Typically at the outset of any project where there is a need to do significant requirements gathering, a series of discovery meetings are held between the client and the project team. Different organizations have different ways of conducting these meetings but the one common thread to almost all failed discovery meetings is that they were done remotely over the phone/video conference. Why is it important to be on site for these meetings? Here’s why.
Nothing will set your team up for success better than putting on a good first impression with your client at the discovery meetings. When you are in person it is far easier to start to cement that positive relationship with the client as opposed to over the phone. Typically a set of discovery meetings can stretch over a few days which provides ample opportunity to get some very valuable face-time with the client and let them get to know you as a person as well as a professional. When conducting your meetings over the phone it adds a sense of impersonal tones to the relationship and you (or your team) miss out on that opportunity to really get to know your customer at the individual level. Down the road on your project, you may need to cash in on some of that positive relationship if you have a significant issue that needs some collaboration or cooperation from your client. If you don’t already have that relationship established, it makes it infinitely more difficult to get through those situations unscathed.
I’ve taken part in a lot of discovery sessions – some remote but most in person. I can say that while it’s good to stick to the agenda and timing of the topics, some of the most valuable pieces of information come out of side conversations around certain topics. Perhaps it’s a conversation over lunch that’s brought in or a sidebar during one of the coffee breaks that elicit some truly valuable information that will help your project team understand the true requirements of the client. As a project manager, it’s doubly valuable in that perhaps some additional scope (with a CR for more money) can be discovered. Or perhaps it’s a discussion where some scope can come out of the project based on a new way of looking at things (which is great if you’re running a fixed price project).
Visuals & White-boarding
While we can rely on technology to bridge a lot of the communication gaps to attend/facilitate these discovery sessions remotely, nothing will ever take the place of standing up and starting to white-board a problem for everyone to see. Yes, we can use Visio online to map out a flowchart but it is clunky at best vs. a white board. Other visuals such as hard copy documents are difficult to transcribe for a remote audience as well. I’ve even been part of discoveries where they take us consultants down to the “floor” to see the staff in action to help get an understanding of the system we are to put in to support said staff. You can’t get that experience remotely.
Discovery sessions are often the first glimpse the client has of your real ability as a project team. The kickoff can be polished by the project manager but there’s nowhere to hide when doing a discovery. Doing them in person may be logistically more difficult, and there’s no arguing for the cost savings for conducting them remotely however the cost of not gaining the three points noted above can often far outweigh any hotel and plane costs. Remote discovery should be done as a last resort – on site discovery sessions work.