‘In the Ring’ Podcast: Melissa Curra from SUMO Heavy – Why Does Discovery Take So Long?

John Suder
Mar 25, 2021

This is an edited and abridged transcript from our ‘In the Ring’ podcast series about discovery. This is episode two of the series.

For the next six weeks, we’ll be sitting down and talking with Melissa Curra, SUMO Heavy’s Director of Strategy to break down the entire process.

You can also listen and subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

John: One of the major questions a client might have is about the time involved. What is involved in a typical discovery process that requires such a time commitment?

Melissa: The biggest time commitment that we see at SUMO for the discovery process is a lot of prerequisite information gathering. On our calls that we go through together with clients, we rely on this preliminary information. It helps us really understand what we're dealing with. Not only the technology but the people, the workflows, the processes we're dealing with. And it does add up to quite a bit of time, and then you throw calls on to that time commitment. They're often lengthy calls that have many people on them sharing lots of different information. So I think, between the information gathering and the actual calls themselves, that's your biggest time commitment on both sides, both the agency side and the client side for the discovery process, I'd say.

John: How do you get the client to prepare for that?

Melissa: I think the biggest deep dive that happens is usually this technical infrastructure building road mapping, and detailing. When clients are looking out for discovery and are reaching out to agencies for discovery, it's because something needs to get built or changed drastically, or re-platformed in some way or redesigned, re-shifted. 

The technological infrastructure that's living there, and the technological infrastructure that you want to exist, all come with things like the level of effort attached to them. How long is it going to take for developers to achieve this, and then achieving this feasible roadmap as you iron those things out? So, building that roadmap is really the deepest dive that we take in our discovery process here. We want to build realistic timelines for people and we want to deliver upon those timelines. 

John: How do you break down the process to the client who may not understand terms like roadmap? Obviously, we want to have the savviest clients possible, but there may be some that don't understand the terminology. Do we break that down for them?

Melissa: Yeah, of course. The amount of resources and work history within the industry, and technical jargon, is always going to vary tremendously. And so yes, we have things like user guides, we have a really nice handbook and a microsite that we send out to new clients, and it has all those terms. It really walks you through the steps of what will be your discovery, and it allows you to understand what you're going to get afterward.

John: So the big question is, how do you convince them to devote so much time? So, you've gotten to the point where they realize that discovery is not only a necessary part but also a requirement for us to actually work together. How do you sit someone down and say, I need you to commit X amount of days X amount of weeks X amount of hours each day, to this long process without knowing what's going to come out on the other side? How do you convince them and what kind of salesmanship goes into that part or is it just straight facts, take it or leave a thing or, we just figure it out as it goes?

Melissa: It's definitely more the latter than the former. However, we've been doing this a long time, and we've seen a lot of things get built. So we have a good eye here. Realistically, with what you're asking for, how long it would take to do the best due diligence for the project if you're not willing to give the time over, now, you're going to wind up giving that time over, eventually, either way. You don't want to rush a product, and you don't want to rush a site or a feature. So, investing time into your discovery leaves less room for error, it creates more realistic planning. A stitch in time saves nine, a popular adage for reason, just because it's corny doesn't really make it less true. That's generally what we pitch. We've just done this so many times. We've seen so many companies build things, and the hiccups and the bumps in the road that you can prevent if you invest the time and you're planning. The cost saving is astronomical.

John: It’s basically ‘pay me in time now’ or’ pay me in a lot more time and pain later’, which also obviously translates into cost. 

Do you have a client that sees all the parts, he may be a little impatient and says, ‘Can we skip parts’? Or ‘can we go back later?’ Or is it such a linear process that you just can't jump around?

Melissa: Generally, when we start our discovery process, we do have this pre-formatted timeline. And it really does allow prospective clients to understand where they're going to be in three weeks – you know what to expect from that third week, what they're going to be doing, we even break it down to call agendas. We try our best to be as specific as we can. And then later, we fill out certain details. However, we don't skip parts. You know, we are always willing to adjust timelines, and understand, within whatever date people are looking for, we just re-scope, meaning we take what's asked for, reshape it, maybe lose some stuff that's not ‘make or break’. We just say that within the timeline you're looking for, this is what you could have. Or, ‘look, this is when we need it by and this is all we have’, sometimes it's just not a great fit for us.

John: So expectations are adjusted.

Melissa Curra: Exactly. And that's called ‘re-scoping’.

Brittany: So are there things clients can do on their own to help expedite the whole process?

Melissa: Yes, of course, I think there's kind of phases, things you could do before it starts and then things you could do as it's starting. Gather as much documentation as you can about everything, you have living on your site. The back end, the front end. Do you have design files? Do you have a brand guide? Do you have documentation and user guides left behind? Do you have developers who have worked there in the past product managers, project managers, account managers, quite literally everything? Your business goals? All of this will give you a really holistic overview of what you're starting with, where you need to go, how long and how hard of a road, it's going to be to get you there. So that's it saves you time because if you leave all that documentation for when you get started, it's going to be a busy week, a busy first week of discovery for you and your team. 

I think as it's starting, if you have all that prerequisite documentation that we talked about, as the discovery starts, what you can do to really get the most value out of the time and money you're investing is to internalize what the team across this zoom meeting is telling you to internalize those workflows. Make sure everyone in your organization is on the same page and is committed to these dates. Everyone understands what they are meant to deliver in order to reach those dates. They understand what details they need to deliver. So those I think are core things that clients can do.

John: Let's look at the other side of the coin. Do we have what we'll call the “impatient client”? They’re committed, and they’re all in. They know what all the steps are. But they wants to know why can't you just put more resources or just add some ‘bodies’? Or what can you do to get it done sooner? I know that it's such a specific process, maybe it's not so much just throwing another person on there just to get it done.

Melissa: Yeah, I think there are two different scenarios in which that might be happening. If it's a scope issue, and if it's like, ‘hey, we have a deadline’, I have no choice but to honor this deadline, I have money, I can throw it out. That's, again, re-scoping, and figuring out what we could get done. If we have to really add a ’resource’, that's a little bit of a different situation. If it's really just, ‘I don't want to do this discovery, I want to do a much shorter discovery, just throw more resources into my discovery’. Unfortunately, that's just not how we work at SUMO because we don't resource shuffle here. However, we will recommend clients to other agencies that might be more willing to do a discovery process like that, we're not an hourly shop. So it is hard for us to over-promise that we could do our due diligence for a discovery process. And let's just say two weeks, when in our gut, we know it's an eight-week thing.

John: It all comes down to resources. And it sounds like the answer is, again, you need to pay for the pain in time now, or else pay twice as much later on. And if you can't commit to that, then we can't promise you the best result for your project. And possibly, I know people don't like to hear this, but that possibly they are not a good fit for us. And maybe we have to have that frank talk with them.

Melissa: Yeah, exactly. And I think it's also important to remember that, you know, if you're not going to invest the time now in your planning, it's going to cost you the time, and the development hours and the money while you have users on the site, live, maybe merchants on the site, you know, whatever it is you're building. And now it's going to have a bigger ripple effect this time. If you take that time and invest it during your planning, you're never having to stop your operation to make changes to make amends to this in the process. I think it just saves time, ultimately.

John: What are some of the things that potential clients should know? Or to have on hand, prepare for the time investment of the discovery process? What are the things that they need to really get going before they sign on the line that is dotted and say, ‘let's go’. What do they need to have in hand beforehand?

Melissa: Besides all that nitty-gritty, technical documentation, that's always helpful to have, I think the best thing you could do is have a realistic conversation with your team internally before you start discovery. Really understand some of the pitfalls you're experiencing, as you're making decisions internally. Where are you? Where is your team? What are the improvements that you'd like to make? What were some of your biggest wins this last year? Where do you want to be in three years? Redefine your roles, make new workflows and expectations, understand where you want to be working, how you want to be working, because an RFP for a product and a site is obviously a ton of work, and this worthwhile commitment, really fun to build something and see it get built. That's all well and good, however, you know, people make up a company, and the way you work and the way you feel about what you're working on is super important. And it's important to us at SUMO. So if there is, there are ways to be more efficient and make your team members feel more empowered. Like they can make decisions on their own, change the site, you know, lead meetings, take quality notes and deliver quality deliverables. Ask your team what they need to be able to do that and use your discovery process as a chance to really holistically change what you guys are building.

John: It’s business discipline, enabling you to find out where the problems lie before you get to discovery. I think the clients may discover a lot of things about their project and about themselves and about their team that they either didn't have the time to deal with or just didn't see on the surface.

Melissa: There's a lot of value in knowing where you stand.

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