Focus groups provide invaluable insights into why people see and interpret the world the way that they do. Through a set of well-planned questions and under the guidance of a skilled facilitator, an organization can come to know “why it makes perfect sense” that consumers, clients, or employees rate products, services, management, and organizations (to name just a few of the topics often assessed in focus groups) in a particular manner. Focus groups are an invaluable follow-up to an organizational survey. Surveys give you a sense of what is happening but they do not provide an understanding of the underlying thinking that led to a certain set of responses. Think of it this way: You feel sick and you take your temperature and the thermometer reads 101.7. So now you know things are not quite right, but you have no idea as to what is causing those high temps. That’s the purpose of a focus group. Surveys just give you the temps. They are great for tracking a year-to-year average. But they are severely limited in uncovering the underlying thinking that led to a particular response. (And I won’t go into all of the other cognitive biases that can affect survey results and the extent of surveys that contain poorly worded questions.)
So, focus groups offer a depth of understanding that a survey alone can never achieve. Like surveys, however, obtaining meaningful and insightful data from a gathering requires careful and deliberate planning. Simply coming together to have a “chat” yields poor results. Some important considerations in conducting effective focus groups are as follows:
DEFINING THE PURPOSE OF THE FOCUS GROUP
Knowing the goal of the focus group is one of the most important considerations towards building a favorable outcome. Is the goal to a) answer a set of predetermined questions or b) allow the discussion to be exploratory in that the participants determine what is needed to be known?
In the more structured setting of answering predetermined questions, each focus group is asked to answer specific, consistent questions across each group. The sessions revolve around on a defined set of topics. This structured approach assumes that the planning team has correctly determined the “right” questions. This approach, however, runs the risk that the planning team has omitted a crucial issue.
In the less structured setting, the goal is to help the group explore the topic in a way that generates new insights. This format allows participants to reveal their perspectives or “thinking behind the thinking” on a particular set of topics. Questions tend to be very open-ended with the subsequent discussion probing into a particular path of thinking. The downside of this process is that it becomes difficult to make comparisons across different focus groups as the questions asked within the focus groups might be considerably different. However, if the goal is to generate new ideas, it is not necessary to compare ideas across groups.
Clearly stating the purpose of the focus group and the specific questions which will (or will not) be asked is a critical variable in realizing a favorable outcome. There is nothing more frustrating than, when examining the data from multiple focus groups, to hear an analyst state “I wish we would have asked….”
The important thing to recognize in these pre-planning meetings is that there is a vast difference between defining the things that you want to know and the questions that you ask in the focus group. For instance, leadership may wish to know the extent to which employees understand the new strategy. The last question that I will ask in a focus group will be “Do you understand the new strategy?” Instead, I will explore this topic with a series of questions such as “What comes to mind as you think of the new strategy?” or “What impact does the newly announced strategy have on your work?” or “How do you compare the new strategy with the one it replaced?” Think of a good focus group moderator like you would a good radio or TV interviewer; they are experts in the science of questioning, as well as experts in establishing rapport and creating the environment that allows for a candid conversation.
MODERATING FOCUS GROUPS
The second most important consideration for effective focus groups is that the moderator remains objective. Advocacy is never allowed: a spirit of inquiry is the task of the day. It is absolutely critical that participants think that the moderator is open to hearing a wide range of opinions. If the moderator has a stake in the final outcome, this might lead to participants either withholding information or the session turning into a gripe session. This is one of the compelling reasons to hire an outside person to hold these discussions. There is a tendency for novice moderators to talk too much, to dominate the conversation, and/or to move too quickly from one topic to another. Experience moderators know to allow for short pauses when asking a question and might pose the question again, or often ask it in a different way, if there are no responses. They know that silence does not equal “no opinion on that topic.”
If there is a sense that people might be hesitant to respond (as is often the case in the beginning of the focus group session or if a sensitive question has been posed to the group) ask people to “brainwrite” their first thoughts on a scrap piece of paper. Then, indicating an “order of go,” ask people to read off what they have written. This process is usually quite successful in stimulating conversation.
If you choose not to use any type of recording device (and there are several valid reasons for not doing so) take copious notes. Whenever possible, record the participant’s utterances word for word. Avoid summarizing in your own words. Use quotes to indicate direct statements made by the participants. Separate responses to your questions using brackets—this will help you more readily recall the conversation. Do not rely on your memory to recall the discussion.
The task of moderating a focus group is not for the unskilled. Knowing how to listen “past the words” spoken by participants, to hear what is not being said, to know when to probe and when to quit are not universal skills. A focus group is a relatively expensive form of communication so it is well worth the time and investment to obtain a competent moderator who can make the most of that investment.
BEGINNING THE FOCUS GROUP SESSION
Like any good book or movie, the beginning sets the tone. A well-thought introduction can make the difference between informative, open dialogue and a group who is wary of how their input will be used.
Begin the session by providing an overview of the topic—why are you there? If the sessions are following a survey, state that these sessions are intended to get a better understanding of responses made in the survey. The key factor is to clearly articulate why these sessions are being held and what will be done with the data from the sessions.
If you are taking notes, a statement such as the following can go a long way to creating an environment of trust: “I will be taking notes to ensure that I recall specifically what you said but that in no way will these notes be shared with others nor will your names be used in any context.” (And then, never ever under ANY context share those notes.)
Avoid inviting participant questions at the beginning of the discussion as that can easily take the session quickly “off track.” Ask your first question and let the dialogue begin.
Any employee focus group session essentially begins a communication event. I often tell clients who say “Well, after the focus group meetings, we will communicate that…..” “STOP. A focus group meeting IS a communication event. It is telling your employees that you are interested in ….”. Therefore, leverage the effort and money invested into focus groups by encouraging employees to let others know what happened in the session (respecting the ground rules that names should not be shared) at the end of a session.
Prior to the conclusion of the session, ask participants “Now that we are nearing the end of the session, it is important to me to answer any questions that you might have. What would you like to have answered before we conclude?” Re-state what will happen with the results of their feedback and when they could expect to see actions put into place. Plan to share the results of your summary report with the participants. It is a powerful way to convey that you really did listen.
To reiterate, focus groups provide invaluable insights into why people see and interpret the world the way that they do, They are also one of the most expensive forms of communication. A well planned set of questions and purpose and a skilled facilitator can provide insights and understandings capable of re-shaping or challenging a corporate strategy. That’s information that is well worth the investment.