Our work creating digital products and services always starts with a discovery phase. But our clients often want to truncate discovery and get right to the making part. I kinda get it. Especially when we tell them we want to conduct our own interviews of team stakeholders, and we want to do our own user research. It takes time and costs money, and for clients who have already conducted research, it can feel like they’re buying the same horse twice. Of course we’ll take whatever they have—“Bury us!” we say—but we still insist on identifying for ourselves the inputs that will inform whatever recommendations we’ll eventually make.
I call it “getting stuff in the box.” It’s a reference to that scene from the movie Apollo 13, where they realize the C02 filters are failing, and they need to rebuild the extra square ones on the command module so they fit in a round receptacle. “I suggest you gentlemen invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole.” (So good.) Anyhow, in the next scene there’s a bunch of NASA guys dumping a huge box of random stuff on the table with a mandate to “make this, fit into the hole for this, with nothing but that.”
Don’t let ‘nothing but that’ characterize the stuff your team has to work with when it comes time to tackle your biggest challenges.”
Discovery is how we get the stuff in the box that we’re going to need to solve your problem. Don’t let “nothing but that” characterize the stuff our team has to work with when it comes time to tackle your biggest challenges. Because here’s the thing: those NASA guys would no doubt have done their level best with a nearly empty box of sad bric-a-brac. But how great is it that they had duct tape, and a spool of wire, and a space suit, and some pliers, and a hose? Likewise, we’ll devise a solution with whatever information and insights are available to us. But as long as we’re in the phase where we’re putting stuff in the box, let’s assemble a rich profusion of insights and ideas, quotes and context, so when it’s time to get to work, we have inspiring material to work with.
Credit to Steven Johnson, who first pointed me to this inspiring scene in his excellent book “Where Do Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation”. I read it 12 years ago and think about it once a week.