The Discovery Phase: Help Me Help You

Project Discovery in the Jungle

Once upon a time there was a brave safari guide. He loved exploring the jungle and knew the secret trails, spectacular sights, and hidden dangers better than anyone else around. The only thing he loved more than exploring was when groups of people who would hire him as their jungle guide.

Each group had something special that they wanted to see. Some wanted to explore the caves. Others wanted to observe the wild animals. Still more were just looking for a way to escape from the business and strains of life. All was going smoothly and wonderfully until…

One day a group of business owners called our brave safari guide with a request unlike any he had heard yet. They wanted to tour the jungle in one day with the following list of expectations:

  • See as much of the wildlife in the jungle as possible
  • Avoid purchasing jungle gear
  • Remain perfectly safe

HelicopterA little puzzled, the tour guide agreed and recommended that they rent a helicopter. All agreed and they set out the next day flying high above the jungle canopy. They saw monkeys, herds of elephants and giraffes, and a myriad of jungle birds. But the business owners were not happy. The helicopter was too loud for them to hear the jungle noises and also scared away many of the smaller creatures.

Sincerely desiring to give this group the best experience he could, our guide recommended that they rent a Jeep and drive through the jungle the following day. Although disappointed about going over budget and missing the project deadline, they reluctantly agreed.

JeepThe next day seemed to be going better. The group could see and hear the sights of the jungle much better. All went well until they got stuck in a mud pit in the middle of the day. It took everyone to extract the vehicle and all were covered in mud and filth by the end. The angry exclamations of the group forced the guide to return them all to the village confused and frustrated.

By this time, the brave safari guide was exhausted and in despair. He had never had an unhappy group. There was one more idea that he had and he hoped that it would finally satisfy the goals of this group.

canoeSo the following morning, the group set out in a canoe down the jungle river. The view of the jungle would be limited, he knew, but at least they were safe and clean. It didn’t take long, though, before they encountered an issue. The group had been adamant about not purchasing jungle gear and therefore had no protection against the insects that hovered over the water. Cries arose from the group and they turned back to the village to nurse their bites and stings.

On their way back, one of the members of the group lamented that there was not a place where they could go and see the different sights of the jungle without experiencing all of the inconveniences. At this, the safari guide had an idea (as I’m sure you do also) and told them all to meet him in the village square the following morning.

ElephantThe following day, they all gathered at the village square and walked down to the local zoo. There the group oogled and awed over the exotic wildlife, rode an elephant, and even ate lunch with some trained monkeys. They stayed long into the night enjoying the comfort of their newly found jungle paradise.

Web Consultant vs Web Developer

As a web consultant, one of my favorite responsibilities is to identify my client’s goals and outline a solution tailored for their specific situation. When I did this early on in my business, I would try to identify my clients needs and outline a solution right away, just like the safari guide. I soon realized, though, that if I do not allow the proper amount of time to understand my clients goals every project is in danger of following the pattern described in our story.

Think about how much time and money could have been saved if the safari guide had dedicated some time to really understand the goals and motives of the group. Think of how much better the group’s experience would have been if they never set foot in the jungle, even though “touring the jungle” was their original request.

This is why I have chosen the title of Web Consultant as opposed to Web Developer. My goal is to understand the reasons and motivations behind the requests my clients give me so that I can determine the best approach to solve their goals. I want to avoid taking my clients to the jungle when all they really want (even if they don’t know it yet) is to go to the zoo. Once I discover the goals and motives behind a client’s request, then I can be sure that the solution I am developing will be the most affective for satisfying the client.

Discovering the Discovery Phase

When I first heard about the Discovery Phase my first thought was, “That’s nice, but I don’t want my clients to feel like I am taking their money for a frivolous activity.” Above all I want to maintain integrity with my clients and part of what that means is that my clients feel like they receive good value for the services I offer.

As I continued to take on projects without doing the proper discovery, I realized that I was incentivized to rush through understanding the clients goals and to move right into developing. More than once this led me into a scenario just like the safari guide where I did not really understand my clients goals and this resulted in extra work and expense for both me and my client.

Once I realized that the Discovery Phase enabled me to serve my clients better I began implementing. To my disappointment, many potential clients did (and do) view this phase as frivolous and a waste of their money. However, now I view this largely as my fault, since I have not been very affective in explaining the value of this phase from a clients perspective.

With this in mind, I have included a list of common objections that I get from clients regarding the Discovery Phase along with some answers.

I do not have the budget for a Discovery Phase

If a client does not have the budget to allow for time to explore their goals and motives for the application that they are building, then I question if they should be building it at all. Spending time to outline the project’s objective and what the results of a proper implementation will look like is vital to the success of the project.

The other answer here is that some form of Discovery Phase is baked into every project, even if you don’t separate it out on the invoice. Even if I agree to start developing right away, it will always take me a certain amount of “discovery” time to get familiar with the project, any existing code, and the overall objective.

So a Discovery Phase isn’t an extra expense, the work to discover the clients motives and goals should happen anyway. Rather I see the Discovery Phase as an opportunity to work with my client before agreeing to a long engagement to discover if I am a great fit for the client and project. Should we find we are not a good fit or that there is a better way to accomplish the goals, we are at a great place to pivot and move forward on a better path.

I already know what I want, why do we need a whole phase to discover it?

Although somewhat abrasive, this is a totally valid question and the one I hear most often. Many potential clients will go through long internal processes to discover what they want and how it should be done. This is great and is a sign of a client who is taking this project seriously.

However, the fact is that most clients are not web experts. If I were to start developing without understanding the clients motive and goals, I would very possibly be leading them down the wrong path just like the guide in our story and that is an expensive, frustrating road.

Suppose though, that at the end of the Discovery Phase I recommend the same strategy that the client had proposed at the beginning. Was that time wasted then? Absolutely not! Is it a waste to build a foundation for a house if there is never an earthquake or tornado? Of course not. Establishing a firm foundation (both for a house and for a web project) creates a solid basis upon which to build something that will not shift or move out of scope. The goal will be firmly established and everything can be brought into alignment with it.

My project is too small for a Discovery Phase

No project that is worth doing is too small to spend time ironing out the project’s goals and motivation. For some projects it will not make sense to bill the Discovery Phase separately, but the principle is still important regardless.

Nobody else does a Discovery Phase

First off, this is not true. Many other companies have found it invaluable to precede project kickoff with a Discovery Phase.

Secondly, whether or not other people do a discovery phase is irrelevant. I have found that for most projects I do I serve my clients better when we begin a project with a Discovery Phase. That is more important to me than being like the “other shops”.

Anything Else?

I would love to hear any thoughts or questions you have on the Discovery Phase, either from a project management standpoint or from a client standpoint. I think that it is a vital part to any successful project but one that is neglected far too often.

7 comments

  1. Well said Tanner! I would only add that there is actually a deliverable to the Discovery phase of a scope or plan or sometimes an RFP. Added bonus: Once you work out the job at hand, it may not be right for you or your team (or you may decide that you don’t work well together). I find its another helpful argument for clients shy about investing in the Discovery Phase.

    I’ve also had discussions about how much this phase should cost… roughly 5-20% of the total project budget is usually what it ends up being in the jobs I’ve done. But that depends on how you scope it, often much of that can be “lost” in the Proposal/RFP process.

    • tanner says:

      Great thoughts, Heather! I plan on doing a follow up on the Discovery Phase process and will include deliverables and such as I do think it is very important for the client to get something tangible from this phase.

    • tanner says:

      Thanks Kirk!

      I think the value of the Discovery Phase from the clients perspective hinges on clear communication. First, the risk of the project going over budget because of unclear goals is greatly reduced. Second, the work done will likely be much more affective since it will be done not only with a view of the end goal but also with an understanding of the motivations driving the project. If I understand the why behind what my client is building then I can actually partner with them to come up with the best solution.

  2. Dorian Speed says:

    Excellent post – I am glad you mentioned it on Twitter! I’m curious as to how you price the Discovery Phase, and if that price depends somewhat on the ultimate scope of the project or if it’s a flat fee.

    • tanner says:

      Thanks Dorian! The way I handle this is I assess the project difficulty and then gather as many resources from the potential client as I can. If they have everything pretty much all figured out and scoped, then the discovery phase will be much easier for me and I charge less. If I feel like the client needs a lot of help and guidance ironing out the details of the project, I’ll charge more. Typically, though, it is between 15% – 25% of the total project budget.

  3. Excellent analogy and naysayer questions! I find it fascinating that a Discovery Phase is such a hard sell. I don’t understand how a client could trust any sort of budget or proposal a contractor would provide if the nuances had never been discussed?!

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