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Consulting Process – Understanding The Discovery Phase

The first step of the consulting process is the discovery phase. Discovery involves gathering data from multiple sources before the consultants apply their expertise to solve a business problem. The discovery phase of a consulting engagement is therefore key to the consulting process. In a resource-constrained environment, speed and quality are essential to successful client discovery. In this two-part post, we will discuss the importance of accelerating client discovery during a consulting engagement. In this first post, we will outline the discovery phase, examining the process itself, its tendency to be lengthy, and how to determine its success.

The Consultant’s Standard Discovery Process

What goes into discovery

Many consultants rely on their own proprietary business frameworks as a value-add for their offerings. Each firm has its own unique way to approach a problem. No matter what type of framework a consultant ends up adopting, he/she needs to get to the root cause of the business problem he/she has identified. Data discovery thus enters the picture.

Consulting data discovery has evolved considerably with the advent of new technologies and increasingly sophisticated understanding of consulting. Whereas consultants previously relied on generalized ideas for interviews, client feedback, and general monitoring, many now incorporate big data analytics and predictive models into their discovery process. Even with the evolution of new technologies and more sophisticated approaches to data discovery, consultant discovery techniques typically fall under the following categories:

Review of existing business documents and processes

Quantitative analysis of information using statistical tools

First-hand observations through informal stakeholder interviews

Formal and semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders, including clients

Regardless of the sophistication of the discovery process, the end result of most discovery is a plethora of spreadsheets, raw data, and subjective measurement of perceptions.

Length of the current discovery activities

Consultants spend a considerable amount of time on discovery. Once the scope of an engagement is defined, a consultant has to collect the right data to understand exactly what needs to be done. This data collection could be simple fact finding, or it could be a more involved process. Engagements vary in the time and resources committed to data collection based on the nature of the engagement, the type of discovery required, the availability of discovery tools, the type of entity being examined, and many other variables. For business consulting, it can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months to complete discovery for an engagement.

For any type of consulting discovery process, the discovery is rarely exhaustive. There is always more data to explore, another stakeholder to question, or other strategies to consider. The question for most consultants, therefore, is:“what can we discover in a reasonable timeframe?”

How to determine whether the discovery process has succeeded

Conducting discovery does not itself guarantee that a consultant will uncover meaningful insights. Before discovery even begins, consultants need to have a sound framework for approaching discovery. Regardless of how consultants choose to conduct discovery, there are four universal questions they must address:

Are we asking the right questions?

Assumptions debilitate effective consulting. Too often, the gap between planning and execution is a result of faulty assumptions about the nature of a problem. Particularly when large business problems are concerned, many people will have strong opinions about the issue. Unless the right questions are asked, however, there is no way to understand the root cause of any business problem.

Do we have the right information to answer what we need to know?

This question, while obvious, is still important. In an ideal world, a consultant understands exactly what the client needs to discover and why the client needs that information. The reality is often more difficult. Business is often uncertain, processes are not as well defined as they might seem, and execution is frequently difficult to track. The key here is to understand what the goals are before starting to gather the information. The more specific those goals are, the better chance consultants have to successfully gather the correct information.

Can we reasonably say we have an accurate snapshot of business realities with the data we have collected?

Again, discovery is about understanding how much information is enough. While it might be reassuring to think consultants can gain an exhaustive understanding of the collective information available about a business problem, such an expectation is practically untenable. Consultants have to operate with limited data. Something will always be missing, but the critical test for effective discovery is whether the information is sufficient enough to determine the root cause of a problem.

Do you have enough information to reconcile disparate perspectives?

It is fairly easy to determine root cause when all the data points in the same direction, but that rarely happens. Most of the time, consultants have to wade through competing ideas and conflicting information before they can come to any accurate conclusions. An effective discovery processes will ensure that consultants have a sound method for determining which perspective is correct, or better yet, what explains the differences in perceptions.

Now that we’ve established the importance of successful client discovery for consultants, be sure to check out our post tomorrow, where we will argue that the way to increase value-add for consulting is to decrease the speed to better insight by leveraging technology to scale insight gathering.

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