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How to run a discovery for any project (not just digital ones)

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This week, we ran a workshop on how to run a discovery (the first, early research and development stage) for any project, not just digital ones. About 60 people came from across government and other organisations. This post is about what we did, the outputs and what's next.

Discovery is important for all projects, not just digital ones

The Department for Education (DfE) has a lot of large-scale and complex projects to deliver. Quite a few of our major projects are in the early stages of development. This is the most important stage in any project's life cycle - many projects that fail do so because of errors and omissions in the early discovery phase (see, for example, the NAO's guide on initiating successful projects).

Post-it notes on how to set up a project to fail
To help us make sure our major projects are set up for success, we've decided that all DfE projects will go through an initial discovery phase. Projects will have to complete this phase before we decide whether and how to take the them into the development and delivery phases.

Discovery is a standard phase in government projects to develop digital services (see the Government's Digital Service Standard) and there is quite a lot of guidance about how to do it (such as Will Myddleton's excellent blogpost on the topic).

The idea of discovery is less commonly applied to other projects (although you could argue that a lot of early policy development work comes into this category, or should do). There is not much guidance around about how to do that. So we decided to produce some.

We think the mindset, disciplines, tools and practices of digital discovery can be applied to many different types of projects; before we decide whether to proceed with a project, we should always want to know things like:

  • what the overall purpose is
  • who the end users, intermediaries and / or intended beneficiaries are
  • who the stakeholders are, and what they are expecting and hoping for
  • what the constraints are
  • what's already in place
  • what the problems and / or opportunities are
  • what the biggest and riskiest assumptions are, and whether they are valid
  • who has tried to do similar things before, and what they learned
  • what the different options might be (including not doing anything)

We're working in the open so that we can learn from others in the government project delivery community and so that we can share what we learn for others to use.

What Senior Responsible Owners and their teams need

From our initial conversations inside DfE, we've found that Senior Responsible Owners (SROs), Programme Directors and their teams generally need efficient, straightforward ways to:

  • know what's expected of them and what effective practice looks like
  • learn from others's experience and apply it to their own context
  • be confident they haven't missed anything and that they are setting their project up for success

People running major projects are usually very busy dealing with day-to-day demands on their time. This is especially true at the early stages when they are likely to have a range of other responsibilities alongside the potential project. They need guidance that is:

  • relevant
  • simple
  • clear
  • fast
  • flexible

We will check back in on our understand of what our teams need, in the light of what we learn as we test and iterate the guidance.

We ran a workshop

We asked the participants in the workshop to*:

(*The links are for anyone who shares my fascination with facilitation techniques - I felt these worked pretty well at keeping up the pace and drawing out people's knowledge in an efficient, collaborative way, but I would love to know what everyone else thought so let me know!)

people creating an affinity map

The output is this document containing a long list of headings and sub-headings. We will eventually turn this into guidance (probably not in long document format, bearing in mind the need for easy accessibility and usage).

We said we'd publish the document and ask everyone to drop in any links, references, tools or practices that they know of that might be useful for people to refer to or use - if you're interested and have links to share, please add them as comments / suggestions.

(People not used to using Google docs: we're using this because it means anyone with the link can add comments - you don't need a Google account, you can add comments and suggestions anonymously. We're also happy to receive suggestions in whatever format works for you - email is fine, as is Twitter, ideally using the #govdisco hashtag so we can easily see everyone's responses).

What's next...

I'm about to disappear on holiday for a week or so - when I get back, we'll start pulling together some draft guidance based on our own research, this workshop, and your contributions to the document. We'll share the results of that work here in September.

Thank you so much to everyone who came along to the workshop - I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did, and that you'll find the outputs useful too.





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