!

What are the steps involved in project discovery?

Conducting a successful discovery phase is crucial to the overall success of your project. To make sure you cover all the bases, follow these key steps:

  1. Define the problem: Start by clearly identifying the problem the project aims to solve. This may involve some research and analysis to understand the issue at hand truly, but it's a vital step in setting the stage for the rest of the project.
  2. Engage stakeholders: Identify the stakeholders impacted by the project and involve them in planning. Communication and collaboration are essential to address everyone's needs and concerns.
  3. Gather requirements and set goals: Once you clearly understand the problem and stakeholders, it's time to gather requirements and establish project goals. This is where the fun begins! Encourage brainstorming and creative thinking to explore various solutions and approaches.
  4. Document and share findings: Finally, document all of these findings and share them widely so that you have a clear roadmap on how to move forward and everyone involved is on the same page. Remember, the discovery phase sets the tone for the entire project, so take the time to do it right.

Who is involved in project discovery?

The discovery team comprises diverse people who play crucial roles in the project's overall success. Participants may include:

  • Project sponsor or requestor: The person who brought you the problem leads the discovery phase, tracks findings, and iterates a draft project plan.
  • Business analysts: These professionals research, understand, and document current business processes and make improvements during the project discovery phase. In some cases, the project manager or a highly-experienced project stakeholder or technical expert may assume the business analyst role.
  • Project stakeholders: These individuals, including the product owner, contribute to understanding the problem the project seeks to solve and provide input about the real issues at play.
  • Technical experts: They offer information about how things work and what can and cannot work from a technology standpoint.
  • Operations-related personnel: These team members provide insight into how things work today, how they want them to work in the future, and potential issues that could arise. Don't underestimate their input!
  • Designers and developers: The design and development team provides input on what's happening, what's built or in place today, and what could be done differently to achieve the project's desired outcomes.
  • End users: These individuals (the target audience for each software project) give feedback on how they want to use the product, service, or solution being considered for development or change.

By involving a wide range of participants in the project discovery phase, you can ensure that all perspectives are considered and that the project is set up for success.

10 tips for conducting effective discovery phases

Each discovery phase is slightly different, but there are plenty of commonalities! An effective discovery phase is essential for setting your project up for success.

Here are 10 time-tested tips to guide you through a thorough discovery process:

1. Establish clear objectives

Begin the discovery phase with a kickoff meeting to ensure everyone is aligned on the challenge. Emphasize the importance of understanding the problem before diving into potential solutions and defining the project scope. Encourage open communication and collaboration throughout the process.

2. Conduct comprehensive research

Conduct user research, and investigate industry trends and competitor analysis. Talk to users, service providers, and other stakeholders to gain a well-rounded understanding of the problem and inform user experience strategies. Leave no stone unturned; a deeper understanding of the context will help you identify the best solutions later.

3. Timebox the discovery phase

Set a realistic time frame for the discovery phase as part of the project timeline with clear milestones and deadlines. Stick to the schedule and make the most of the time available to learn as much as possible about the problem and the desired solution. Then, when the phase is over, summarize the results and recommendations and move on to the next phase!

➡️ Get more tips on the timeboxing technique to use throughout the project.

4. Utilize stakeholder feedback

Actively seek feedback from stakeholders to refine and prioritize project goals and objectives. Be open to new information and potential setbacks, as these can provide valuable insights to help address the problem more effectively.

5. Employ various methods

Use interviews, surveys, workshops, and other methods to gather insights into user needs, preferences, and pain points to guide product development. Engage with experienced individuals who have valuable information to share. These insights can be instrumental in shaping the project's direction.

6. Collaborate closely with stakeholders

Keep stakeholders informed and involved throughout the discovery process. Discuss your findings and any additional context with them to help uncover the root causes of the problem and explore potential solutions.

7. Identify key risks early on

Document risks early in the discovery process to develop strategies for addressing them later in the project. Being aware of potential risks helps you prepare and mitigate them effectively.

8. Thoroughly document findings

Keep a detailed record of your findings to inform subsequent project stages. Share this documentation widely with your team and update it as needed. This helps ensure everyone stays informed and aligned.

9. Summarize your findings

As the discovery phase nears completion, summarize and validate your findings with vocal and involved stakeholders. This is a valuable opportunity to start identifying potential solutions and fine-tuning your understanding of the problem.

10. Readout and gain commitment

Present your findings and proposed next steps to critical stakeholders, including the project sponsor or requestor. Ensure everyone is on the same page before moving on to the project's next phase. Gaining commitment and support from stakeholders is crucial for project success.



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The power of the discovery phase

The discovery phase is vital in setting the stage for successful project outcomes. Investing time in this crucial step means you'll be better equipped to develop well-planned projects that address the right business goals and objectives. Remember, you have the tools and knowledge to conduct a thorough discovery phase—so embrace the opportunity!

The discovery phase involves exploring, asking insightful questions, analyzing data, and active listening. It's the bedrock of your project, and skipping it could lead to unforeseen issues cropping up later in the project lifecycle. The time you save by cutting corners will likely be spent dealing with problems that could have been identified and addressed during the discovery phase.

So, before you dive headfirst into your next project, take a moment to pause, reflect, and engage in a thoughtful discovery phase. Not only will this set you on the path to success, but it will also save you potential headaches down the road.

Start discovering, and watch your projects flourish. Your future self will thank you!