Focus on Focus Groups

Like any relationship, the one between an organization and its employees works best if there is ongoing communication about what is working well and what isn’t.  It is in the company’s best interests to make sure it hears about problems well before they start affecting the bottom line.  But what is the best way to get the most effective feedback?

Among my clients, I’ve noticed a significant interest in using “focus groups” with their staffs.  For those unfamiliar with the terminology, focus groups are meetings where employees are given an opportunity to offer their viewpoints on a variety of issues of importance to the organization.

Sometimes focus groups are facilitated by internal staff (usually HR) but most organizations prefer to have an external consultant as a facilitator.  In their view, this provides a better chance of receiving candid feedback.

I’ve facilitated many focus groups over the years, and I’ve seen what works well and what doesn’t.  Here are my six tips for conducting successful focus groups.

1. Ensure a cross section of the organization:

Nothing sinks the prospects for success quicker than some part of the organization feeling left out.  The individuals selected for the focus groups should cover all departments, grades, tenure levels and so on.

2.  Pick the actual attendees on a random basis:

Once all the different parts of the organization are covered, the actual names should be drawn randomly.  Sometimes I am asked as an outside consultant to select the actual attendees.  This takes care of any skeptics who might think the organization is choosing only those employees who will say good things about the organization.

3.  Manage expectations:

Employees need to understand that while the organization genuinely wants to hear what they have to say, this does not mean that every suggestion put forward will automatically be implemented.

4.  Protect confidentiality:

It is especially important for an external consultant to build trust by protecting confidentiality.  There should be no HR individuals or anyone else in the room other than the participants.  The participants should also promise each other that they will not discuss any person’s specific comments once the focus groups have been concluded.

5:  Confirm the major points:

Before the end of the focus groups, you should reserve some time to review the major points employees have made.  It is important to reach agreement that all the major themes have been captured.

6.  Report back:

Employees need to hear in a relatively short amount of time not only what they said during the focus groups, but what the organizations intends to do in response.

Focus groups can be powerful tools to promote transparency and build trust.  If you follow the six tips above, you can receive a wealth of important information that can help the company as you plan for the future.

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