Guidelines and Resources for Discovery Phase of Consulting

Much of the content of this topic came from this book: Consulting and Organization Development - Book Cover

Sections in this Topic Include:

Goals for This Discovery Phase
Now is a Good Time to Establish a Project Team
Now Is the Best Time to Choose a Diagnostic Model
Research Planning and Data Collection
Analyzing Results of Research
Generating Recommendations Based on Results of Discovery
Sharing Findings and Recommendations With Clients
Also See These Closely Related Topics

Strongly Recommended Pre-Reading

All About Consulting - Types, Skills and Approaches
Collaborative Consulting for Performance, Change and Learning
Guidelines and Resources for Contracting Phase of Consulting

NOTE: There can be very different styles in going through this discovery phase, ranging from a carefully specified and sequential set of activities to an unfolding and nonsequential arrangement. See the very Different Approaches in Consulting. For the sake of being highly informative with clear and well organized information, this topic will explain a rather orderly, but highly collaborative approach to discovery.

(This phase is sometimes called the diagnostic phase.)


Typical Activities in This Phase

Whether you are an external or internal consultant, if you are attending to a complex problem or goal, then you and your client will work together during this phase to understand more about the overall priority (problem or goal) of the change effort and how you all can effectively address it. Together, you will collect information, analyze it to identify findings and conclusions, and then make recommendations from that information. Sometimes the data-collection effort is very quick, for example, facilitating a large planning meeting. Other times, the effort is more extensive, for example, evaluating an entire organization and developing a complete plan for change.

Importance -- and Ethical Responsibility -- to Do This Phase

Sometimes, people minimize the importance of - or altogether skip - this critical discovery phase, and start the project by articulating an ambitious and comprehensive vision for change. However, many would argue that it is unethical to start making ambitious recommendations without fully examining (or discovering) the current situation in the client's organization. Focusing most of the change efforts on achieving a robust vision, without at least some careful discovery, often can be harmful to your client's organization because your project can end up dealing with symptoms of any current issues, rather than the root causes. Also, the project could end up pushing an exciting vision that, while initially inspiring and motivating to many, could be completely unrealistic to achieve -- especially if the organization already has many current, major issues to address. Therefore, when working to guide change in an organization that already is facing several significant issues, you are usually better off to start from where your client is at -- that usually means conducting an effective discovery to identify priorities for change.

Discovery Itself is Powerful Strategy for Change

Your activities for discovery do not have to be tedious and demanding -- almost overwhelming. Just the activities of working to understand more about the organization can itself cause a major change in the client's organization. For example, the activity helps your client to become more enlightened about the organization and excited about making necessary changes. It helps members see that their opinions and concerns are being heard. That perception is critical to sustaining the type of motivation and momentum required for successful change. Perhaps the most important result from discovery is mobilizing your client for change. As a result, you now have their interest, focus and energy for changing their organization. These features are critical to the success of your project.

Goals for This Discovery Phase

See a video about finding root causes, targeting the problem, selecting performance standards, focusing research, collecting data, analyzing data and generating useful recommendations. From the Consultants Development Institute.

The primary purpose of the discovery phase is to fully understand the client's situation by examining the area of the organization that needs the most attention and what kinds of attention it needs. By collaborating with your client during this phase, you orient your client to accepting feedback about the situation and recommendations for how it can be addressed. In their book, Practicing Organization Development : A Guide for Consultants, Rothwell, Sullivan and McLean mention the following benefits of an assessment:

  1. Identifies the causes of problems in the organization.
  2. Provides the basis for sharing feedback between you and your client.
  3. Provides background information for upcoming action planning.
  4. Provides a basis for tracking and evaluating the project activities.

The goals of this phase are for you and your client to collaboratively:

  1. Decide what information is needed, starting with the symptoms of the situation.
  2. Decide how that information can be collected and by whom, in a realistic and practical fashion.
  3. Gather that information, usually by conducting an assessment of some kind.
  4. Understand the information -- often, this is not nearly as difficult as it might seem.
  5. Identify key priorities that are revealed from the collected information.
  6. Share mutual impressions of what the information indicates. The mutual impressions are critical to the upcoming action planning phase of consulting.

Additional Perspectives on Discovery Phase

Problem Defining and Consulting
Analysis & Diagnosis in Organization Development - pt. 1
Analysis & Diagnosis in Organization Development - pt. 2
Analysis & Diagnosis in Organization Development - pt. 3
Organizational Diagnosis and Development
Consulting Process - Understanding The Discovery Phase
Diagnosing Organizations: Methods, Models, and Processes
The Diagnostic Phase « Organisation Development
Organizational Diagnosis: What You Need to Know and Why Organizations Need
Problem Solving in Consulting
Organizational Diagnosis Design
Organisational Diagnosis

Diagnosing your team—and curing its ills
Team Leadership: Diagnosing Process Problems
Diagnosing the Need for Team Building
Diagnosing Team Problems

Now is a Good Time to Establish a Project Team

One of the most powerful means to cultivate collaboration is by working with a project team comprised of key personnel from the client's organization. The use of a project team helps to ensure that the client understands the activities in the project, takes strong ownership of them and therefore is much more likely to implement the necessary changes needed in the organization. The “job description” for the team might be to work with you to:

  • Answer various questions from you during the project. There will be times when you do not understand various terms and practices within the client's organization. Team members can explain what is happening, any effects on the project and suggest how the project might be modified.
  • Review various drafted results from the consulting process. For example, team members can help develop and review plans for data collection, collect and analyze that data, generate preliminary recommendations and conduct presentations.
  • Help customize plans and activities during upcoming phases in the consulting cycle. Team members could give you feedback to ensure that project activities suit the nature and needs of their organization. Team members often know more about the organization’s culture and how to work within that culture than the consultant.
  • Monitor progress of the project. Team members should know the project plans and be aware of the status of implementation. Members can help, for example, by suggesting changes to plans to get back on schedule.
  • Sustain momentum throughout the planning process. Team members can show enthusiasm and support for the project. Other members of your client’s organization can be inspired if they see their own team members really believing in the project.

Establish the Project Team
Team Building

Now Is the Best Time to Choose a Diagnostic Model

See a video about what performance is, including the role of performance standards that often are in diagnostic models. From the Consultants Development Institute.

We all have diagnostic models. Some are explicit and known to us. Others are implicit and intuitive. For example, think about how you feel about a certain team or organization that you know about. You probably had some automatic reaction to it, such as whether it is struggling or high-performing. That reaction came from some explicit or implicit set of standards that you have for how it should be acting or performing. That is your diagnostic model.

Without an explicit diagnostic model, you and your client can end up just wondering around in the project according to each of your own unknown biases and standards, often believing that are working together -- when you actually are not. Each of you might see the same organization very differently and come up with very different recommendations.

Some of the best models suggest explicit best practices or standards of excellence to compare to the information that you are gathering during this phase. The results of that comparison usually generate clear and justifiable recommendations to make to clients near the end of this discovery phase. They also provide a clear benchmark for evaluating the success near the end of the project. Thus, a diagnostic model can be useful in an organizational change effort to:

  1. Analyze results of data collection (you will collect the information about what the model specifies as a standard for a high-quality team or organization).
  2. Identify issues that should be addressed by the organizational change effort (you will find where the team or organization does not meet those standards).
  3. Suggest what actions should be taken to address the issues (you will specify what needs to be done to meet those standards).
  4. Evaluate the success of the organizational change effort (when the project is done, you will compare what the team is doing now to those standards).

There are numerous models available when working to improve an organization. The guidelines for choosing which model to use are similar to the guidelines for choosing which solutions (or "interventions") to use. See the section
How to Choose Which Strategies (Interventions) to Use for Change

Here are some examples of models:
numerous organizational diagnostic models
Basic Overview of Life Cycles in Organizations (often include standards and recommendations)
Various Models for Change Management
A Diagnostic Model for For-Profit Organizations
A Diagnostic Model for Nonprofit Organization
Evaluating Group Process and Performance

Research Planning and Data Collection

Focus Your Research

Do not be alarmed about the word "research". It need not be a highly scientific and laborious activity during this phase. The more realistic that you make it, the better. Ideally, the research conducted by you and your client would be useful to everyone in your client’s organization. However, without a clear and specific focus, the research can quickly become a demanding and wide-ranging set of activities that can produce a tremendous amount of seemingly disconnected information – information that can end up being useful to no one. Therefore, it is extremely important to get as much focus as possible before you and your client start the research. A useful way to focus your research is to identify one overall question that the research must answer, for example:

  1. How can we improve the performance of the client's team?

That question invites a few more, including:

  1. So what does an ideal team's performance look like in organizations - what are typical standards of performance? (The diagnostic model will often suggest those best practices or standards.)
  2. How is the client's team performing now?

Develop a Research Plan

The plan should specify the research question to be answered and any associated questions. It should also specify the data that is needed, sources of the data, how it will be collected, when and by whom. It should be a very relevant, realistic and practical plan. The client should review the plan, as well, to be sure it is understandable and acceptable to them. See

Planning Your Business Research

Some Useful Resources for Research Planning

Analysis & Diagnosis in Organization Development
Basic Research Methods (planning, selecting, methods, etc., to collect data about performance)
Designing Assessment and Evaluation Tools (to evaluate during and at end of project)
Selecting from Among Publicly Available Assessments
Diagnostic Models (these sometimes suggest what data to collect)
Organizational Assessments (tools to assess current performance)
Some Common Types of Data to Collect
Some Sources of Data and Methods to Collect that Data

Analyzing Results of Research

In our example of the team, above, analysis should focus especially on the question:

  • What is the difference between how the client's team is functioning now and the ideal standards for any team?

Analyzing, Interpreting and Reporting Results
Systems Thinking (see recognize overall patterns, cycles, themes in the data)
Critical Thinking (for more robust analysis of data)
Problem Solving (for means to make conclusions, etc., from data)
Maximum Performance -- Different Things to Different People

Some Types of Issues Reported, or Found from Data, in Nonprofits
Some Types of Issues Reported, or Found from Data, in For-Profits

Generating Recommendations Based on Results of Discovery

Your diagnostic model will probably suggest some standards of best practices that could be used to improve your client's situation. In our example of the team, above, the

  • Recommendations will be in regard to the kinds of activities that the team should be doing so it becomes an ideal team.

Recommendations should be focused on the client's priority (problem or goal), match the culture of the client's organization, be doable within their current or near-term resources, and focused on the what and not the how (the how will be determined during the upcoming action planning phase). They should also be prioritized for implementation.

The recommendations need not address all of the issues. Because your client’s organization is a system with many integrated parts. You and your client often can make a significant difference with recommendations that affect only a few of those parts. Then, as those parts become healthier, they positively affect the rest of the organization. Besides, there are some standard recommendations that can be used to address a wide range of issues – just like there are some standard habits that can address a wide range of health issues, such as get sleep, eat well and exercise.

Depict the System in and Around the Client's Problem

One of the best ways to ensure sufficient examination of the client's problem is to analyze it as a system. There are numerous ways to do that, but one of the most straightforward is to use a logic model. It depicts the inputs to the system, the system's activities that occur with those inputs, the tangible outputs from the system and the desired outcomes from the system (that is, the types of affects that it aims to have with those outside of the system). Here are some examples:
Organizations as Open Systems (Examples of Systems in Organizations)
Guidelines and Framework for Designing Basic Logic Model

You can also "chain" the logic models together to analyze the systems around a certain system and how they all are integrated together.
How to Chain Logic Models

Consulting for Significant Change in Organizations?

If so, then it will be very useful to review some guidelines and resources for accomplishing that kind of change.
Guidelines, Methods and Resources for Organizational Change Agents

Remember Principles for Changing Systems

Before you finalize your recommendations to propose to the client, be sure to consider some principles about changing systems, for example, a team, departmental unit or the entire organization.
Organizations as Open Systems
Summary of Principles for Successful Change

Examples of Recommendations

Common Recommendations to Improve Nonprofits and Their Order of Implementation
Common Recommendations to Improve For-Profits and Their Order of Implementation

Sharing Findings and Recommendations With Clients

See a video about roles and goals of a facilitator, structures of groups, managing meetings, when and how to intervene, maximizing participation, group decision making and group conflict. From the Consultants Development Institute.

Now that you and your client have generated findings and identified recommendations based on the findings, both of you are now ready to share that information with the rest of the members of the organization in what is often referred to as a feedback meeting. The manner in which you share that feedback can greatly influence how those in the organization will accept and implement the recommendations. If you have been working in a highly collaborative fashion with your client, now is the time that collaboration will really pay off. There will be few surprises when hearing the results of the discovery activities. The primary outcome of the meeting should be that key members of the organization select which of the recommendations that they approve of.

A common mistake is to allocate far too much time to discussion about the problem, the research and its findings. People assume that the more the participants know about the problem, including all of the dynamics of its causes and effects, the more likely they will be to successfully solve it. That assumption is not valid because problems rarely have simple, rational causes that can be fully understood. Delving into the background of the problem usually results in participants feeling deep despair and anxiety. Besides, most members of the organization usually are already aware that the problem exists – they want to move forward to solve it as soon as possible. Here is a reasonable agenda for that meeting.

  1. Welcome and brief introductions 10 minutes
  2. Review the agenda, goals of the meeting and its ground rules 3
  3. Describe the project, including your role and the role of the research 2
  4. Describe the focus of the research and its research methods 3
  5. Explain that issues are from broken systems, not from broken people 2
  6. Describe the overall findings discovered from the research 20
  7. Describe the overall recommendations from you and your client 30
  8. Decide which recommendations to follow 30
  9. Specify next steps 10
  10. Evaluate the meeting 10
    Total Time 120

Some Useful Resources for Sharing Feedback and Recommendations

Reminder: See a video about the discovery phase, including finding real causes, performance standards, focusing research, collecting and analyzing data, sharing recommendations, and getting agreement. From the Consultants Development Institute.

Meeting Management (if recommendations shared in a meeting)
Group Facilitation
Sharing Feedback
Managing Group Conflict
Handling Difficult People

Also See These Closely Related Topics

Guidelines and Resources for Action Planning Phase of Consulting
Guidelines and Resources for Implementation Phase of Consulting
Guidelines and Resources for Project Evaluation Phase of Consulting
Guidelines and Resources for Termination Phase of Consulting

Overview of the Field of Organization Development
Guidelines, Methods and Resources for Organizational Change Agents
Competencies and Resources for Organizational Change Agents


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