Conduct a Focus Group

Part One

Employee focus groups probe identified problems and causes, and surface suggested solutions. The process allows participants to contribute without much preparation or effort, and promotes a healthy sense among employees that they’re genuinely being “heard.”

Here is an easy to follow, step-by-step guide on how to dig deep and get the most out of your focus group efforts:

Planning Tips

Question your reasons

Before deciding whether to use employee focus group interviews as a source of information, answer these questions:

  • What goals do you hope to meet using a focus group? Why did employees score low on XYZ dimension? What examples have been observed? How important is each dimension to employees? What could/should be done to improve this area?

  • What purpose will the data serve? To provide input to the action planning process and help Executives make decisions about where and how to prioritize their efforts.

  • From whom do you want to collect information? (Be specific). Managers and non-managers from across all functional groups at the organization.

Write a brief, easily understood statement of purpose

Use the answers to the guiding questions noted above. No more than three sentences are needed. For example:

  • The purpose of the focus group process is to gather employee and manager input on Professional Growth, Innovation and Teamwork and how these areas can be improved.

  • Employees and managers will be asked to comment on their experiences, observations and the level of importance they place on each issue as well as how they would suggest improvement.

  • Employee and manager participation at this stage in our planning is intended to provide executives with concrete ideas and priorities of how to turn survey results into action.

Identify a good facilitator

Finding an experienced facilitator is the most important thing you can do to ensure good results from your focus groups. The facilitator guides conversation by asking questions, probing to clarify answers, keeping the group on topic, and making sure everyone is heard. These skills take practice. Make sure your facilitator has run focus groups in the past. The following skills and characteristics are beneficial:

  • Energetic – keeps the discussion lively, interesting and productive.

  • Personable – puts participants at ease early in the session so they can comfortably and actively participate in discussions.

  • Agile thinker – handles quick changes in the session.

  • Organized – develops an effective written agenda and produces results within the preferred time frame.

  • Active listener- attends to each participant, clarifying meanings by using probing techniques such as paraphrasing.

  • Remembers – connects a participant’s current statement to a previous statement, developing a better understanding of the participant’s feelings and stimulating more discussion.

  • Knowledgeable- possesses background knowledge on the topic and organization. Is experienced.

Identify a good note taker

The reporter or note taker plays a vital role in a focus group discussion. This scribe must capture as much accurate detail from the discussion as possible and note participant comments, group dynamics, and interesting shifts in conversation. While it’s best to make an audio recording of your focus groups to ensure there’s a complete record of what was discussed, it’s still important to have a note taker present as both an observer and reporter.

Develop carefully worded questions

Yes-or-no questions are one dimensional and don’t stimulate discussion. “Why” questions can put people on the defensive and may lead to “politically correct” responses on controversial issues. Open-ended questions are the most useful because they allow participants to tell their story in their own words and add details that can result in unanticipated insights.

  • What do you think about…?

  • How do you feel about…?

  • What do you like best (or least) about…?

Plan your session(s)

Scheduling – plan meetings to be one to two hours long. Over lunch seems to be a good time for participants to find time to attend. Provide refreshments especially if the session is held over lunch. Location/setting – hold sessions in a conference room or other setting with adequate air flow and lighting. Some other factors to consider when choosing a location:

  • What message does the setting send? (Is it corporate, upscale, informal, sterile, or inviting?)

  • Does the setting encourage conversation?

  • How will the setting affect the information gathered? Will the setting bias the information offered?

  • Can it comfortably accommodate the number of participants, where all can view each other?

  • Is it easily accessible? (consider access for people with disabilities, safety, transportation, parking, proximity, and convenience).

Develop an agenda or focus group discussion guide

Outline the flow of questions and topics to be covered. Build time into the discussion guide to pursue topics of interest that are raised by participants during the discussion and reveal ideas or sentiments that weren’t predicted. A typical employee focus group agenda includes:

  • Welcome

  • Review of agenda

  • Review of meeting objectives

  • Confidentiality commitment to participants and from participants to each other

  • Review of ground rules

  • Introductions

  • Discussions of three to four focus group topics – for example: impact, root causes, expectations for improvement, possible solutions

  • Summary and wrap up

Select and invite participants

Develop a list of attributes to guide the selection of participants. Typically you’ll want participants who cover a cross section of these attributes, such as:

  • Functional group/business unit

  • Gender

  • Geographic location

  • Length of service at organization

  • Employee Status (employee, management, etc.)

As a general guideline you can also follow the outline below:

  • Organization <250 employees = 3 focus groups

  • Organization <1,000 employees = 3 to 5 focus groups

  • Organization 1,000+ employees = 6+ focus groups

Each focus group should comprise 6 to 10 people to allow for smooth conversation flow. The common practice is to invite one and one-half as many people as you want to come (for a 66% response rate). For a focus group of 6 to 10 this means inviting between 9 and 15 participants for each session. To ensure open and honest input, keep manager sessions separate from non-manager focus groups. One-on-one interviews are recommended for executives if they’re going to be part of the process.

Part Two

Facilitation Guidelines

Employee focus groups can dig deeper into problems and causes identified in employee surveys, and can surface suggested solutions. Once you have determined the purpose of your employee focus group, what questions will be asked, and have finalized the timing and location of your focus group, it’s time to ensure you’re ready to facilitate the discussions.

Use the following step-by-step facilitation guide below to gather open and honest employee feedback.

Build rapport at the outset

Often participants don’t know what to expect from focus group discussions. It’s helpful for the facilitator to outline the purpose and format of the discussion at the beginning of the session to set the group at ease. Participants should be told the discussion is informal, everyone is expected to participate, and divergent views are welcome. Rapport is important to the facilitation process because it can dramatically influence the willingness of participants to answer questions, and how openly and honestly they answer the questions they’re asked.

Let participants know you’re there to learn from them.

Establish ground rules

At the beginning of a focus group, it’s helpful to let everyone know about some ways to make the process smooth and respectful for all participants. The following are some recommended guidelines or “ground rules” that help establish a group norm:

  • Only one person talks at a time.

  • Confidentiality is assured. “What is shared in the room stays in the room.”

  • It’s important to hear everyone’s ideas and opinions. There are no right or wrong answers – just ideas, experiences and opinions, which are all valuable.

  • It’s important to hear all sides of an issue – both positive and negative.

  • It’s important for women’s and men’s ideas to be equally represented and respected.

Once the above ground rules have been presented, it’s important to ask participants if they have anything to add to the list.

Ensure even participation

When posing a new discussion topic, allow a few moments for each member to carefully formulate their answers. If one or two people are dominating the meeting, call on others. Consider using a round-table approach giving each person a minute or two to answer the question. If domination persists, bring it to the attention of the group and ask for ideas about how participation can be increased.

Listen carefully

Active listening allows you to probe effectively and at appropriate points during the focus group. It involves not only hearing what someone is saying, but also noticing body posture and facial gestures that might provide clues as to the appropriate or necessary ways to engage participants.

While showing participants that you’re actively listening and interested in what they’re sharing, remain as neutral or impartial as possible, even if you have a strong opinion about something. Comments that infer your opinion and impose judgment will shut down discussion.

Use probing techniques

If participants give incomplete or irrelevant answers, probe for fuller, clearer responses. A few suggested techniques are:

  • Repeat the question – repetition gives more time to think.

  • Pause for the answer – a thoughtful nod or expectant look can convey that you want a fuller answer.

  • Repeat the reply – hearing it again sometimes stimulates conversation.

  • Ask questions to provoke more detail – use neutral comments:

    • How so?

    • Please tell me (more) about that…?

    • Could you explain what you mean by…?

    • Can you tell me something else about…?

    • Can you tell me more?

    • What specifically do you mean by that?

    • Can you share an example of what you’ve mentioned?

    • Is there anything else?

Monitor time closely

Stick as closely as possible to the agenda and time frames in order to touch on all questions planned. At the end of the session tell participants if they feel they didn’t have time to make a point or suggestion to write it on the notepad provided and hand it to the facilitator before leaving.

After each question is answered
  • Carefully reflect back a summary of what you heard.

  • The note taker/reporter may be in the best position do this.

Close the session on a high note

Tell participants they’ll receive a copy of the report generated from their answers, reiterate the commitment to mutual confidentiality, thank everyone for coming and adjourn the gathering.

Immediately After Employee Focus Groups

  • Verify the recorder, if used, worked throughout the session.

  • Make additional notes on your written notes, to clarify illegible scribbling or notes that don’t make sense, ensure pages are numbered, etc.

  • Write down any observations made during the session. For example, the nature of participation in the group, any surprises.

  • Conduct moderator and reporter/assistant moderator debriefing.

  • Note themes, hunches, interpretations and ideas.

  • Compare and contrast this focus group to other groups.

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