A project is only as successful as the foundation it starts upon.
When a project is properly onboarded to an agency, external partner, or distant business unit, discovery is a critical first phase focused on understanding the larger goals and objectives of the initiative.
This allows the team to not only uncover relevant details, but to define what success looks like. To truly understand what good looks like. Then, and only then, can a team begin to determine the scope of work and solution that best addresses the problem at hand.
But discovery is broken.
It is broken because of uncertainty. It is broken because of poor communication. And it is broken because of a lack of collaborative buy-in.
All caused by a fundamental disconnect: typically when an organization hires or builds a team to do something for them, they are doing so because the team are the experts and they’re not.
But what typically happens is the non-experts end up asking for something that doesn’t actually solve the problem facing their organization.
Because it’s broken, discovery has become a dirty word.
Every agency wants to charge for it, but nobody wants to pay for it. I don’t blame them. Clients have often already spent money to write the brief, or paid a consultant to develop an RFP.
They believe they have the smarts to know to what they’re asking for.
But in today’s world, experiences matter more than products. And if you are creating a technological innovation that lives in an application or experiential ecosystem, it is essential to mitigate margins for error.
The startup world has figured this out. They have broken things down into smaller, bite-sized collaborative agile sprints that allow people to build relationships and uncover uncertainty. These sprints allow them to test and validate that the early-stage solutions they’re investing in will solve problems. By going small, it's easier to tackle large things.
Why making the “big ask” and letting your project team go away to create a solution so often goes wrong:
- Teams think too small (or big): All too often teams either focus on the big best-case scenario or think too small and miss the holistic effect of their efforts. They overlook the realistic use-cases that the end project will need to fill both in the short and long-term. They may also miss two components critical to technology products: extensibility and accessibility. Most of the things we build as marketers, brand marketers and advertisers are not stand-alone entities. They typically have to interact with other elements of the business. And therefore, that requires additional context that is not often present without a proper collaborative discovery session.
- Technical Feasibility isn’t considered: Best practices are best practices for a reason, but this is too large of a jump forward for most organizations. Established organizations that didn’t come of age in the digital world have legacy systems with multi-year contracts and entire teams in place to run these systems. Integrating capabilities and data with these systems can be difficult and project teams often discover what is and isn’t possible far too late into a project. Onboarding fails when it focuses more on where an organization should be than where they actually are.
- Limiting factors are ignored: It’s super expensive to fire, hire, and retrain current employees. But the human capital costs associated with a project are almost always overlooked in discovery. Also commonly overlooked are the costs of consultants, training, migration, platform education, platform software, infrastructure, security, and any number of other costs that can completely change the scope of a project. I’ve even seen teams overlook the cost of running two parallel technology systems as the new platforms are integrated.
Discovery is a critical part of the project planning process, but it must be done in concert with stakeholders to eliminate the disconnect that causes these issues.
Co-creation exercises are a powerful way to collaboratively define and design an approach that actually solves the problem. These ways of working allow you to attack the challenges, not the people. They allow you to figure out the most effective and efficient way to allocate your budget and ensure any spend delivers business growth. They keep your project team from building (or buying) a Ferrari that no one in the organization can drive.
Don’t spend too much money on something you will never use.
When onboarding collaboratively, project teams are able to think like startups and identify minimum viable products and release candidates. Meaning, what can the team build that will be just real enough to test and iterate with organizational stakeholders or customers. This ensures the end output of the project is a viable solution. Organizations can begin to identify opportunities for attainable graduated growth.
These engaging, interactive sessions also break down dreaded silos between internal departments and external teams. You get to know the people that will drive the project and its success — both internally, externally, and through third parties. You learn the processes, platforms, and the technologies that will need to be utilized and onboarded. Most importantly, you learn the project’s purpose, how it supports the long-term goals of the organization, and the outcomes that define success.
Sure, a discovery like this requires an investment of time and resources, but by doing so you’re front-loading uncertainty, saving time and resources in the long run.
A project is only as successful as its foundation — don’t set your external or internal teams up for failure.
Let’s Re-Design Discovery
Whether it be an incremental, transformative, or disruptive innovation, you have to focus on the people, processes, platforms, purpose, and outcomes that will drive a project’s success. Consider each and redesign how discovery and project planning is done at your organization.
I’ll share some of the tenants of our co-creation, design thinking-inspired discovery process that have proven easy to adopt and highly successful.
First, make sure you’re taking a holistic, systems-first approach that considers the brand, the product or service, and the experience. Forego traditional top-down discoveries and instead involve real customers and stakeholders from across all key departments. Go beyond net promoter scores to get to the heart of how the problem you are trying to solve affects your consumer.
Second, uncover the the true gap between the current state and the desired future state. How does the future state get formed incrementally by decisions that affect marketing operations and technology? The investments in time, resources, personnel, and vendors required to unseat legacy technologies are significant.
For example, consider how the back-end system you’re building will affect the marketing manager that is loading content into the content management system (CMS). Involve them in early onboarding sessions to get an idea of their technical proficiency, comfort, and unarticulated needs.
Next, growth hack progress into discovery. Too often discovery centers around the best-case scenario. How this team is going to conquer a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal). It’s important to know where you want to be. But it’s just as important to start small and iterate toward what good looks like.
Thinking too big too early leads to analysis paralysis. Discovery becomes an exercise in thinking for the sake of thinking, instead of an opportunity to make and action decisions.
Instead, big brands and businesses can pivot and react like startups by identifying small incremental innovations. In most cases many of the enterprise tools organizations use are overkill for what they actually need. Instead, use discovery to identify the people, processes, and platforms that are actually driving value.
We recently did a two-week technology feasibility assessment for one of our clients and ended up saving them over $30,000 a month in infrastructure costs.
It is also critical to use co-creation to remove the ego of the project team, and stakeholders.
A project team must establish two-way empathy with its stakeholders.The best and worst part of working with an agency is that we don’t know every detail of you and your organization. Best because it allows us to bring fresh perspective. Worst because we don’t understand the cultural nuances that affect your organization on a daily basis.
We don't understand how Bob in accounting, or Becky in procurement will affect a large or small technology decision. To us as consultants, a $99 a month tool appears to cost $99. It can be implemented quickly, learned quickly, and start making a positive change next week. But, that $99 tool is often met with barriers, red tape, and the systems that were created to protect the organization. These systems and processes actually end up limiting the progress that a project team can enact. A $99 tool may actually end up taking thousands of dollars in salary and opportunity costs to be vetted and approved.
Co-creation discovery sessions also help balance the seesaw of process.
Too much process at a small company can sink the ship — at a large company, too little process will doom a project.
You can only find the middle ground when ego leaves the equation. When the room is flat enough for agencies or project teams to listen close enough to hear the true challenges the stakeholders are facing. And stakeholders have to be put in a position where they are both comfortable, and sometimes uncomfortable, enough to share those challenges.
As an agency, or project team, it’s easy to think that your fresh perspective gives you all the answers, but it just as important to cast aside presumptions and come from a place of wonder rather than judgement.
Best practices aren’t anywhere close to possible until you're inside the organization co-creating together — until you have all the stakeholders at the table who can identify what their pain points are and be truly honest.
More often than not, it isn’t technology that dooms projects, it’s people and poor communication.
Design thinking gives us the opportunity and tools to reframe the problem to focus on what the true problem is. Sometimes, it's not technology that's the problem. Sometimes, it's not a person or role that's the problem. Sometimes, it's something as simple as language. Sometimes it's something as simple as how we're communicating and how we're defining the problem.
Co-creation is so powerful because it reduces what would normally be a laborious discovery filled with research, long amount of stakeholder interviews, and stage gates. It reduces or eliminates those costs by simply getting the right people at the table from day one.
This also helps create buy-in. When people are part of the process, they're invested in the solution. When people are intrinsically motivated for the success of a project, they get behind it and then that level of alignment is akin to people buying into the vision of an organization.
Once everyone is at the table, I like to use something we call the pain & gain quotient to keep us focused on larger systems thinking. Returns are gains, and investments are pains. When pains reach a certain threshold, organizational morale plummets. This keeps us from taking too big of a leap that it will create pain when the technology or innovation is integrated back into the larger system.
Instead, we conduct a series of interactive gamified feasibility models to understand where in this process is this tactic or this bigger overarching strategy. How does it add to the value chain? What are the value capture points? What are the value creation points?
This allows us to ensure that the gains from the project will outweigh the pain.
Engineer your solution, don’t immediately jump to throw money at a loosely defined problem.
A lot of organizations want to jump to, “Let's go Oracle. Let's go Adobe. Let's go IBM.” They try to mask a problem by spending their way to the solution.
But that comes with a sufficient amount of overhead in the form of time, cost, scope, education, and personnel. If an organizational objective is short-term and they require a quick hand or a quick hit, it's less expensive and time-consuming to make the change now that's going to affect shareholder value this quarter. As opposed to a two to three-year initiative that completely relegates and replaces legacy systems. Technology can become a huge hindrance because of education, ownership, and internal politics and governance that surround it.
Finally, to get the most out of your discovery sessions, break down organizational silos and track the results.
Projects are typically scoped by technology consultants or internal architects separate from the rest of the team. Instead, make technical feasibility and prototyping a fun, inclusive exercise that allows everyone to relate and contribute to outcomes. Back to the pain vs gain quotient, by including everyone along the way they can see how a project is tracking and adjust accordingly.
If you can create the ability to easily show progress and have people feel like they can be a part of the progress, they are going to be much less likely to be nay-sayers. It is also going to be much less likely for the pain quotient to get out of whack because the entire team will see if the objective is being supported.
Everyone needs and wants everything faster, better, and cheaper. Agencies and project teams overscope to show organizations how smart they are instead of what's the one thing we can do right now that's going to make a huge change.
Use design thinking and co-creation in your discovery and you will see results.
One of our clients engaged us for a six to eight month innovation technology project. After our discovery, the project became a four week project that made a double digit change in revenue.
A double digit change in revenue in one sixth of the time originally allotted for the project.
Done right, discovery makes projects better, faster, and cheaper.
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