Running a discovery kick-off workshop

This guide explains how we run a kick-off workshop for a discovery project at dxw digital.

For an alpha or beta, or for a significant update to a live service, we run a roadmapping workshop.

For discovery focussed projects it can be less clear what the end result will be, and whether we’re looking at a single service or cutting across several. So we use a broader set of questions.

These are based on the questions to frame a problem that Ben Holiday wrote about, the discovery inception categories that Will Myddelton described, along with some of the roadmapping questions.

Questions for discovery

  1. Why are we doing this work?

    What is the motivation? What are we trying to do or decide? And why now? What is the trigger?

  2. Who are the users?

    Are they members of the public, professionals or staff? What different groups, circumstances and behaviours might be important? Are they current or potential users?

  3. What organisations and stakeholders are involved?

    What is their relationship to the work? What expectations and concerns might they have? How closely might they be involved? How might they help?

  4. What outcomes will users get?

    What do we know about their intentions? What’s working that we might we build on? What problems might we solve? What unintended consequences might we create?

  5. What outcomes are we looking for?

    What is the client organisation trying to achieve? What problems are they trying to solve? What are the other organisations and stakeholders looking to get? What external costs and impacts should we consider?

  6. What do we need to learn or prove?

    What questions are we trying to answer? What do we need to know to make good decisions? What assumptions should we be testing? What might we already know?

  7. What do we need to communicate?

    What meetings, governance and other processes do we need to feed into? What outputs might we expect to create? For who? How will we share them?

  8. What other work relates to this?

    What has been done before, or is being done now? What can we learn from each other? What should we share? How do we stay aligned with that work?

  9. What difficulties might we face?

    How might we be blocked? What rabbit holes could we fall down?

Asking the questions

To prepare for the workshop:

  1. Write each question on a separate sheet of paper on a wall, or frame on a Miro board, or column on a Trello board.
  2. Get the people you need together in a room or on a video call.

For each question:

  1. Ask the question to get a discussion started.
  2. Write bullet points on the appropriate sheet, or on sticky notes or cards to summarise what people say.
  3. Ask follow up questions to clarify what you hear and to make sure you include everyone’s thoughts.
  4. Ask about priority and scope. What’s essential? And what’s out of scope?
  5. You can facilitate this on your own, but the first few times you might want to have a separate moderator and scribe. And it always helps to have another colleague in the crowd who is focussed on listening and picking up on anything you miss.

It’s best to put all the questions up together. The things people say in the discussion will often relate to more than one question – for example, people often mention outcomes for the organisation when they talk about why we’re doing the work. With all the questions up you can place items under the appropriate question.

This method works well for groups up to 10 and typically takes 2 to 3 hours depending on the breadth and complexity of the work.

Getting the right people together

When you invite stakeholders to the workshop, aim to get a good mix of senior decision makers with a broad understanding of context and outcomes, together with colleagues who have more practical and detailed knowledge. Aim to cover the key interest groups so nobody is left feeling unrepresented.

Some people you invite may not see the point of the workshop. They may feel that you have all the necessary information in the documents you’ve received. Or that you’ve discussed the important points already.

Sharing the questions in advance can help people to understand the purpose of the session and to prepare for it. Make sure you acknowledge what you’ve received and discussed already, so people don’t feel like you’ve ignored all that.

I always say that we haven’t got long for the discovery. We want to hear from everyone, to make sure we’re focussing on the right things, so they get the most out of the work.

Managing the session

During the session, most people will be happy to talk – this is something they’re interested in and know loads about. So you’ll need to manage the session closely to make sure you get through all the questions in a reasonable amount of time.

The questions and workshop format are good for uncovering different opinions, conflicting objectives, unrealistic expectations, etc. It’s good to note those things during the session so everyone knows there are different viewpoints. But don’t make a big deal of it and derail your own meeting. It’s a discovery and part of the point is to identify those differences and help resolve them into something more coherent.

Using the workshop outputs

The question sheets, sticky notes or cards create ready-made outputs from the workshop. You can transcribe points from paper sheets or sticky notes into another document or tool like Trello or Miro. And you can sort related items into groups under each question.

From there you can use the answers to:

  1. Set overall discovery and first sprint goals.
  2. Plan the discovery activities – including stakeholder engagement, desk research, user research, business process analysis and journey mapping.
  3. Build an initial map of the problem space to define a scope for the discovery.
  4. Start thinking about the possible shape of the discovery outputs.