Discovery is the very first step in the lifecycle of any project. It is also a  fundamental aspect of the Design Thinking Process. Discovery is the most critical milestone to get right. It informs every thought and action that follows. When you short-change your Discovery, that is reflected in everything you design and develop after. I’ve seen projects go sideways quickly. Like the engine of a Locomotive, Discovery drives the direction and ensures the cars are all indeed “on the right track”.

There isn’t one universal right or wrong way to conduct a productive Discovery. In my career, when I apply these 5 tips consistently, the Discovery is far more productive and the outcomes and solutions are way better.

1. Assemble a Team of Experts. No, seriously.

Regardless of my 20 years of experience, I don’t know everything. I am certainly not an expert on all facets of what my client or stakeholder might need. I am also human and so on some level I will filter what they are saying through my lens of experience and make assumptions. It’s ineffective for us to pretend that we can actively listen while taking notes and strategically digesting the information in a way that supports deep thinking.

That is why my number one tip is to be aware and vulnerable to accept your weaknesses. Once you can reconcile that, you should unapologetically supplement your weaknesses by surrounding yourself with experts in those areas. If you anticipate the conversation might lead to discussions on topics you are not an expert on, do your client and team a favor by assembling a powerhouse of diverse thinkers and contributors. Even assigning someone to take notes will help you focus, improve how you guide the conversation, and lead to a better understanding of the need.

Pro tip: Arrange a huddle with the team pre- and post-Discovery. This will ensure the team knows their role on the call so that together you can formulate an effective plan to make the most of the time and everyone is on the same page. Post-call, another huddle is critical to recap what was heard, drive to consensus on the strategy for next steps, and dividing the responsibilities and timeline so there is clarity in the action plan.

2. Don’t Leave Your Creative Team Out

One of the #1 complaints from creators, strategists, and designers is that they are brought in too late in the process to have the most impact. The excuses I hear about why I have been brought in after the fact are endless. Your clients and stakeholders value their time. If the client knew that their results would be far improved by having a team of experts on the Discovery call, it would (and should) be the standard practice.

By not allowing creative team members to hear the information directly from the source through their unique lens and ask questions that will help them add value, the outcome is directly and automatically diluted. If our collective goal is to create meaningful experiences that deliver impact for others, we must connect our best thinkers to the source to have the best chance to do so.

3. The Power of a Journey Map

A Journey Map is a tool that allows us to use empathy, walk in the customers’ or guests’ shoes, and see the bigger picture. It lets us visualize the experience in a more holistically. Every moment connects and every touchpoint builds upon the next to create one impression of the overarching experience. If this sounds complex, it can be. To get started, here is a simple way to apply it:

1. Get out a piece of paper and turn it so you are looking at it in landscape format.

2. Draw a line across the middle.

3. Plot everything you know about the event, experience, or user interface (it applies to almost anything) chronologically across the line. Consider what the user/guest/customer will experience first, second, third, or what happens on days 1, 2, 3, and so on.

Prep this before the call, and do some ideation in advance to prepare yourself. Once on the call, use this outline to help identify gaps in the experience or opportunity and see connection points that were not otherwise seen in the RFP Word document or Excel spreadsheet.

With the  Discovery completed, I transfer this to a concise visual slide which helps me communicate the overarching story and vision to the client. They can see, in one snapshot, how we have woven together a strategy that achieves their mission and vision in an unexpected way through a consistent line or thread that connects it all.

Want to Learn More? I conduct workshops to learn how to Journey Map, there are so many more advanced ways to use them that get at how to weave in strategic design and initiatives in an integrated way.

4. Leverage Suppliers and Partners

If you have had the pleasure of planning an event in the “new normal”, then you may have noticed the compressed timelines and elevated level of expectations we are faced with on the daily. It’s mind-blowing (and bending). For us to deliver these personalized, curated, once-in-a-lifetime, experiential, and immersive experiences for our clients virtually “on demand”, we have to change how we approach our clients at the start. You must start inviting your trusted suppliers or partners and give them a seat at the table.,Yes, I do mean, with your client. If you think that by bringing in these essential contributors and co-creators that your value will be diminished or that your position will be at risk, then I urge you, to consider what value you bring to the table and how you can confidently instill that with your clients. This is not the Wizard of Oz, your clients likely do not believe that you alone or your organization is going to be effective at delivering their vision. There is nothing to hide by having strategic partners who amplify and add value in adjacent communities. It takes a village, right?

Leveraging your partners and suppliers in Discovery adds value and accelerates the process by being transparent from the beginning and bringing your client and suppliers/partners under the tent. Suppliers and partners are critical to our success and they are way more strategic, creative, insightful, informed, and additive to the Discovery call than they get credit for. If we are “all in this together” and we couldn’t do it without them, then why would we rob them of their chance to add their insights through their lens of expertise to the collective objective? If they hear it from the horse’s mouth, just like your internal teams, they can be more effective and accelerate the process because we have avoided the dilution of “telephone” transfer of info. It also forms this bond, we refer to it now with some clients as “getting the band” back together and we all know what position we play on the field, it is clear and no one is threatened. It drives better collaborations which lead to better outcomes all while reducing time in the process. Plus, we all learn from each other, I didn’t even cover that bonus yet but my gosh what I have learned by putting this into practice.

5. Consider the Humans

We talked about Journey Maps to invite critical empathy, enabling us to walk in our user/guest’s shoes, however, that is just one component of intentional planning for human beings. In a time when many are multi-tasking, over-stimulated, and operating on autopilot, it’s imperative to step back and attempt to embody the personas your solutions are intended for. This seems so obvious of a concept but this very basic approach is often forgotten.  Often we shift into detail mode; we get out our checklist and remain task-focused – demographics, general parameters, high-level goals, and mission of the organization.

We begin to miss what is right in front of us – THE PEOPLE.

Let’s use an example: we know that the profile is predominantly 55-year-old men. Who are these men? Farmers from Missouri? Hedge Fund Managers in New York City? Even this understanding of where they come from and what they do can help us better understand how they interact. It could indicate what they prefer to drink or eat, even the types of restaurants and/or bars they might frequent. This all comes into play in strategically designing an experience that feels tailor-made for them.

For these experiences to move people and achieve their intended purpose, we must connect to them. Discover who are they, where are they from, where they eat, shop, how they spend their time, how they socialize together, and what drives them. Crafting questions specifically to connect to them through human behavior is invaluable when designing for humans.

6.   Manage Expectations

This last tip will come across as very tactical and that is by design because we need tactics to drive action, especially the right action. Before a Discovery, once you have aligned your team of subject matter experts and discussed your strategy to be productive, share a proposed priority timeline in advance with your client. An agenda of how you intend to use your collective time to be effective. Sharing what priorities and topics you have from your perspective will help them understand your objective for the call. Asking them if it aligns with what they hope to achieve/cover during the call will already get everybody set up for success even before the actual Discovery happens! It feels so much better going into a call with clarity and assurance.

After the Discovery, after your internal team has met and come to a consensus on the solution strategy, provide the client with milestones of what they can expect, when to ensure they are crystal clear about what they will receive from you, and when they will get it.


Mastering the Discovery Phase is pivotal for successful project outcomes. If you are eager to elevate your approach or seek personalized guidance, our team at Smith + Stone is ready to collaborate with you. Reach out today to schedule a consultation and unlock the full potential of your projects through strategic Discovery.

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