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Beyond Survey Analytics: How Dialogue & Focus Groups Can Speed Action

Beyond Survey Analytics: How Dialogue & Focus Groups Can Speed Action

In the age of big data and advanced analytics, companies often rely on quantitative metrics to gauge organizational sentiment. However, even the most refined data analytics may prompt organizations to seek additional qualitative insights. While team meetings and debriefs often serve as an arena for discussing employee survey scores and formulating action plans, there are many instances when a broader lens is warranted. This is particularly true when business opportunities or challenges span across multiple teams, roles, or demographic segments such as gender or ethnicity.

The Power of Dialogue at Scale

Traditional methods like focus groups can help in these scenarios, allowing for a rich, multi-dimensional understanding of issues. However, as organizations scale, it’s important to acknowledge that focus groups may not be the most efficient way to gather widespread, actionable insights quickly. Enter contemporary solutions like Dialogue from Perceptyx, which enables the crowdsourcing of feedback on a grander scale, and a swifter pace, ultimately accelerating the action planning cycle.

Dialogue empowers organizations to solicit feedback not just from a handful of employees but from a vast cross-section of the workforce. This approach aids the action planning process by allowing the organization to further investigate the “why” behind low-scoring items, or ask more focused follow-up questions to gain more clarity. Whereas traditional focus groups may require weeks or even months to coordinate, analyze, and act upon, Dialogue streamlines the entire process, delivering data-driven insights immediately so that actioning is more time and cost-efficient.

When scale, speed, and actionable insights are of the essence, technologies like crowdsourcing can provide tremendous benefits. However, my point here is not to disregard traditional methods like focus groups. As I will discuss throughout this article, focus groups still have their time and place, offering depth and nuance that can sometimes be hard to achieve with digital data collection. 

The Advantages of Focus Groups

Traditional focus groups can facilitate intimate, unscripted discussions, allowing participants to voice their concerns in their own words. They serve as a space for both expansive brainstorming and targeted problem-solving, offering the chance to delve deeper into issues that may not have been evident through quantitative data alone. These discussions are particularly beneficial when there is a specific subject matter in focus, such as system efficiency or career development, and when participants constitute a defined subset of the workforce well-versed in that particular area.

That said, assembling a focus group requires careful consideration of its composition. Aim for a representative cross-section of the workforce, or of a specific demographic when the issue at hand pertains particularly to that group. If the discussion revolves around challenges faced by new hires, for example, ensure that the focus group accommodates a diverse range of grades, locations, and sensitive demographics like gender and ethnicity, to the extent feasible.

Here are some key recommendations to consider when setting up focus groups:

  • Try not to mix managers and non-managers as people may defer to seniority or worry that something that they say would be reported to their manager. Additionally, managers may not want to talk about concerns they have in front of junior employees. In particular, you should try not to have a group where a manager and their own direct reports are together. 

  • Make sure you are not recruiting someone who has a live complaint or issue in the area you are discussing, as their focus on this may take over the group. Also, most organizations will ask that you don’t include employees on performance plans, for similar reasons. 

  • If you are researching a wider topic area such as performance management, you want to make sure that your groups don’t have too wide a make-up. The needs of a short-tenure employee may be very different from those of a longer-tenure employee. In such cases, create multiple groups that allow you to analyze and compare the results and experiences across these differing groups. 

Preparations for Running Focus Groups

As you prepare to run focus groups, think about the setting. Ideally, you will be able to run these focus groups in person, but virtual groups are also fine. If you are running a virtual group, try to avoid a mix of virtual and in-person respondents. If you are a moderator who is in the room with in-person respondents, you might be more likely to unconsciously favor them.

Here are some other strategies for preparing to run focus groups:

  • When it comes to setting up a focus group, size does matter. A target group of 8-12 participants offers a sweet spot, balancing diversity of perspectives with room for each individual to speak. With fewer than eight, the risk of groupthink increases, diluting the richness and variety of the feedback. Conversely, more than 12 participants can make it difficult for everyone to find the space to contribute meaningfully. By keeping the group size within this range, you ensure an environment that fosters both breadth and depth of discussion.

  • One of the prerequisites for candid conversations in a focus group is confidentiality. Make it explicit that whatever is discussed during the session should be treated with the utmost confidence. This not only encourages open dialogue but also mitigates the fear of repercussions for expressing unpopular opinions. Additionally, always provide a channel for participants to reach out to you after the session. Some individuals may not be comfortable sharing certain insights publicly but might be willing to share them confidentially later on.

  • While focus groups in consumer research can stretch on for hours, this isn't typically feasible in a corporate setting. Employees usually can't afford to carve out more than an hour from their workday for such discussions. One-hour sessions are generally sufficient to cover key points without draining participants' time and energy. If possible, send a prior notification to participants' managers, both to inform them of the upcoming session and to thank them for allowing their team members the time to participate.

  • As the facilitator, your primary role is to guide the discussion, not to juggle between listening, speaking, and jotting down notes. Designate a separate individual to take comprehensive notes. This enables you to focus solely on leading the conversation, managing time, and ensuring that the discussion remains on track and productive.

  • Location plays a pivotal role in the effectiveness of a focus group. Opt for a meeting room over an open space to contain the conversation and minimize interruptions. A closed setting enhances the focus and allows for a confidential, uninterrupted dialogue. Ensure the room is equipped with the necessary technology and amenities to make the session as smooth as possible.

  • In an ideal world, every participant would be fully present during the entire session, with email and work commitments temporarily set aside. However, the reality of work-life balance often doesn't permit this level of detachment. Acknowledge that participants may need to leave early or intermittently check their emails. Rather than viewing this as an impediment, consider it a feature of the corporate landscape and plan the session accordingly.

Once you’ve addressed these preliminary matters related to focus groups, further considerations may include:

  • How many groups are necessary? It’s hard to be precise as it depends on the topic and how many areas of your organization you want to cover. Remember that this is qualitative, not quantitative, research — you do not need to talk to everyone. Less is often more with focus groups, so 2-6 groups is usually enough. It is often the case that you get 80-90% of what you need to know from your first series of groups.

  • Who should moderate the groups? The choice here is between someone who is good at moderating a group and facilitating a discussion or someone who is a subject-matter expert. The best option is usually a good interviewer/facilitator. They can always be briefed on the topic, and if real technical knowledge is needed, the subject-matter expert can sit in and occasionally ask questions or pass notes to the moderator as needed. 

The Nuts and Bolts of Running Effective Focus Groups

Mastering the art of focus group facilitation is akin to conducting an orchestra. It requires setting the right tone, encouraging participation, and carefully navigating through the various issues to reach a coherent and meaningful understanding. Here, I want to explore the nuts and bolts of running focus groups, from the moment the group convenes to when the session adjourns.

  • Begin by introducing yourself, the note-taker, and any other non-respondents present in the room. Clarify the purpose of the focus group, outline its expected duration, and emphasize expectations of confidentiality and respect. By setting clear guidelines, you create a conducive environment for an open and respectful exchange of ideas.

  • Having a structured interview guide provides a framework for the discussion, delineating key areas of interest, suggested questions, and approximate timings for each segment. As you conduct more focus groups in a series, the guide becomes less of a script and more of a checklist, ensuring you haven’t overlooked important questions. Writing the guide is also a preparatory exercise that aids in ordering your thoughts and identifying areas requiring deeper probing.

  • Avoid leading questions that skew responses or impose your views on the group. For instance, instead of saying, "This process is dreadful, don't you agree?", opt for open-ended queries like, "What are your thoughts on this process? How could it be improved?" This approach fosters authentic dialogue and allows participants to share their perspectives freely.

  • Active listening goes beyond merely hearing what participants are saying. It involves maintaining eye contact, nodding to acknowledge points, and paying attention to non-verbal cues such as body language. Don’t hesitate to ask for clarification or to dive deeper into points that warrant further discussion. By showing empathy and interest, you make participants feel heard and respected.

  • In any group setting, there are bound to be extroverts who dominate the discussion and introverts who hold back. Be mindful of this dynamic and make a concerted effort to include everyone. Observe body language to identify individuals who may be hesitant to share their views and actively invite them to contribute, ensuring a more balanced and inclusive conversation.

  • While focus groups are predominantly qualitative, it’s acceptable to ask for a show of hands or gauge who is for or against a specific proposition. However, refrain from translating these indicators into percentages or statistical data, as the sample size in a focus group is not statistically robust. Use such information merely as a guide to steer the discussion.

  • Throughout the session, as you end a section or topic area, summarize the key points raised and insights gathered, presenting them back to the group for validation. This step serves as a quality check, ensuring that you’ve accurately captured the nuances of the discussion and haven't omitted crucial details.

  • Contradictions within the group are not setbacks but rather opportunities for deeper understanding. For instance, if participants complain about micromanagement but later seek more managerial involvement in a certain area, bring this inconsistency to light. Use it as a springboard for a richer discussion aimed at resolving these contradictions.

  • If a point made by a participant is unclear or seems impractical, seek clarification. As long as you approach it respectfully, participants are generally open to elaborating or discussing concerns. This adds depth to the conversation and could unearth new insights.

  • Wrap up the focus group by once again stressing the importance of confidentiality. Share your contact information to offer participants an avenue to provide additional thoughts they might not have felt comfortable discussing in the group setting.

By paying attention to each of these aspects, you not only elevate the quality of the focus group but also enrich the action planning process, making it more comprehensive and insightful.

Analyzing the Results of Focus Groups

The conclusion of a focus group is merely the first act in a longer narrative of organizational improvement. In the subsequent phase, the complex task of analyzing the data takes center stage. This process is a combination of subjective interpretation and objective assessment, designed to unearth actionable insights. Below are some ideas for parsing the wealth of qualitative information that focus groups generate, focusing not only on the “what” but also delving into the “why” and the “how.”

  • Before diving into the intricate layers of focus group data, take a moment to document your initial impressions. If you have a note-taker, have them do the same. These gut reactions can serve as a litmus test when you are reviewing the data later, especially if you are conducting multiple focus groups. This exercise ensures that your preliminary insights don't get diluted as you process more information.

  • A straightforward yet effective approach is to start by listing the key points discussed during the focus group, alongside the arguments for and against each. As you categorize this information, a pattern or story often begins to emerge, offering a cohesive interpretation of the collected data. This helps in filtering the information down to actionable insights that can be integrated into strategic planning.

  • Differing opinions are often indicative of different underlying needs or usage patterns among participants. In some cases, the same feature might be both liked and disliked, depending on one's vantage point. Taking note of these variations and their driving factors can offer a multidimensional view of the issue, thereby helping in crafting nuanced solutions.

  • Qualitative coding is a methodological step to classify verbal or behavioral data into distinct themes or subthemes. This is especially useful in highlighting recurring patterns or trends within the focus group responses. If not explicitly covered under the examination of different opinions, consider adding qualitative coding to your analysis for a more structured approach.

  • While focus groups are dialogue-centric, the non-verbal cues, such as body language or tone, should not be overlooked. These emotional cues can offer a deeper understanding of participant attitudes and can sometimes be more telling than the spoken word. Make sure to incorporate these observations into your overall analysis.

  • During the course of a focus group, certain individuals may emerge as more influential in shaping the group's opinions. Understanding the role of these individuals and the nature of the consensus reached can provide additional layers of meaning to your analysis.

  • Once your analysis is complete, consider having it peer-reviewed. A second set of eyes can spot biases or assumptions you may have inadvertently made, thus adding another layer of rigor to your findings.

By employing a detailed and layered approach to focus group analysis, you transform nebulous conversations into a structured set of insights. These can serve as invaluable inputs into your action planning, allowing you to address organizational challenges with a nuanced understanding that is both empathetic and evidence-based.

Perceptyx Can Help You Tap the Full Potential of Your Quantitative and Qualitative Data

While focus group data is rich in context, it gains further value when cross-referenced with other quantitative or qualitative data your organization may have. Whether it’s employee survey results from a product like Perceptyx’s Ask, crowdsourcing feedback from Dialogue, or performance metrics, integrating multiple data sources can offer a more comprehensive view.

To learn more about the benefits of crowdsourcing and see Dialogue in action, view our on-demand webinar.

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