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In Uncharted Territory: A guideline for Remote Discoveries

Entering into a new project is always daunting. Similar to exploring uncharted territory, the team is hunting for paths to an as yet undefined goal, navigating unforeseen challenges along the way. There is a sense of freedom and possibility, but also the lurking risks of misunderstanding, derailing and failure.  


Even pre-COVID, exploring new problem spaces, writing hypotheses, and discovering and validating ideas was intense. In remote discoveries, the challenge of involving all subject matter experts is compounded. Fatigue and distance increase the chance for misunderstandings and misaligned expectations. However, there are a few principles that help to mitigate these risks. 


Embrace uncertainty


A discovery can be defined as identifying problems and root causes, finding opportunities for unmet needs, highlighting jobs to be done, and ideating solutions based on what we find. Therefore establishing a common language and agreeing on the right level of detail is vital.


Even in the short period before starting, we typically see forming and norming phases within discovery teams. Early activities such as preparing workshops need safe spaces for people to speak out, define roles and responsibilities, share hopes and concerns. During these discussions, uncertainty should be embraced. The team has to be – or to get – comfortable with changing directions. Building trust and confidence remotely requires attention from early on.


Be adaptable 


The typical guardrails will also help in remote discoveries: aligning on the goals with all participants will help set a north star and guide the team. Pick your methods from the toolbox, decide on core hours and set a rough schedule for the coming weeks. Most important are dedicated daily routines for the facilitators, allowing time to reflect on how to constantly change and adapt the approach based on the desired outcome. Time-boxing these ‘learning’ slots is crucial.


This cycle of preparation and debriefing is most successful when a cross-functional core team with business, product, design and tech know-how collaborates, incorporating feedback from all participants on a daily basis and shaping a flexible foundation for upcoming sessions. After a few days, this will evolve into a playbook. The principle is not to stick to a lane or dogmatic set of rules, but rather source from it to show possibilities and adapt them to your needs.


Be present all the way


While the principles mentioned above apply to a non-remote setup, this becomes crucial in a remote and distributed discovery. For the core team, it’s important to be present at every meeting, ask for feedback constantly and create opportunities to share this feedback asynchronously as well. What do the participants think works well? Are they comfortable with the approach, methods and tools? It’s important to find out what participants really understood, in both group and 1-on-1 settings. 


This requires being transparent about the discovery plan and the uncertainties ahead, and to reflect on how to adapt with the participants. Why did we choose this way? What do we expect to see and measure? Showing progress on a shared virtual whiteboard continuously will result in an „Obeya“-like go-to place. Using it as the entry point for information will keep the team and all stakeholders in the know.


Due to the nature of a discovery, new stakeholders and subject matter experts will pop up, learnings, decisions and changes will need to be captured each day. Having this virtual Obeya available for ad-hoc walkthroughs will become invaluable showing the process, progress and decisions made. The guiding principle is to provide transparency and reduce information barriers or misalignment.


Be an empathetic disruptor


It is the nature of a discovery that not everyone will become a domain expert within a short period of time. Accepting knowledge gaps early on builds an honest foundation for collaboration. The diversity of experts and mindsets, and the potentially disruptive presence of the core discovery team, makes it crucial to demonstrate empathy and curiosity. The whole team should be able to learn. It is a good practice to switch facilitation duty, allow people to co-design workshops, and let everyone explore roles and mindsets they haven't had before. Once everyone is able early on to step out of their comfort zone, it will be easier to overcome hierarchies and focus on the problem and potential solutions. 


While navigating an ambiguous domain and a new team setup remotely, good practice is to consider growth as a two-way street. The empathetic disruptor will listen and observe whilst exploring new business models, idea-to-market fit, products and services. 


By putting learning at the heart of the mission, you, the team and everyone involved are setting out with the right mindset for a remote discovery. It may be uncharted, but by accepting ambiguity and growing together, the team will be able to carve out a new path to success.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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