Avoiding too much discovery

The practice of running some kind of discovery phase is pretty common now in both the public and private sector. The general idea is that you run this ahead of the main project phases that will deliver the service or thing. The aim is to get a better idea of what it is that your users need, to understand the environment and context in which the future services will run, and gain an overview of what the next project phases will look like. It’s a key part of setting up a project for success, and, if run well, can lead to both a better quality outcome in a shorter time, but can also ensure that a lot of the risks of a project are understood early and addressed.

However, it’s also very easy for discoveries to go awry. In particular it’s useful to highlight a couple of key things that are important from a management point of view that can often trip teams and organisations up. The first one to be aware of is that:-

Discoveries should be as short as possible.

A long discovery can be a tell-tale sign of a number of things going wrong:-

  • Trying to gather complete requirements at too low a level of detail.
  • An ill-defined scope to start with.
  • A sign that the original scope was undeliverable.
  • A disjoint from the business – if the business can let you run for a year in discovery did they really need that problem fixing as a priority after all?
  • A lack of oversight or governance.

With a discovery phase it can be a tricky balance between giving the team enough space to run and explore creatively, and letting them disappear and spend the money on a wild goose chase. The best discovery teams will actively seek to engage key stakeholders and management with their progress and findings on an ongoing basis – if you don’t feel that this is happening it may be time to worry.

Another cause of a long discovery can be that the team have actually finished discovery and are now in the next phase. The tendency to fit in some more prototyping, start supplier selections or build the final business case can be strong – particularly if the oversight is weak, and there’s funding left in the pot. Usually though this is missing the point – if discovery had been completed and approved, then these kind of activities could be commenced earlier in the next phase – in UK Government, for example, this is normally an alpha phase.

If any of these things are happening, then probably you might want also to consider why? It could be that the discovery is strong but the team is wary of delay or prevarication in the decision making process to gain the necessary approval to move to the next stage – again not an uncommon thing. Or perhaps the team is not getting the right support from the rest of the organisation to be able to deliver, or the team is incomplete, or the original brief that management has set is unclear. Is the discovery team at fault or are they not supported in the right way? Again regular contact with the discovery team helps a lot to determine this, most likely they’ll know the answer – so be available.

This is not to say that long discoveries don’t happen and are sometimes justified, but if that really is the case it might be worth considering up front what the checkpoints will be, and whether some kind of extra governance is needed. Similarly, a massively abbreviated discovery won’t provide as much value as a thoroughly researched one. As in all things, finding the right balance is the key to success

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