Discovery Phase of a Project From a Manager`s Perspective

According to its definition, a project is a temporary activity, which means it is limited in time. But have you ever wondered what actually gives a start to a project? If you are a project manager who is familiar with the best project management practices you would probably answer that the project starts with an Initiation phase, where the project goals are explored and elaborated, the feasibility of the project is examined, the decision about the project stakeholders are made, etc. But what is this Initiation phase about from a practical perspective? How can you as a manager or a project sponsor get into the Initiation phase? The answer is: through the project Discovery phase.

Though Project Discovery is a prerogative of product managers mostly, in this article I will take a look at the Discovery phase of a project from the project manager`s perspective. I will desсribe what the Discovery phase is, what are its goals and outcomes, and what you as a project manager should care about during this phase.

What is the Discovery phase of a project?

If you ask people of different professions the question of what is the Discovery, the answers will vary. Business analysts imagine Discovery as a requirements elicitation and onsite client visits, project managers probably will describe Discovery as a process of estimating and planning the implementation, UX specialists picture themselves doing user research and drawing of the prototypes during the Discovery phase, developers think about technical solutions and their constraints, etc. Surprisingly, all of the above is true, because Discovery is in fact a multidisciplinary exercise. 

Discovery Phase is a “zero” phase of a software development project. It can be understood as a scoping phase. This is the stage where you create a shared understanding of what the project is, who is its audience, what problem it solves, and why it is important. It is an iterative process that helps to make sure that the right product gets built for the right audience and reduces uncertainty. In terms of the project lifecycle, the Discovery phase corresponds to the Initiation phase of the project life-cycle defined by the Project Management Institute.

A very important point is that the Discovery phase of a project can be considered and definitely is a separate project on its own.

Discovery Types 

Depending on the goals of the Discovery phase we may distinguish two different types of the Discovery project:

  • A product research discovery
  • Requirements and scope elicitation

A product research discovery is focused on market research, figuring out user needs and pain points, ideation of the potential solution, etc. The main goals of requirements and scope elicitation discovery instead are to collect requirements for the future system, define what is in and what is out of scope, put together a product roadmap, i.e. do all necessary preparation for the start of implementation. In other words, the general formula of any Discovery is pretty simple: research + scoping.

Discovery Goals and Objectives

Let`s elaborate a little bit more on the Discovery goals. Depending on the type of the project and the business goals the Discovery phase may have a few objectives. Among them are: 

  • Understanding of the context in which the product is created
  • Exploring the problem which is solved by this particular product or opportunities that the business wants to exploit
  • Figuring out the needs, goals, and pain points of the users and product stakeholders
  • Creating a common deep understanding of the mission and goals among the project stakeholders
  • Getting a pretty clear idea of the scope of the future project, as well as of the success criteria
  • Understanding the future products limitations and constraints

This list of goals makes it obvious that the Discovery phase of a project is a process of information gathering and analysis aimed either at solving a problem or making assumptions about pursuing business opportunities. 

Discovery Questions to Answer

To ensure a successful Discovery you may need to answer those kinds of questions below:

  • Do you have clear goals and business drivers for the future product?
  • Do you understand who your users and stakeholders are and what they want?
  • Do you have a current as-is state of the business and/or existing product?
  • Is everyone aligned internally?

During the Discovery phase, you want to understand what you know and what you potentially may not know, so you want to understand what are the knowns and what are the unknowns, and those are the ones that you want to discover. 

Discovery Activities

I hope it is more or less clear now what the purposes of Discovery may be. Now let`s take a look at the main Discovery project activities. 

A natural way to start a Discovery is getting acquainted with the existing documentation. It may be all different kinds of documentation – starting from the organizational chart and ending with technical documentation of existing systems and business flows. 

Also before you dive deep into the Discovery activities it is very important to figure out all the relevant stakeholders. It is a valid point for any project and the Discovery phase of the project is the best time to do this. One of the reasons why your project may get into trouble throughout the implementation is that you have missed some stakeholders who come up later during the implementation and start influencing the project. The Discovery phase minimizes this risk because the Discovery itself can be considered as a separate mini-project. And there are high chances that all the major stakeholders who may influence the future project will come out during this mini-project.

Overall, the steps and the activities of the Discovery phase may vary depending on the project type, the client’s needs, etc. But the most common activities are the following:  

  1. Market research, including user and competitors research
  2. Exploring internal documentation both technical and business
  3. Existing business processes analysis
  4. Eliciting AS-IS state of the enterprise architecture.
  5. Gap-analysis
  6. Analysis of user behavior and most common use cases
  7. Technical workshops
  8. Ideas evaluation and prioritization
  9. Putting together a roadmap for the project implementation

Discovery Duration

Depending on the scope of the Discovery phase it may take from a few weeks up until several months. However, I believe that most Discovery projects take between 2 to 6 weeks. 

Discovery Outcomes 

Speaking about Discovery outcomes we may distinguish two different types of them – intangible outcomes and artifacts. Among intangible outcomes, one can mention such things as better product vision or a common understanding of the product goals among stakeholders. However, usually, at the end of the Discovery, the team presents a number of artifacts and deliverables in form of different types of documents that either summarize the results of the work done and/or set the stage for the next stages. To give a few examples, the Discovery deliverables may comprise a product roadmap, software requirements specification, architecture vision document, project cost estimate, etc. Typically the Discovery team also does a brief presentation to the project stakeholders at the end of the Discovery project.

Did you like the post? Subscribe to get updates!

Spread the love