30 October, 2023

Master Project Discovery: How to Unlock Your Project’s Potential

To me, Project Discovery is the most fun part of Project Management. So what is it?

It’s funny how we don’t really know about anything until we are forced to think about it. Of course, you know about Project Discovery. But many people elide it into the Project Definition Stage. It took a simple question to get me thinking.

Master Project Discovery: How to Unlock Your Project's Potential

You can think of it as either the first part of the Project Definition Stage, or as a stage before it. Either way, Project Discovery has a simple purpose: discovery.

So, in this article, we will look at:

The Value of the Discovery Mode of Thinking

A while ago, I made a short video, which suggested that if you want your team to solve problems more effectively, you need to get them into Discovery Mode.

It discusses a series of experiments by Ronald Friedman and Jens Forster. They found an astonishing difference between ‘safety mode’ and ‘discovery mode’. Take 3½ minutes to see what they learned…

What is Project Discovery?

We use Project Discovery to build:

  • Understanding
    We do this by exploring the situation
  • Knowledge
    We do this by researching potential solutions

It contributes to your Project Brief, with knowledge and understanding. So it is a process of learning (which is fun). In the Discovery Stage, you explore and learn about:

  • What the business needs
  • …and what it already has
  • What solutions are available
  • …and which may be suitable

Development Work

As part of this, in the Discovery Stage, we also do a little development work. Perhaps you might create a prototype, test some technology, or build a small part of the product you’ll go on to deliver.


Because this discovery development work will give you knowledge:

  • Which solutions can work
  • The likely pitfalls
  • Clarity over requirements
  • Customer or user experience priorities
  • How long things might take
  • Parameters for cost estimating
  • Evidence for your business case

Iterative Projects

If all this sounds a little like ‘doing your project, before you do your project’; you’re not wrong. Projects are iterative; even traditional ‘waterfall’ projects.

Why Project Discovery is So Valuable: The Benefits

But the benefit is two-fold:

  1. By creating a Discovery Stage, you can lift a lot of uncertainty and reduce your risk significantly. Project Discovery:
    • Involves experts
    • Determines solutions
    • Identifies value
    • Evaluates alternatives
    • Avoids mistakes
    • Limits scope creep
    • Aligns team members and stakeholders
  2. It’s just fun.
    The Discovery stage allows us to engage in development, learning, and results…
    All without the pressures of a fixed requirement or quality standards.

The Five Steps of Project Discovery

I recommend a simple five-step approach to Project Discovery:

  1. Team Assembly
  2. Situational Understanding
  3. Problem Definition
  4. In-depth Research
  5. Detailed Evaluation

Let’s look at these one at a time…

Team Assembly

Get your team together. Favor ideas-people and be sure that all the key areas of technical and political understanding are covered. You will certainly need the Project Manager leading the team, and maybe:

  • Business Analysis skills
  • Technical expertise (like Solution architects, process experts, UX/UI experts)
  • Creative thinkers

Brief your team well and set them off…

Situational Understanding

The first thing your team will need to do is develop a thorough understanding of the situation:

Problem Definition

This is a far more important step than many people would think. Define precisely the problem your project will need to solve. A good way to do this is by crafting a statement that starts:

The problem is how to…

In-depth Research

Once you fully understand the problem and its context, you need to research possible solutions. You are looking for as many options as you can find and then synthesize and filter them down to a shortlist of the best.

While you are doing this, also keep an eye out for alternatives to undertaking a project at all. Sometimes there are simple operational solutions to what can seem like big or novel problems.

Detailed Evaluation

Finally, evaluate the options you have in your shortlist. Which offers the greatest value, taking into account:

  • costs
  • benefits
  • risks
  • perceptions

The answer will go forward into the processes of scoping and building a formal business case.

What Are Your Thoughts about Project Discovery?

Please do share your thoughts, experiences, and ideas in the comments below.

One final thought…

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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