Why Discovery Is the Key to Leveling Up at Work

If you're looking to level up your creative solutioning superpowers at work this year, then add this consulting secret to your toolbox: run an amazing discovery process, and watch your solutions land right on point.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #679
The Quick And Dirty

Discovery is the process of getting clarity around the problem that we're actually trying to solve, instead of throwing the wrong solutions at it. Start with a discovery mindset, and make sure you have the right stakeholders involved. From there, establish your key questions and non-negotiatables. Using these tools, you can level up at work by bringing real, creative solutions to the table.

Welcome to 2022! What’s your take on the “new year, new me” approach to kicking off the new year? Personally, I’m not a fan. I was pretty fond of the old me. So, I’m more of a “new year, new ideas” kind of person. It’s a less compelling bumper sticker, but I think the focus on renewed creativity over renewed humanity is the way to go.
If you’re on the hunt for a fresh take on approaching your work this year, then I’d love to share a beloved secret weapon with you: using a discovery process to define and drive your best work.
Discovery is a key phase in any consulting engagement, and yet I think it’s one of the most underused and undervalued levers you can pull as an organizational insider.
So let’s talk today about what discovery is, what makes it so critical, and how you can make it work for you!

What is Discovery?

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” 
In the workplace, we are so enamored of solutions. We love doing, implementing, and delivering. In fact, we’re so enamored of execution that we often miss out on the magic that Einstein is pointing to.
Having clarity around what problem we’re actually trying to solve enables us to be much better solvers of problems and deliverers of solutions. 
The act of getting to this clarity—of spending those 55 minutes of your hour defining the problem—is what consultants call discovery. It’s the phase of an engagement during which our magic is in asking, listening, and probing. Its goals are simply alignment and clarity.

Why is discovery so essential?

When I was still working in Human Resources, I’d get a call every other week from a leader insisting they needed more money to offer a member of their team who was planning to leave the company.
And yet when I’d talk to said team member, their reason for leaving was almost never money. They were planning to leave due to poor leadership or insufficient room for growth, or a million other things. But almost never money.
In other words, money was a solution to a different problem. 
Doing our best work doesn’t come from designing the shiniest solutions, but rather the most relevant and practical—the ones that will actually solve our problem.
Discovery is the upfront work that informs our understanding of what we need to solve, and what success would look like. Without it, we simply become human hammers who think every problem is a nail.

So how do we do discovery?

A great discovery process is one that makes sense within the norms and culture of your organization. But whatever shape it takes, here are some key considerations for you. 

1. Begin with a discovery mindset

Doing discovery requires a willingness to “go slow to go fast.” Your hands are itching to build, create, invent, and I’m asking you to hit pause and…chat?
I know! It can be a hard pill to swallow.
This is where mindset matters. Think of your discovery process as an upfront investment in yourself and your solution—a long-game play.
Have the humility to know that you don’t know what you don’t know. (Did you follow that?) Discovery may slow you down in the early days. But it will nearly always provide an insight that gets you onto the right path more quickly—and leaves you less likely to miss the mark or need to restart.
Have confidence in your ability to uncover valuable insight. Start here.

2. Identify the right stakeholders

OK. While discovery may feel like it’s slowing you down, there are ways to build in some efficiency. Make sure you’re discovering with the right stakeholders—everyone whose voice you need to hear, and no one whose voice you don’t.
Let’s imagine you’re a marketing manager and you need to develop some new collateral for the sales team to use when pitching to clients.
Before you zip into design mode, you may want to discover with:
  • A salesperson so you understand their goals and needs
  • Your own leader to understand your budget, requirements, and timeline
  • A colleague who has successfully delivered something similar so you’re not reinventing the wheel
By collecting these bits of insight and information upfront, you’ll know exactly what you’re creating, with what resources, and what you have to leverage before you begin. This helps minimize the likelihood that you head down the wrong path and have to start from scratch.
Once you have the insight you need, call discovery a wrap, and get moving!

3. Design a set of key questions

When I work with clients, I design a protocol for conducting interviews or focus groups. But really, it’s a simple guide to ensure I get all the important questions asked.
Be comprehensive upfront, and really think about what you might need to know not just on day one, but even further down the road.
I love asking questions about the current state, desired outcome, budget, etc. But I also ask questions like:
  • Where have you seen initiatives like this fail or fall flat in the past?
  • What’s the most important thing I need to understand to ensure this is a success?
  • If you could wave a magic wand and have the most essential pain point solved tomorrow, what would that be?
These questions push your stakeholders out of the day-to-day mechanics of the work and into a zone of reflection and imagination. I nearly always uncover something with these questions that my typical fact-based ones don’t uncover.
What are some creative questions that will support your ability to land on magic?

4. Establish your non-negotiables

A great discovery process allows you to be thoughtfully creative. And we want your innovation flag flying high.
But a critical part of discovery is understanding your guardrails. If you’re still working on that marketing collateral, are you clear on the company’s brand guidelines?  Does the sales team require that materials be accessible digitally? Is there specific language you must use or avoid?
Your goal here isn’t to challenge these boundaries, but simply to understand them so you can work within them.
In my business, solid discovery phases have led me to critical insights like:
  • Our group president wants to enhance our ability to collaborate…but do NOT mention the idea of a decision-making matrix. He hates those!
  • The last facilitator who ran a session with our team would call on people without their volunteering…and it really backfired, so avoid doing that.
  • We are a really visual team, so any ice breakers or discussions you design should have us drawing and writing – not just talking.
These are all insights I’d have missed without a solid discovery process—and they really helped me to shape my engagements into big wins for the clients participating in them.
I hope you’re ready to tap into your discovery power the next time you’re kicking off a project. Your future self will really appreciate your current self for having the patience and wisdom to discover what true success would look like.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.