How to Facilitate a Challenge Discovery

Dana Publicover
Sep 7, 2020 · 7 min read
NEON Challenge Discovery is a free MURAL template. Need access? Click here.

Facilitation Experience Level: Intermediate

Want to improve your facilitation skills or train an internal team to facilitate? Check out our upcoming trainings.

The NEON Challenge Discovery framework gets teams, stakeholders and leadership aligned to start product development with total buy-in and clearly communicated project parameters. We developed this process through thousands of hours spent working with some of the best product teams in the world to help them build better products, save time and reduce costs.

We recommend an internal facilitator (or external, if you don’t have one) to run the framework. Because the material can be deeply entrenched with personal bias and assumption — and because relationships with leadership and stakeholders can be delicate — we rated this as an “intermediate” facilitation experience. Both of those areas require a bit of experience and finesse to navigate. Be sure that your facilitator is comfortable challenging leadership, redirecting conversation and questioning assumptions.

A note about remote: we’re presenting this framework as a virtual session at this time. While we’ve run it both in-person and remotely over the last two years, we think it’s more likely to be run virtually in our readers’ near-future and want to provide more support for that situation.

This is a half-day session and we are very serious about our breaks. We’ve accounted for them in this 4-hour timeline and hope that you do as well. We do not advise trying to do other work during those breaks. (It’s a break, people! Take a damn second!)


  • Get the MURAL template.
  • Gather your team on a ZOOM call (or your preferred videoconference tool).

Section One
Time: 1 hour

This section is really challenging and your facilitator will struggle to keep the team out of solutions-mode and in discovery mode. Because the time limit is an hour, you have 10 minutes for each block. Some may take less but most will take all or more so be sure to keep things moving. Keep the intro & check-in short to conserve the time.

Quick check-in.
If you have a lot of negative or varying responses you may want a quick verbal explanation.

  1. Expectations and Introduction.
    5 minutes
    Pose the questions: “Why do you think we’re here? What do you think we’ll accomplish?” Participants answer on stickies. Use this as an opportunity to level-set and clarify, then explain why you’re doing this. Don’t forget: Let everyone know when to expect the next break.
  2. Why does this project exist?
    10 minutes
    Pose the question and let them fill in stickies individually, silently.
    How did we get here? Why have we decided this project is a worthy investment? Why are we even doing this?
  3. Who is this for?
    10 minutes
    Open for discussion. Record the discussion and all points on sticky notes. Beyond user personas, try to talk about the actual person this product is for. Ask questions that dig deeper. Even if this is pre-defined, make sure there is discussion. Be sure to make note of traits that are assumptions and those that are backed by data (you can use color-coding for this).
  4. What problems/desires does this person have?
    10 minutes
    Record as in step 3. Indicate if these are assumptions.
  5. What solution ideas already exist? Are there favorites?
    10 minutes
    This is the opportunity to allow the team to feel heard. Let them share the current favorite ideas. You may choose to run this step in a lightning talk format. This is not a feedback session or solutioning step so be sure to curb ideation. This is an opportunity to show that solutions should directly solve the problems identified in step 4.
  6. What kind of hard evidence do you have to support these ideas?
    10 minutes
    List data available that validates each solution idea in step 5. If there are missing data points that could be helpful, those will be addressed in the next section.
  7. How do you validate, learn and grow?
    5 minutes
    Have your team self-identify and explain their growth mindset. How do they react to new information? How do they adjust an existing plan or strategy when there is new data? How do they learn from information and use it in their planning?

Brain Break: 15 minutes
While the team is on a break, the facilitator should take all of the unknown, unaligned or missing pieces and list them at the end of the row. For instance, if there is no solution that solves the problem, this should be noted. If there is no hard evidence to support any of the solutions, note that. Anything that is missing or not yet agreed upon should be called out here. You’ll review all of this at the end.

Section Two
Time: 45 Minutes

  1. How will we know that this project is a success?
    10 minutes
    Identify the factors that will prove this project is successful. These can be a bit open-ended or unquantifiable, like “an elevated company profile,” or “automated lead generation.” Things that we’d like to have as a result of this project. Next, identify success metrics you’d like to achieve. Metrics are more specific than factors: “10,000 unique website visitors” or “100 new customers.”
  2. What information do we need to develop, validate and sell our solution?
    0 minutes
    List each piece of data, information and confirmation needed for every part of this process. What do we need to know? What will help us understand? What will help us confirm or disprove a hypothesis? If there were any unvalidated claims in Section 1, replicate them here. If there were any data needs identified in Section 1, be sure to include them.
  3. Map the data and information needs.
    10 minutes
    We were at the Google Design Sprint conference in Boulder, CO in 2019 (basically a thousand years ago) when we met Tricia Wang and learned about her concept of Thick Data — the qualitative portion of data as compared to Big Data (quantitative). We love this idea and her sorting matrix is the perfect element for mapping the data needed in your Challenge Discovery. Bring every sticky you created in the last step and find its place on the matrix. Is it Big Data or Thick Data? Is it currently known or unknown (do you have it yet or not?). Typically it is this stage that validates a User Need Discovery (or User Research) to the larger team as the unknown & thick quadrant tends to fill up.
  4. When would you like to launch?
    5 minutes
    Quickly and without discussion, have each person grab a marker and individually place it on the timeline where they believe the project should wrap. If you like, you can grant a decider a different color marker. Do not try to force a consensus.
  5. What is the budget?
    5 minutes
    Quickly and without discussion, have each person grab a marker and individually pace it on the budget that corresponds with their opinion. If this is not openly discussed on your team, skip this section.

If you’re concerned about groupthink or bias, you can use the MURAL voting feature and have them vote on the appropriate bubble instead of move a marker.

BREAK: 15 minutes. Seriously. Do it. We’re not kidding. People get cranky at this point. While they’re a break, the facilitator again summarizes at the end of the row what is not yet agreed upon, what factors are missing, etc. You don’t need to list the missing data points from the matrix, but can summarize that User Research is needed.

Section Three
Time: 45 minutes

  1. Roles and responsibilities
    20 minutes
    We’ve pre-filled the responsibilities we see most in our work with product teams, but please adjust these and make them fit your team and project better if you like. This is a lot of ground to cover in 20 minutes and discussion can run away easily so the facilitator should keep things moving (as facilitators do best!). Next to each responsibility, put the name of the actual person who will be responsible for managing it. Other people will certainly work on each area but it’s important to list the owner of that duty. You’ll notice one or two names that seem to come up more (ok, a LOT more) than the others. Use this as an opportunity to redistribute duties for a more balanced team.
  2. Risk Assessment How risky is this?
    5 minutes
    You’re looking for perceived risk here and to see where the team’s feelings are without supporting information. That comes next. A thing about this chart: I’m a former skydiving instructor and I’ll tell you that technically, the riskiest part of the skydive is driving to the airport (statistically speaking). Pedantics aside, we’ve picked these three graphics to represent different perceived levels of risk. Watching a plane from the ground is our symbol for lowest risk while riding in the plane has a moderate risk level and jumping out of the plane ranks highest. We argued about it. Then we stopped caring because, deadlines. That’s the story. Thanks for listening.
  3. List the known challenges, risks, and impediments
    20 minutes
    Now that we’ve collectively identified how risky we feel this project is, let’s identify why we feel that way. This is best done in silent, individual contributions followed by a discussion. See how many of these risks, challenges and impediments you can dismiss.

BREAK: 15 minute break. During the break, gather all of the summary stickies from the Section ends and duplicate them in Section 4.

Section Four
Time: 30 minutes

  1. Recap & next steps
    25 minutes
    Walk the team through all of the areas of missing information, lack of clarity and non-alignment. Use these stickies to then build a quick and simple roadmap for next steps. Our recommended next steps follow our product discovery process, which would put User Discovery next, followed by Market Discovery, a Design Sprint, Roadmap Discovery and finally Team Discovery. Yours may be different. Good luck & let us know how it goes!
  2. Check out
    5 minutes
    Ideally, your team’s overall feeling about the project should have improved, even as you’ve uncovered a lot of unknowns and missing 6elements. Alignment and clarity should drive confidence in the project. And yes, that’s William H. Macy. We couldn’t think of a better “medium” person. We welcome your thoughts. Also, #FreeBritney.

Want a personalized demo and introduction for your team? Book a call.



WE FRAME CHAOS. Frameworks and facilitation for better work. Driven by empathy, structure, and a lit


We frame chaos to help teams get sh*t done. We discovered that problems with budget, timeline and team dysfunction come from a lack of alignment and incomplete data. So we built scalable, repeatable processes to fix both.

Dana Publicover

Written by

author, Empathy at Scale • Chief Operating Offer, NEON


We frame chaos to help teams get sh*t done. We discovered that problems with budget, timeline and team dysfunction come from a lack of alignment and incomplete data. So we built scalable, repeatable processes to fix both.

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