How to Engage Leaders in Discovery

agile leadership agile teams clarity collaboration discovery
Leader and team members working together

By Julie Springer

August 4, 2022

Agile delivery needs to be balanced with discovery. Discovery is about understanding the problem you are trying to solve, exploring your customer’s needs and defining the outcome you want to achieve, before you begin developing the solution. When we teach Agile teams how to add discovery into their planning and delivery processes, we encourage them to have collaborative discovery meetings that include team members working together with leaders and stakeholders. These meetings are led by project, program or product leaders that work directly with Agile delivery teams.

The Value of a Collaborative Discovery Process

It’s important for the meetings to be collaborative because of the nature of discovery - it’s about bringing assumptions to the surface, asking questions, sharing information and seeing the problem from multiple perspectives. Through the interaction, the group develops shared understanding and a common vision. The most effective way to do this is with a facilitated workshop, using visual tools to guide the group and provide clarity to what the group is learning and deciding.

A common concern we hear in response to this is, “But what if the leaders don’t want to be involved?” This is a valid concern, and there are a few underlying reasons why it is raised. It typically comes from either a fear of engaging with leaders in a collaborative way or from past interactions with leaders where they resisted “getting involved in the details.” It’s not always easy, but engaging leaders in the discovery process is a good way to get past these communication barriers. Here are some tips for how to get started.

How to Get Started

1 - Develop an effective process

You will feel more comfortable asking leaders to get involved in discovery if you have developed an effective and repeatable process. It’s best to start with simple tools that get to the heart of what needs to be understood. The team can always add depth to the discovery later on, with more detailed tools. The core tool that we recommend is the Discover Why Map from the Mobius Loop, which was designed by Gabrielle Benefield. For a copy of the map and details on how to run a collaborative discovery session using the map, download the Guide.

Before inviting leaders into the meeting, practice with your team, using something they are already working on. You will likely be surprised to see that not everyone on the team shares the same understanding of the problem and the desired outcome. Use this as an opportunity to develop an approach for facilitating the meeting, so that it runs smoothly when you bring others in.

2 - Be clear on what you are asking for and why

Leaders are busy and it can be hard to get their time if they don’t see the need or value. When inviting leaders to participate, take time to define a clear purpose for the meeting and explain why it is important for it to be collaborative. They may suggest that you have the meeting on your own and then bring them the results. While this is better than not doing discovery at all, it is much more effective if the leader can be directly engaged in the process.

A good way to persuade leaders of the value is to put yourself in their shoes and define “what’s in it for them.” Leaders want teams to have clarity and to be working on the most important problems that align to business goals. Explain that the team needs to hear their voice to have this clarity and that there is a risk that the team will waste time going in the wrong direction if they don’t have it. Describe the meeting as an effective way to get everyone on the same page, removing the need for multiple back-and-forth conversations.

3 - Pilot and expand

Treat the change as an experiment and start small. Begin with one or two leaders who are open and receptive to supporting the team. Ask them to provide feedback on how it went and how you can improve the process before engaging additional leaders. You might even be able to enlist their help in convincing their peers to participate.

As you expand the process and make collaborative discovery a regular part of your process, you will see improved results not only in the value of what your team works to deliver but in communication and alignment between leaders and teams. Developing a collaborative relationship with leaders from the start will pay off as the team works through designing, developing and delivering the solution.

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