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Better Focus Groups

1 July, 2018

I know it’s none of my business, being a comp & ben guy. But I have heard some focus group horror stories lately, and I have to do a public service announcement on how–and how not–to do focus groups. I have run my share and been part of several. So for those of us who as C&B people may not pay enough attention to OD, this is for you.

Focus groups are not like other meetings.

First the similarities: like meetings, you need to make clear to invitees the purpose, agenda and length (PAL) and send any pre-read material on the subject matter. Without clarity of purpose, agenda and length, focus groups can be a waste of time, or even destructive, like badly managed meetings.

Now, the differences.

Unlike meetings, which are for communication, planning, target-setting, progress-checking, expectation-setting, problem-solving, decision-making, damage control or other purposes, focus groups are specifically for listening, a specific type of communication. They are not for decision-making, problem-solving, etc. While the purpose of having a focus group can be related to decision-making or problem-solving, the focus group itself should not include these activities or their dynamics.

As a listening methodology, focus groups should be designed specifically for maximum input from participants. This means people should know the subject matter well enough to provide useful input. This also means you should not invite people who will lack subject matter knowledge, such as new employees who may know little or nothing about the products, customers, current policies, current culture, etc.

Right Group Composition

Group composition matters. Consider having separate focus groups, collectively including all likely diverse viewpoints, but each group consisting of people who will be comfortable speaking and sharing together. If you want managers, select managers who are at a similar level. Don’t mix managers and non-managers, unless the non-managers are very senior and will not be intimidated by the presence of managers.

Focus Group Ground Rules

Unlike other meetings, you must establish ground rules to ensure free flow of ideas, and not force people into awkward situations which will end the focus group prematurely, resulting in failure to get information and failure for you as facilitator.

Ground rules can include:

  • Confidentiality—It is a privilege to be invited to be part of the focus group. Please return the favor by keeping confidential who said what. If any rumors take flight in the organization about “so and so said such and such” at the focus group, we know who started it. You. You as participants are at the top of the suspect list. Do we all agree? (this part is why many organizations don’t do focus groups at all. They cannot establish trust. Very sad, but true.)
  • Personal inputYou represent you, and no one else. Make it clear upfront that focus group participants represent themselves only. They are not the representatives of their departments, their age group, their occupation, location, race, gender, etc. They should speak their personal views. This ensures the facilitator gets an accurate reading of what people actually think, and it also avoids accusation from existing or potential labor unions that the company is setting up and controlling its own union. Any lawyer would agree with this precaution.
  • Keep it Chill (relaxed). You are invited to share your view, not sell it. We are not here to debate or emerge with some kind of consensus, but rather to understand what views there are. Focus groups are not like a statistical survey where you can score how people feel. It is anecdotal in nature, and the facilitator will summarize focus group results by describing key themes or key messages that came through. So there is no need, and in fact it would be quite harmful, for anyone to challenge anyone else’s view. It’s ok to share a view and why you have that view, but you are offering your ideas, not comparing them to others’ views. A debate seeks to reach objective conclusions, while a focus group simply seeks to identify and understand diverse and subjective views. When people dominate focus group discussion—a common challenge—it is usually because they are trying to sell their ideas to others, or because they simply don’t get enough attention in life. This is also a good reason to consider excluding decision makers or influencers in the focus group. If decision-makers are there, speakers will not be sharing ideas with you the facilitator, but will instead direct their gaze at the management influencer in the room in hopes of selling their idea.

Neutral Questions

When you start the focus group with “management is considering introduction of a new…” you can be certain of two things. First, you will not get any dissenting views, except from Americans or other “speak your mind” cultures. Asians will totally shut down if they disagree. Those in hierarchical cultures will support whatever management has apparently decided. So rule number 1 on focus group questions is this:

Keep questions neutral!

Do not give any clues about what kind of ideas or opinions are good/bad, acceptable, not acceptable, out of bounds, etc.

The other thing you can be certain of, if you ask a “loaded” question which indicates management already has a view, is this: people will conclude that the focus group is all for show, that management has no real interest in their ideas because the decisions are already made.

Hope these tips help you have more productive (and less destructive) focus groups!

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