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How to Have a Great Remote Discovery

Working apart doesn't have to hinder your ability to connect with clients

Over the shoulder perspective of an individual participating in a video conference call | Image purchased from Shutterstock Tech

Can you relate to this pre-COVID-19 project Discovery experience?

We booked travel, hopped on a plane, and arrived at the client’s office to conduct a new project Discovery session. We led with our physical presence and personal connection to establish trust: Showed up dressed professionally, offered a friendly but firm handshake, looked them in the eye. We made small talk over coffee and bagels in the morning, maybe cracked a joke about their local sports team while sequestered in a stuffy conference room. Occasionally, we went out for a cocktail together at the end of the day. We connected personally, chatting about pets, children, and hobbies, and other pieces of our shared humanity.

Beth Mankowski leads a Discovery session pre-COVID-19 | Photo by Bridgett Colling

Our process for on-site Discovery was structured but also relied heavily on “reading the room” and following the turns of conversation. Spending two six-hour days together was the norm. We had the luxury of relaxing into the agenda, knowing that we had plenty of time to cover the business at hand, as well as allow the new team dynamics to gel.

COVID-19 was declared a National Emergency on March 13th | Created with COVID image from @Adobe Stock

In March, with the emergence of COVID-19, our travels were halted.

Fortunately, some clients still wanted to move forward with their projects. We adapted our new project Discovery approach to allow for entirely remote facilitation. We led with our business connection to establish trust. We researched the client more diligently to understand their background and market position. We demonstrated competence by understanding their Jobs To Be Done (AKA business needs), asking thoughtful questions, and listening to the answers. We practiced their jargon so we could speak it fluently.

The time we used to spend face-to-face with new clients is now targeted strategically on preparation.

Of course, we covered these activities before, but now when we show up to a one-day, six-hour Discovery meeting over Zoom, we’ve spent additional time preparing the agenda, conferring internally about who will facilitate which section of the discussion, and identifying the key decisions we must take away from this day. The time we used to spend face-to-face with new clients is now targeted strategically on preparation.

Highlanders gathering on Zoom for a weekly company stand-up | Photo provided by Highland

Along with the highly-structured six-hour Zoom call agenda, I’ve prepared several visual aids: process flow diagrams, data relationship diagrams, and even configuring the platform itself for hands-on demos. I knew these aides wouldn’t be 100% correct, but having a starting place—a so-called strawdog—for people to react to increased the depth of the conversation in a way that drawing on a virtual whiteboard could not do. I’ve relied more heavily than ever before on lessons learned in previous projects to guide my preparations. I’ve also drawn from my experience with clients in the same industries to equip myself. Queuing up these visual aids ahead of time proved to be an accelerator to the overall conversation. This is a technique I would use again, even for my next in-person Discovery session.

Process Flow Diagram developed by Beth Mankowski

About half-way through the day, with our business connection solidly established, we began to segue into more personal territory. One participant’s dog jumps into her lap while she’s on camera. We “aww” together at the pooch’s sweet face. The facilitator’s school-aged son pops into the background and waves at everyone, and they smile and wave back. Another participant returns to the Zoom meeting from a break to report that her dog has messed on the carpet in the only room in the house that even HAS carpet! We all chuckle and sympathize with her.

The team at Zoom had a take-your-dog to work meeting | Photo from Zoom

Takeaways for hosting your next remote Discovery

I found myself very intentional about this remote Discovery process: condensing the agenda, focusing on the outcomes that I must acquire from this Discovery session in order to successfully begin the project, and spending additional time in preparation. Some of the “nice-to-haves” fell away (alas, there were no sports jokes). But I learned I could still cultivate personal connections with the faces on my screen. I could still introduce humor, and thankfully, humor is still a great connector in our shared humanity.

For the next Discovery session over Zoom, I would again focus on Preparation, Prioritization, and People.