enterprise project management discovery phase

The Importance of Discovery to Successfully Deliver Enterprise Transformations

By: Arnaud Rousseau

If you’re familiar with the age-old song, Do-Re-Mi from The Sound of Music, you know the opening line well. “Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” While starting at the beginning might seem obvious on the surface, when it comes to corporate transformation, the beginning is not always where people start. Too often, this beginning stage, known as the discovery stage, gets glossed over, leading to ambiguity. That ambiguity can cause significant hurdles down the road.

enterprise project management team discovery phase

The discovery phase of any new enterprise transformation project is crucial to long-term success and transformational outcomes enterprises expect to achieve by implementing new ideas. With the importance of this stage, you might assume that there’s a clearcut, step-by-step approach to seeing it through, but that’s not always the case. The discovery phase of an enterprise’s transformation can often morph into several definitions depending on its purpose. More on how to define your discovery phase in a little bit, but first, let’s look at some commonalities most, if not all, teams have during this project stage.

What is the Discovery Phase of a Project?

At its core, the discovery phase centers on clarifying and defining the work led by a cross-functional team to solve a business problem. This clarity comes by gathering requirements from various business groups organized around key transformation pillars:

  • People
  • Processes
  • Data
  • Technology
  • Governance 

During the discovery phase, the project’s leadership team often works to lay the foundation for the project’s activities. These activities range from defining the problem(s) to solve, outlining a solution, building the business case, conducting vendor selection, driving the sales process and contract negotiations, defining high-level planning and transitioning to the mobilization team. With so many varying factors to consider, it’s clear why there’s no set definition for what this phase specifically entails, but rather a high-level outcome goal of defining and enabling the appropriate framework to execute the leadership’s vision of the enterprise’s strategy.

Successfully Driving Your Team’s Discovery Phase

Over the past 25 years, I’ve worked on large-scale transformation programs. Over that time, I have observed many occurrences where the discovery phase was executed poorly, if at all. Discovery, just like the implementation that it precedes, requires a similar level of sponsorship, governance, and commitment. Those elements include resources, budget, and time. To succeed, this early stage of transformation must operate within a defined scope and provide unambiguous answers to the business problem it is trying to solve.

The discovery phase is a vital enabler of an enterprise’s transformation success. That’s why it requires an initial investment to drive the benefits for the subsequent stages of a transformation initiative. As you’re developing your discovery phase plan, there are several drivers to consider.

Initiating the Business Case

In the discovery phase, teams must establish and initiate the business case to support the transformation initiative. That discovery sets the boundaries for expectations from a proposed solution implementation. Put differently, it’s a jumping-off point for leadership to align the project with post-implementation goals, achievements, or attainments. Without this business case, it’s nearly impossible to know what a successful outcome looks like and the level of investment needed to solve that business problem. 

Benefits: Having a business case clearly defined gives teams specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (S.M.A.R.T.) goals, which helps clarify what the implementation can and should look like. It also helps to establish organization-wide alignment in support of the business case.

Anticipating and Identifying Risks

There are risks involved with any transformation project. Anticipating and identifying those risks upfront allows teams to manage strategic or tactical gaps during the implementation. During the discovery phase, the team must dig in deep to define the following: 

  • Process workshops
  • Technical ecosystem integrations
  • Enterprise data management
  • Resources identification
  • Change impact assessments
  • Stakeholder assessments and readiness for change
  • Implementation planning

Within each of these areas are certain risks that may emerge. Identifying them up front can help clarify any hurdles before teams encounter them in their sprints. For example, process workshops help uncover process change impacts. Resource allocation can help pinpoint any constraints in skills and availabilities. Data management analysis can help spot architecture complexities and heterogeneous data. Knowing the challenges ahead keeps teams on track for those anticipated implementation timelines.

Benefits: Having a clear understanding of the risks involved in the project allows teams to reduce the occurrence of risk realization during the project timeline. In addition, teams can pre-emptively define mitigation or a “what if” strategy to minimize impacts.

Identifying the Core Team and Key Players

Every project requires a core team to solve business problems and drive transformations. Involving leads and subject matter experts early on in key decisions allows for more accountability throughout the implementation. With the core team investing a substantial amount of time during the discovery phase, the key players can gain clarity around future-state processes, identify current gaps, participate in vendor selection, and support planning activities.

Benefits: With a core team, the key players can identify the best resources to support implementation early on. In doing so, they can also limit the turnover of those key resources through early involvement and decision ownership, which is established during the process workshops and solution selections.

Kickstarting the Design Requirements

Getting the 30,000-foot view of what the project will look like allows teams to gather high-level requirements and kickstart the design process. Analyzing the current state of the processes and the pain points allows the core team to leverage the APQC process classification framework to define process improvement activities. This activity can jumpstart the process workshops discussed above and fast-track the decision-making process during the design phase. 

Benefits: Kickstarting the design requirements in the discovery phase allows teams to reduce the duration of the design phase and facilitate faster design decisions.

Enabling Early Communication

The discovery phase for a large transformation initiative that impacts the enterprise requires strategic and targeted communications. These communications happen internally with your sponsors and stakeholders and externally with your business partners and clients. Having early and clear communication strategies provides a vehicle to explain or educate partners on the corporate strategy for addressing evolving changes throughout the project. In other words, it sets the tone and expectations for the manner in which you conduct business. 

Benefits: By enabling early communication in the discovery phase, teams provide additional time for stakeholders and business partners to prepare for upcoming change impacts. 

Identifying a Systems Integrator (SI)

A systems integrator (SI) is the person who will get the team to the finish line. This person must be at the helm from the start to have a direct say in vendor or solution selections. They play an integral role in the discovery process by refining the business problem, identifying requirements, and shaping the proposed solution requirements and costs. The SI brings the solution experts together to discuss the path forward. That core team can offer input and feedback to validate the solution and vendor SI fit. 

Benefits: Obtaining an SI early on allows the team to identify the best solution for the business and negotiate the best costs associated with the licensing, implementation, and post-implementation support of the solution. 

Assembling a Team of Experts

Transformational projects at the enterprise level requires a team of experts. In the discovery phase, the core team will onboard the remaining cross-functional experts, including internal stakeholders and external experts. This team encompasses the management of the project or opportunity. It also includes procurement leads during the sales cycle, from RFI/RFP to contract negotiation. In addition, the expert team will have access to executives and initiatives from sponsors. Ultimately, this team comes together to pivot from enterprise strategy leadership and vision to strategy execution. 

Benefits: Recognizing the internal resource limitations and timeline constraints allows the core team to onboard alternative and additional team members early on. 

You Need a Discovery Phase for Successful Enterprise Transformations

The executive committee or board of directors outlines the strategic goals. They are most likely articulated around Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) such as revenue growth, market share growth, earning per share, innovation, quality, client satisfaction, employee satisfaction. The Discovery phase facilitates the transition from “vision to execution” of the corporate strategy. A successful discovery phase will contextualize the board’s direction, providing both qualitative and quantitative information that will feed into a solution implementation. This information includes scope, budget, resources, timeline, business case, KPIs, definition of success, and other critical components. 

The discovery phase defines your organization’s investment required to support the expected outcome(s). It empowers your team to make critical decisions and be part of the solution. I have seen time and time again that an early investment in the discovery phase has a multi-fold return throughout the implementation. Starting at the very beginning of the project to get clear on what’s needed and onboard the key players really is the very best place to start.