I was talking with a client this week about facilitating a focus group to get some strategic feedback on their products and services. As we discussed the objectives, it became clear that this was less about having a “focus group” and more about having an informal, intimate conversation among peers.
Since they know the attendees very well, we decided it would be best for their product leaders to facilitate the conversation. This is great because the product leaders know the most about the product, but can be a trap if they don’t pay attention to the process.
As their coach, I gave them a few ideas to help make sure the client gets the feedback they are looking for:
1. Seating. If you want a large group focused conversation, opt for a U-shaped seating. If you want more intimate, small group conversations that you then bring back to the larger group, then rounds are best. There is no “right” or “wrong” answer, BTW. It is simply a matter of making the choice that will best fulfill your objectives. 🙂
2. Questions. Be deliberate in your questions without implying a solution. Probe deeper with follow-up questions that explore the 5Ws and H (Who, What, When, Where, Why and How). Make sure your questions aren’t “leading questions” that steer the participants in a direction, e.g. “That would be good for XYZ customer, wouldn’t it?”
3. Non-Biased. There are going to be some ideas that surprise you, annoy you or puzzle you. Remain neutral and don’t show your biases (especially in your facial expressions) – or else you might taint their opinions.
4. No Judgment. A quick way to change the group dynamic is to pass judgment on an idea. “Good idea, John!” and then you say nothing about the next idea. It’s just awkward (So, was my idea no good? or not as good as John’s?) It is best to say, “Thank you” (or some variation) after each idea, and then periodically give the group some feedback, e.g. “This conversation is very helpful….” (and then give specifics if you can).
5. Ask All. Some participants will be more vocal than others. While a lively discussion is optimal, you want to make sure that you have heard from everybody – which is challenging with a dozen or more people in the room. So, periodically, you may want to take a poll, go around the room for comments or, if you see someone who hasn’t contributed say, “We haven’t heard from you, John, on this topic. Would you like to weigh in?” (That’s a little bit softer than picking on someone to comment).
6. Sides. Many facilitators seem to prefer one side of the room over another. They stand off on one side more than another and/or engage the participants on one side over another – especially if there is a projector dividing the room. Just be aware of this tendency to favor one side of the room.
7. Transitions. When going from one agenda item to another, summarize the key points and then share what the next section will cover. At the end, either summarize the key points – or ask the participants what they think the key points/takeaways are!
8. Synthesize. This is the hardest skill to teach – take one point that was made earlier and realize there is a connection or synergy with another point that is made later on. As a facilitator, you want to bridge the two ideas without implying a solution. “Earlier on, you mentioned x, and we were just talking about y. Is there a connection between these two ideas?”
9. Smile. Don’t forget to smile and enjoy yourselves! Yes, this is serious business, but if you’re tense, the participants will be tense. If you’re having fun, then they will too! They will be looking to you to bring the energy to the table.
10. Trust the Process. You are clear about the desired outcomes, thought through the process and have a viable agenda. You’ve identified what could possibly go wrong – and built some prevention strategies into the agenda. This is the bulk of the work. Now you need to trust the process and let the conversation unfold. You will need to intervene periodically to get the group back on track, but you have your trusty roadmap to get you there.
When facilitating a focus group, make sure the entire event is consistent with the brand promise and the personality of the audience. Pay attention to not only the content (the “what” you want to discuss), but also the process (the “how” you are going to get there) and you’ll have a robust conversation.
Kristin Arnold is a professional meeting facilitator and international speaker who is passionate about helping leaders and their teams think things through, make better decisions and achieve sustainable results. The Extraordinary Team’s approach to building high performance teams combines consulting, coaching, training and process facilitation within the context of working real issues.
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