Question

Discovery is Like Onboarding

I recently started working at Metal Toad.  Metal Toad has one of the best onboarding processes I have ever experienced — thorough documentation, there are more people happy to help me than I can count, there are well thought-out processes for onboarding, and just about anything that could be done in advance of my arrival had already been done.  Nevertheless, I am drinking from a fire hose in an attempt to answer the following (partial) list of questions:

  • How does the company function?

  • What are the moving pieces?

  • What is the company culture, its jargon, its colloquialisms, its mores, its core values?

  • What are the company’s solution domains and its core areas of expertise?

  • Where is the pain?

  • What is the vision?

  • What is the actual business of the company and what does it actually do?

I need to answer the above (and more) questions in order to answer the most important question of all:  How can I best contribute to Metal Toad?

Of course, the answers to these questions may be difficult to determine, and may change over time.  The answers, and even the questions themselves, inevitably lead to more questions. It seems the more you learn, the more there is to learn, which I believe is how it should be.  The more I learn, the better I can contribute to Metal Toad.

Recently, I had the opportunity to observe and participate in a client discovery process for a new client.  Metal Toad has developed excellent processes and approaches to the challenges of discovery. The results from a discovery constrain the effectiveness of subsequent project work.  Without a successful discovery process, the chances of success in the project are limited. I dare say that many problems that rear their heads during a project can be traced back to mistakes or omissions in the discovery process.

So, what should result from a successful discovery?  I have come to realize that onboarding and discovery have much in common, especially when done correctly.  Fundamentally, the same questions needing answers during onboarding need to be answered for discovery. Why is that?  It’s because the onboarding and discovery processes require the same fundamental outcomes for success, such as deep understanding of the company/client, the company’s/client’s needs, vision, pain points — the whole package, in order to do what the company/client needs to be done in the best manner possible.

The “tangible” outcomes of discovery are fairly concrete and have analogues in onboarding.  Here are just a few of the more obvious discovery outcomes and onboarding analogues:

  • User Stories ⇔ How-to’s and Process

  • Problem domain knowledge ⇔ Institutional knowledge

  • Product/company Vision ⇔ Product/company Vision

  • Company Values ⇔ Company Values

The above outcomes for discovery (along with others) provide a solid foundation for communication, scoping, sizing, goal setting, scheduling, budgeting, etc., all of which must be well documented.  There is also a crucial aspect the outcomes help address that are not so immediately tangible.

A myriad of questions will arise for team members during project execution that could not have been anticipated or answered during discovery in any practical manner (“details, details…”).  Many questions will be of the form: “Should I do X or Y?” Often, the answers can’t wait without affecting the flow of the project and need to be made NOW. The best choice between X and Y will be heavily influenced by what is learned in an immersive discovery process.  In particular, Vision and Values comprehension can guide answers to questions in empty or grey areas. These, mostly small decisions in aggregate significantly affect the overall quality, utility, and acceptance of the solutions.

Just as an employee is empowered by a deep understanding of “all things related to our company” to make daily decisions, a project team member is empowered by a deep understanding of “all things related to the project.”

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