Confidence and clarity: the value of project discovery in software development

Software development has a delivery problem, and it has been the case for some time. As uncommon an admission as that may be from a company that specialises in the field - there is just no hiding from the numbers.

A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average "large" IT project* runs 45% over budget and 7% over time while delivering only half of the predicted value. Or, in finance specifically, Standish Group's 2015 study revealed that 42% of banking software projects are unsatisfactory or actively disappointing.

Communication gaps, lack of visibility, poor resource planning, scope creep, unrealistic expectations, and unclear goals and objectives are some of the main reasons IT projects fail, falter or do not meet business expectations.

All too often, software implementations do not play out as they should. So, what can be done?

Put simply, a focus on managing strategy and stakeholders instead of budget and scheduling, proper resource planning, alignment of teams with goals and objectives, and effective project management are crucial to the success of any IT project. Putting this into practice might be easier said than done, but it is where the significance of the discovery phase begins to show value.

"A discovery phase helps to ensure that we have a more accurate picture of the client's requirements, identify any gaps, better determine the work involved, and how long it will take to complete," says Maria Dunne, HPD Lendscape's Head of Delivery. "It helps us tackle assumptions, set realistic goals, and ultimately maximise ROI while staying as true as possible to the agreed timescale and budget."

If you aren't familiar with the concept of a discovery phase, it is undertaken following the selection of a vendor, whereby the vendor and client collaborate to examine in greater detail how the software shall be deployed, configured, and integrated to best meet the client's requirements. It serves to shore up the scope of the software implementation, allowing for greater accuracy in the timeline and effort required to implement.

"During the sales process, contact between a vendor's development team and experts from either side can be quite limited," continues Dunne. "The discovery phase provides specialists within the vendor with the opportunity to become much more familiar with the client, the solution they need, and the kind of user experience they're looking to deliver as well."

As well as refining the overarching project scope, going through this process can also help plan for potential complexity. For instance, if a specific part of an integration looks to be more involved than initially suspected, it can be moved further up the timeline – ensuring that the overall project remains on track. 

Discovery is not just about pre-emptive problem solving, however. It also helps to ensure that what is being delivered aligns with what the customer actually needs. 

"We've seen instances where, having been through a discovery process, the scope of the project is greater than what we and the client were expecting," says Dunne. "Naturally, it is much better to have a conversation about where to scale things back as early as possible. When you have that kind of clarity upfront, implementation becomes more efficient."

 

Solving challenges, delivering confidence

While a discovery phase is designed to minimise the danger of issues like scope creep and overruns by creating a clear, detailed understanding of the project for all involved. However, it does come with its own set of challenges.

Areas such as integration can be taxing for a client, requiring them to provide a vendor with in-depth insight and documentation on interfaces that may have been developed years – even decades – prior. Then, there is the cultural shift from legacy architectures to new platforms and the huge change in functionality that can entail – something that can be difficult to visualise without prior experience. 

"The nature of finance industry technology is that you can be looking at giant leaps from one platform to another," explains Dunne. "Users might be transitioning from paper-based, highly manual processes to partially or even fully-automated environments. That is a substantial change, and it can be difficult for someone to explain how they want things to work when they haven’t been exposed to that kind of setup before."

"We always want clients to have gone through some degree of training and configuration before we finalise the specifications of a platform," Dunne continues. "Upfront, in the discovery phase, we want users to be able to try out processes as they currently work. Any gaps are recorded and estimated, but we continue to challenge the gap in conjunction with our clients throughout the implementation phase."

During implementation, HPD Lendscape has fully embraced the need for a consultative approach to software development through a tried and tested process, one that prioritises understanding, education, rapid iteration, and training. It is better to build and test in an agile and responsive way rather than presenting a finished product no one has been hands-on with.

While no two projects are the same, some degree of regimentation also helps to ensure that the discovery phase is as productive as possible. With decades of development experience to draw on, our discovery process employs a structured approach that ensures any gaps or inaccuracies in an implementation plan can be quickly identified and remedied.

That, says Dunne, can help dramatically reduce the risk of a project overrunning. "It's very difficult to eliminate unexpected events during implementation, but a robust discovery process does significantly reduce the impact of any unforeseen issues."

For clients, she suggests, the result can be summed up in one word: trust. "I think that adding a discovery phase gives people a much greater sense of security around their project, whether that's in terms of overall delivery or just that they’ve secured the appropriate budget."

"That's actually the thing I enjoy most about my role," she shares. "Taking what can be a very complex process and breaking it down in a way that gives people trust in you to guide them through it, even when things get tricky."

Updating or implementing new technology isn't easy. The stress some may feel at different points of the project can be eased by continually conveying the value of the technology, creating clear expectations and a shared understanding.

While implementation can fail for several reasons, neglecting the discovery phase is at the top of the list. It is possibly the most important part of an implementation that can not only help start a project on the right track but save time, money and avoid unnecessary challenges in the future.

Article written by:

Iain Gomersall & Maria Dunne