How to Lead Effective Discovery Sessions with Clients

Written by 
David Young
April 17, 2023
Two people engaged in a meeting
How to Lead Effective Discovery Sessions with Clients
Written by 
David Young
April 17, 2023
Two people engaged in a meeting
How to Lead Effective Discovery Sessions with Clients
Written by 
David Young
April 17, 2023
Two people engaged in a meeting

The first time you meet a new acquaintance or colleague, would you feel comfortable criticizing them? Or offering them some unsolicited advice? For most people, this would be considered rude. You’ve got to get to know them first.

The same is true for new clients. Before starting a project or signing a new contract, it’s important to learn who they are, why they’ve come to you, and what, exactly, it is they want. Skipping over this step can mean missing crucial information that can make — or break — your future relationship.

That’s why knowing how to do this right is such an important skill. So let’s dive into what it takes to not only put on a discovery session, but run one that is fun and effortless for everyone involved.

What is a discovery session?

A discovery session (also sometimes called a discovery workshop) is a meeting or series of meetings in which you find out basic information about your client’s needs, their project requirements, and their overarching goals. 

There is no set structure or template for a discovery session. Instead, it will depend on the unique requirements of the client, the reasons they are engaging you, the personalities of those involved (both the client and your own team or company), and how thorough you or them would like to be, among other considerations. 

That said, discovery sessions are typically one of the first times you get to have an in-depth discussion about who the client is, the challenges they face, and what they want. It is your chance to learn as much as you can about them, as well as make a good first impression.

Related: How to better learn and understand your clients' needs

Goals for the discovery process

In general, the main goal of the discovery process should be to make sure everyone leaves the session fully aligned. You should be able to clearly state the client’s problem or challenge, what they would like to achieve, what it will take to get there, and what the immediate next steps for each person or team should be.

Likewise, the client should come out of these sessions knowing where they need to either provide you with more information or what you will own, the problem statement you and the client are invested in solving, their responsibilities moving forward, and what success will eventually look like for them. Ideally, they will have a better idea of what it is they want to accomplish after talking with you.

Benefits of the discovery process

The discovery process is an open-ended opportunity for everyone involved with a project — from team leaders to project managers to individual contributors — to understand expectations and outcomes. Here are a few of its most common benefits:

  • Clear up confusion. Chances are there have already been a few preliminary discussions and emails sent about the project. If anything at the outset is unclear or has been misinterpreted, the discovery session is your chance to ask questions and clarify the project.
  • Define the project. Some projects have a clear goal but uncertain path to getting there. Others may have neither. Regardless of where you find yourself, you can use the discovery process to establish a plan, work out a timeline, set a budget, and define the scope and other important details.
  • Set success criteria. Different team members are likely to have different definitions of success. A designer, for example, is probably more focused on the look of a product than the finance manager. A discovery session allows you to establish what success looks like for each individual, as well as for the project as a whole.
  • Identify challenges. Some potential challenges may be obvious, while others may only come out after a focused discussion. Use this opportunity to try to uncover any risks that you may encounter over the course of the project. It’s a lot better than getting surprised by them along the way.
  • Increase transparency. The process of sharing important information, asking questions, and revealing what you do and don’t know can help build trust and transparency. It can also enable you to establish open lines of communication at the outset of the project.

Common challenges in client discovery meetings

Of course, discovery meetings can also come with their share of challenges. Look out for the following as you embark on your own session:

  • Unprepared client. Even if you’ve done your homework, you may find that the client has forgotten to do theirs. If they can’t answer your questions or can’t agree on what it is they want, it can be difficult getting anything of value out of them. This is why it’s important to set expectations ahead of time.
  • Unrealistic expectations. Building on the above, you may also find that a client expects too much from this discovery session. Maybe they want a full project timeline, complete with a concrete budget, in place by the time the meeting is over, when all you want to do is figure out what their project is. This is another important reason to set expectations.
  • Too much or too little discussion. Whether the client is reluctant to share too much or is overwhelming you with information you don’t know how to use, this can quickly put a stop to productivity. One way to prevent this is by coming up with icebreakers, questions, and a set structure you can follow throughout the meeting.
  • A lack of engagement. Perhaps the client thinks a discovery session is unnecessary, or is simply impatient to start the project. Whatever the case, if they don’t understand how necessary this step actually is, it can make it difficult to begin anything. Try to prevent this by communicating what you want to get out of the discovery meeting at the outset. 
Related: Pre-work: Your guide to pre-meeting action items

How to plan and lead a discovery meeting

You’ve corresponded with a client, convinced them you have the right skills for their job, and are ready to kick off a new project. It’s time for the hard work to begin.

But before you do anything, you’ll need to establish a solid foundation to build off of. That means taking the time to plan out and lead a successful discovery session that gets everyone started off on the right foot. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do just that.

1. Prepare for the discovery session

A productive, well-run discovery session doesn’t happen by accident. Making sure you get the most out of this time with your client will require you to carefully consider a number of questions, such as what you want to accomplish, which people should be involved, and how in-depth you’d like your discussion to be. The following are a few areas you should be thinking about beforehand. 

Attendees and stakeholders

Who is present at your discovery session can have a major effect on what you learn. Pick the wrong people and you may end up misinformed. Include too many attendees and it might become chaotic.

Instead, consider what you know about the client, the project, and its stakeholders, then choose attendees accordingly. On your side, who is most likely to be involved in the project? An executive may be a good person to make introductions, but you’ll want the managers and creatives who will be involved in the day-to-day to be there as well.

As for the client, you’ll probably have to rely on their recommendations, but you can still make suggestions. For example, if the project is technical, try to get them to include at least one subject matter expert who can answer specific questions. 

Related: How to create a stakeholder map (with templates)

Finalize session content & agenda

It’s important to establish a reasonable, thoughtful structure to your session that will help you dive into the project and learn as much as possible. This structure doesn’t need to be definitive — in fact, it can be better to leave room for open discussion — but it should give you a jumping off point.

One good way to structure your session is to begin with something broad before gradually narrowing it down. This could mean starting out by discussing organizational goals, such as the client’s overarching vision, then moving into team goals and finally the needs of individual stakeholders.

Ultimately, the complexity of your meeting agenda should correlate with the complexity of the project. If the project is straightforward, you shouldn’t overthink it too much. 

Decide what tools you will need

For some people, all they may need for a successful discovery session is a piece of paper and a pen. But there are simply so many great tools out there that can help your brainstorm, break down concepts, and facilitate discussion, why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of them? 

Here are a few great tools we recommend: 

  • Zoom or Microsoft Teams: Hybrid meetings have become the norm now, which makes a quality video conferencing tool a requirement. Plus, this is a great way to record the session for reference later on.
  • Rev: Creating a transcription of your meeting can be a much more time-efficient way to review and learn from its contents.
  • Google Docs: You’ll likely want to share, edit, and collaborate on a variety of documents before, during, and after your discovery session. 
  • Mural: Digital whiteboards and collaboration features give you an open canvas to let your ideas and meetings run wild. Sometimes that’s exactly the kind of inspiration you need.

2. Running the discovery session

When it comes time to actually conduct your workshop, don’t just rely on instinct. Instead, aim to be strategic about how you interact with participants in order to ensure you can draw them out, get them to discuss the most important topics, and come out of the meeting with a solid plan. The following are a few tips that can help make this happen.

Warm up the participants

Discovery sessions can sometimes feel abstract and full of big, hard-to-tackle topics that may not lend themselves to easy discussion. But your time is limited, so it’s in your best interest to get people to quickly feel safe and comfortable sharing ideas and suggestions.

Warm up activities and icebreakers are a great way to do just this. Plus, by encouraging participation from everyone, they can help reduce the chances of anyone dominating the conversation or of the entire session dissolving into groupthink.

There is no shortage of activities to choose from. A few of our favorites include one-minute introductions, show and tell, and the always popular two truths and a lie. These are meant to be a fun, even silly, break before the more serious work begins.

Define the problem

One easy way a discovery session can go off the rails is if no one can agree on what it is you’re trying to solve. This may not be apparent at first. Perhaps people are suggesting wildly different solutions. Or maybe the discussion is simply going around in circles. Whatever the case, a good place to start out the session is by clearly and definitively defining the problem.

One way to accomplish this is by creating a problem statement. This is nothing more than a brief description of the problem that needs to be solved. Try to make it both specific and focused, but avoid going into too much detail at this point. The goal at this point is just to make sure everyone is on the same page so you can move confidently on.

Related: A complete guide to writing effective problem statements

Understand client priorities, pain points, and root causes

Alongside defining the problem, you should also try to gain a clear understanding of why it exists in the first place. By uncovering these pain points, priorities, and root causes, this can potentially make it easier to discover new and creative solutions.

As the leader and moderator of the session, it will be up to you to create an environment that encourages the client to drill down into these underlying causes, as well as to create a safe space for your team to come up with novel, out-of-the-box ideas. Consider using brainstorming and ideation strategies that can help you explore the client’s problem in creative ways that lead to a more productive understanding.

Questions to ask during the discovery session

The right questions will not only help you move past the surface-level problems and challenges of your client’s business and get to the heart of the matter — it can also help you discover new opportunities for improvement. Here are a few discovery questions you can use or adapt for your own situation or needs:

  • What are your business goals, both short-term and long-term?
  • What is the core mission and values of your company?
  • Who is your target audience and what are their needs and pain points?
  • How do you currently communicate with your customers, and what channels do you use?
  • What sets your business apart from your competitors?
  • What challenges are you currently facing in your industry?
  • What is your budget for this project or initiative?
  • What are your expectations for the outcome of this project?
  • How do you measure success for this project?
  • Who are the key decision-makers in your organization, and what are their priorities?

3. Define next steps and move into the project initiation

Successfully wrapping up a client discovery workshop means being able to move from exploring problems and conducting creative ideation to clearly and explicitly turning this work into concrete steps. You want your session to be a launching pad for your project, a place where the real work begins. Here are some tips on how to ensure this happens.

Create a plan of action and define your next steps

Immediately after the session, regroup with your team to synthesize what you learned and start putting together a plan. Consider the client’s core problem and its underlying causes, as well as their stated goals. Then use any other contextual information — technical details, budgetary considerations, and the like — to come up with your next steps.

The objective here is to present the client with a clear, logical plan that shows you both listened to them and understood what was said. This should manifest itself as steps that show you taking them from this initial discovery session to the eventual realization of their end goals.

Document findings

As an additional step, it can be useful to take the time to draw up your findings and organize them into more formal documents. This could take several forms. For instance, a prioritization matrix could be a good way to help the client visualize what aspects of their project they should be focusing on, while a business model canvas could clearly delineate their various challenges and opportunities.

Follow up with stakeholders

Even during the most productive discovery sessions, it can be hard to cover absolutely everything. One or two days after you’ve ended, make sure to reach back out to any client stakeholders to see if there is anything important you’ve missed, something new they’ve thought about, or if they have any additional questions.

Reaching back out like this also gives you a good opportunity to ensure they are clear on next steps. You don’t want anything to be left lingering. Double check to see if each person knows what their responsibilities are or if they need more information. For example, if a stakeholder committed to sending a crucial document you require before beginning your project, you’ll want to make sure this happens.

Level-up client engagements with better discovery sessions

Discovery sessions, even the most well organized ones, can be unruly and messy — but this is their point. They are opportunities for open-ended learning and creativity that can help set the stage for a focus and disciplined project. 

Built to be flexible and with collaboration in its DNA, Mural can help you take full advantage of these sessions. Utilize hundreds of pre-built templates to get the conversation started, explore new creative pathways, or simply to organize your thoughts. Or just use it as a blank canvas to see what comes up.

Discover more by starting your own whiteboard to see what you can do. 

Need to make your next client engagement more engaging and productive? Get frameworks for taking client meetings to the next level in Mural’s cheat sheet for client engagements.

About the authors

About the authors

David Young

David Young

Contributing Writer
David is a contributing writer at Mural, focused on covering collaboration, meetings, and teamwork. He's been working in the hybrid tech space for over 10 years and has been writing about it nearly as long. When he's not doing that, he's probably cooking up a meal.

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