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Discovering Discoveries

When Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain in 1492 he was originally looking for a direct water route between Europe and Asia. Instead, he discovered the Americas by complete accident. Commissioned by Queen Isabella to find new trade opportunities, his actual discovery turned out to be far more significant than he had originally intended, kicking off a pivotal new era in world history.

I have never been compared to a fifteenth century Italian explorer but more and more these days, our organisation has been undertaking the same sort of journey that Columbus undertook. The phrase “discovery” means something new, it means building up a first picture of the services we aim to provide our customers and gaining agreement to this vision before we embark on a period of significant change. The first phase in most projects and programmes is a time-boxed period of analysis that we call the Discovery Phase:

Step 1 – Mobilise

Week 0 is the process of pulling together the resources, data and pre-requisites you need in order kick off the Discovery Phase. You need the right approvals, funding and of course, a clear mandate for the scope of work you need to investigate before you can start.

Step 2 – Analyse

Weeks 1 to 4 (depending on the scale and complexity of the discovery) is focused on collating and analysing information about the change proposal. With the support of people like Service Designers and Business Analysts, you need to review data, engage stakeholders, understand the current situation and establish the problem(s) that need to be addressed.

Step 3 – Define / Document

Weeks 5 and 6 are where you consider the options to solve those problems. The key output – the Discovery Outputs Document – is brought together with all the facts and findings arising from the discovery analysis. You can expect to establish a number of potential solutions or delivery options, starting with a long-list that can be formally reviewed.

Step 4 - Evaluate

Weeks 7 to 10 (again dependent upon the size of the initiative) is the process of gaining approvals and agreement to the recommendations you have identified from completing your discovery. This will include reviewing how the discovery went and getting ready to start the next phase of the project, where appropriate (don’t forget, stopping the project at this point is a perfectly acceptable recommendation).

Conducting a discovery is usually completed in line with appropriate guidance such as the Government Service Design Manual [GSDM] for digital projects. There is a certain art to taking on such a challenge. Even with a dedicated Delivery Lead to manage the team through this process, it can take a lot of effort and skills to get everything done within time, cost and quality expectations. Getting this first phase right is crucial to give the rest of the programme or project a sound footing.

Having completed a wide range of Discoveries - including reviewing the feasibility of technical, service and corporate changes - I found five key lessons that were learnt (sometimes the hard way) about the process of completing the Discovery Phase:

Start with a Clear Direction

Even Columbus would not have set sail without endorsement and an intended destination. Queen Isabella was effectively the Project Sponsor; she commissioned the expedition, arranged for funding and even ensured the resources were available (she actually forced local merchants to contribute three ships for the expedition). Most importantly, knowing the mandate of the Sponsor and other key stakeholders will help you to manage their expectations and navigate the early stages of the journey.

Find The Right Crew

Depending on the nature of the discovery analysis, you are going to need a team. Some members of that team will not be needed straight away and some will not be dedicated full time to your initiative. Spend time up front thinking about the roles you might need to help you achieve the objectives of the discovery and get early input from resource managers in the specialist areas who may have limited capacity to support your work in the short term.

Your Team is Your Compass

Focused discoveries will get the right people looking at the right things. Does the Accountant need to understand the low level design of the technical architecture? Does the Architect need all the details about the Business Case? Yes, we are a team so it is important to all be on the same page. But you are guided by your team, they steer you in the right direction based on their specialist skill set and relevant experiences. Trust them to do their jobs, give them the support they need and together you will find the right way forward.

Stay On Course…

As time-boxed activities, discoveries can be high pressure periods of time with a lot of concerted effort to complete all the work to a deadline. When you add time for approvals including the release of funds and the potential for queries from senior management, it is even more important to keep to plan. There will be challenges along the way so anticipate them, plan for them and consider what contingencies may be needed to steer through the rougher waters.

…But The Destination May Be Different To Your Expectations

When you finally complete this phase of the project, the outcomes may not be exactly what you expected them to be. The key for the Delivery Manager is to remain impartial and not prejudge the final results. Imagine what would have happened to Columbus if he had rejected his new world because it was not the one he had been seeking. Whether it is better or worse, the outcome will be whatever it is supposed to be. The purpose of the discovery is to find the truth, without prejudice or emotional attachment.

In the end, the Discovery Phase will only take you so far. Columbus did not stop when he stumbled onto this strange land, he returned several times as part of further expeditions. This momentous unearthing brought about significant change but any period of discovery could lead to greater outcomes. Whatever your role, the next discovery you are involved with might just be the next big idea or it might lead to something even better so remember these lessons when you set sail on your future expeditions.

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