Build a Strong Foundation - The Importance of the Discovery Phase

In the same way that building a house starts by building a strong foundation, tactical initiatives as well as projects are built upon what is uncovered and decided during the discovery phase.


Unfortunately, too many initiatives and projects fail to do enough discovery work. As the initiative or project unfolds, the team painfully learns the details of what should have been found at a high level during discovery - such things as incorrect assumptions, omission of major pieces of work or dependencies that need to be in place.

What is the Discovery Phase?


The dictionary tells us discovery is:

the act of finding something that had not been known before:
Many scientific discoveries have been made by accident.
The discovery of gold in California opened up the west.

A discovery is also something that you did not know about before:
 It was quite a discovery when I came upon this beautiful mountain stream.

Whe an initiative or a project starts, there has been a discussion about what is wanted at the end, but there is a lot that is not known. In the discovery phase, all the questions can’t be answered, but the team should start to understand what it will take to get the initiative or project done, what it will cost and what other areas of the organization may be impacted.

What Does Success Look Like?


The first and most important work in the discovery phase is to figure out “what success looks like”. Each person involved may have a very different view of what the end is— even though everyone is saying exactly the same words! If it is not 100% clear about “what success looks like”, there may be a variety of ideas about the end result will look like. So it is very important to make sure all those involved are on the same page about what the future state will look like. In some cases, such as launching a major computer system, it may not be easy to know exactly what detailed pieces the project may implement, but everyone should agree that success would be launching the system with at least the core functionality that can be obtained within the limits of the schedule and resources available.

Use of SMART goals can put some specifics to “what success looks like. These goals are
Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bound. By spending the time to work out SMART goals, everyone will more clearly understand “what success looks like” to them - it may actually start to change the initial ideas of the initiative, as various stakeholders weigh in on their reality today and what it will take to get to that vision of the future state.

Who’s Affected and/or Involved?

Make sure you’ve included the voices of everyone affected or involved in the initiative. If the stakeholder group is larger, be sure the person who represents a specific group is really speaking for that group. If a key stakeholder group is not part of discovery, their viewpoints and concerns about the initiative could cause issues down the road.


Even when everyone agrees what the completion of the initiative or project looks like, it is very likely that a variety of assumptions have been made.. and not everyone may make the same assumptions! One person may think that outside consultants will be brought into help, another may assume that existing staff will take on all that extra work. It is the unstated assumptions that cause conflict later in the project, when the reality of the assumption is known. The impact of an incorrect assumption may have a small or huge impact on the project.


Much like assumptions, too many dependencies are not understood early in the project. When the dependency is uncovered later, the project stalls until it is cleared away. The goal may be to plan out a new manufacturing line, but the current staff may not be capable of envisioning exactly what that will involve, so a major dependency is to find the right person and bring them into the organization to drive that change.

Start with a Sketch


Think of the discovery phase as sketching out the initiative. As details are gathered, lines are made thicker, more lines and shading is added. In requirements, the full color and details are added to the initiative. In web design, discovery will involve wire frames, which are just line drawings of the page layout and call outs for functionality. The wire frames are much more useful for uncovering omissions than a full color layout. When the page has all its color, users focus on is the design pretty?, are the color right? When that is left to determine later, those viewing the wire frame spend more time making sure the web page has the functionality needed.

Dive Deep if needed

When there is not enough information to make assumptions or estimate work, the team may need to dive deep into the some of the details. Once the outline of the work is known and it is clear what it will involve, the team can move back up to a higher view of the planning.

Once the team is in alignment about “what success looks like”, have a bunch of SMART goals, understand the outline of all the work to be accomplished, have identified the assumptions made and dependencies involved, it’s time to get budget approval and move to execute the plan!