Discover > Design > Execute > Operate

Understand how the “Discover > Design > Execute > Operate” pattern can help your team navigate uncertainty.

Chris Lennon
3 min readSep 28, 2020
Photo by Fabio Jock on Unsplash

Pattern Summary

All projects and initiatives are different, however you will recognise four distinct phases in each. Consider the seasons: Summer, Autumn (or Fall), Spring and Winter. In some countries these are reasonably distinct, in others the transition from season to season is more blurred. Yet in all countries understanding the seasons and the weather they bring is helpful. So it is with initiatives and projects: these phases are not imposed on a project, rather they are a natural part of all projects, in fact if you look closely you will observe this pattern in all tasks, both big and small. Understanding this pattern can help a team orientate and make progress even in uncertain environments.

The Phases

The Discovery phase is about gathering information. In this phase we seek to broaden our view and take a look at the landscape. The Design phase is where we start to become intentional. We formulate a design that will bring a successful outcome, this could encompass system architecture, technical practices, and project design. The Execution phase is about building the product. Typically this is the longest phase. Once the product or feature is released we must Operate it; encompassing support and operational metrics. For completeness a fifth phase can be considered, which would be de-commissioning the product or feature. These phases resemble in some respects the five phases The Project Management Institute (PMI) describes as initiation, planning, execution, monitoring, and project closure.

Note that this pattern, if applied correctly is in harmony with agile principles. This is not about rigid one-way phase gates, this is about a rhythm that can be applied many times over within a project. Similarly even smaller tasks go through this pattern — there is a discovery of the work to be done, constraints discovered and so on, followed by designing or planning the task before actually doing the task.

Using this pattern

This pattern is especially helpful when a team encounters uncertainty. This could be in the form of a new product, a new project, a new feature or a new requirement. With uncertainty around how to proceed there can be a feeling of frustration and a need to “get on with it”. This can particularly be a problem in teams and companies that equate utilization (“we all need to be busy”) with productivity. When you understand the pattern you will allow time for discovery. We need time to work out what “it” is that we should be getting on with. With sufficient discovery we then need to become intentional. We need to design the end outcome. This does not need to take the form of a 100 page design document, and can change over time — but there does need to be some sort of agreed visual model. Or how do we know what to build? With the discovery done, and a quality design we can proceed to build our product or feature. Certainly it is possible to ignore this pattern and dive straight into the work. However over time the lack of discovery and intentional design will surface. Like a burst water main under a concrete pavement, cracks will begin to appear; at first they will be small but over time the pressure of not having done the groundwork will burst through.



Chris Lennon

Agile coach. Ways of Working researcher. I live in beautiful New Zealand and work for Spark. I am also the founder of a start up — Views are my own.