Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

The grey-haired, steely-eyed Admiral on the bridge of the flagship, leading a fleet of heavily-armed warships into battle, pointed toward the rising sun and said “Set course at 107.25 degrees.” NO, HE DIDN’T! He said “Take us out, Skipper,” because Admirals don’t micromanage, they strategize. They get things started by pointing the crew in the right direction and leaving the tactics to the specialists. With a shared mission and well-defined roles and responsibilities, everyone on board knows where they’re headed and what needs to be done to get there. 

Overly-detailed instructions are handcuffs.

When I started doing focus groups, discussion guides included only a few basic areas to be explored over the course of one or two hours and a handful of key questions to ask. The moderator’s job was to get participants talking among themselves and step aside except for clarifying questions and appropriate probes when needed. Somewhere along the line these general conversation-starting questions were replaced by long lists of very fussily-detailed questions for the moderator to ask the group. In place of giving moderators the latitude they needed to do their jobs properly, heavy-handed study sponsors issued impossible directives that left no room for exploring, which is the real purpose of focus groups anyway. Robert Merton, the inventor of the focus group, despised how his methodology had been hijacked and bastardized, saying “Focus groups are supposed to be merely the source of ideas that need to be researched.” They were meant to be only a jumping-off point, with perhaps a hypothesis or two thrown in. Instead, focus groups became a favorite way to get shallow answers quickly. 

The worst of overbuilt discussion agendas are called laundry lists. 

Most of them are fussy, overstuffed timetables. They are impossibly long and minutely-detailed lists of questions study sponsors want moderators to ask. A memorably-overbuilt agenda I was handed one time had so many questions that each focus group participant would have only 12 seconds per question to reflect, compose, and deliver a thoughtful and insightful comment (FYI, 12 seconds is the time it takes the average mammal to relieve itself). Laundry lists that attempt to cover every topic under the sun are disasters because moderators can’t possibly collect valuable intelligence in only a few seconds. Even worse, too-strict timetables allow no time for moderators to follow up on interesting leads, either.

You can probably guess who catches the blame, can’t you?

Small-minded, over-controlling clients blame the moderator instead of their own ill-conceived laundry lists. Having learned so little because they forced the interviewer to rush through so many things, sponsors inevitably complain the moderator didn’t spend enough time on what was important and too much time on what wasn’t. Strategic thinkers, on the other hand, direct interviewers to devote most of the session time to in-depth explorations of a few vital issues, while giving them the latitude to follow interesting leads, like detectives.

People have complex and conflicting motivations.

These things are impossible to get at with ridiculously detailed discussion guides so many moderators are forced to rush through in vain attempts to meet stakeholders’ overzealous and often conflicting demands.

Two great ways to screw up focus groups.
  1. Overbuild your discussion guide. Instead of identifying some broad areas for your moderator to explore thoroughly, go ahead and produce long lists of unconnected questions.
  2. Avoid giving participants the time to think carefully. Instead, leap from one question to another and another in a desperate race to beat the clock.
Before you write a discussion agenda, try this.

Do some simple back-calculating. To make mental computing easy, I like to use 100 minutes as a base for time allocation. Later on, I use percentages to allocate times to shorter and longer sessions as needed.

  • If you have 50 questions you want to ask, each question gets 2 minutes of total group discussion time (100 minutes ÷ 50 questions = 2 minutes each). 
  • Divide those 2 minutes by 10 participants, and each person gets only 12 seconds per question (120 seconds ÷ 10 = 12 seconds).
Twelve seconds is usually enough time to give a simple answer to a simple question.

But if the point of focus groups is to have participants reflect, compose, and deliver thoughtful and insightful comments, twelve seconds is insane. Excuse-makers like to bully their way in here and say moderators shouldn’t ask every question of every participant. My question is always the same: If you don’t want to hear what they have to say, why are you paying them?

Something’s got to give.

If you cut the number of questions in half, each question now gets double the group discussion time (4 minutes). This gives each participant 24 seconds per question. If you also cut the number of participants in half, each person now gets 48 seconds to answer each of the questions you paid them to answer. If you have topics that require deeper discussion, you will need to further reduce the number of questions and/or the number of participants.

For planning purposes, use the principles of zero-based budgeting. 

Have study sponsors narrow their business and research objectives down to their top three or four but no more than five. This will require a fair amount of intelligent discussion about value for money. Determine what and how much intel needs to be gathered to make well-informed decisions about each topic and allocate time accordingly. Leave moderators the latitude they need to pursue leads and ask follow-up questions. When you build a reasonable amount of slack into the system, you allow real learning to happen.

The same general principle applies to meetings. 

You have a fixed timeframe, a predetermined number of things to discuss, and some number of people you invited to participate. Ignore doing the oh-so-simple math (Time ÷ Topics ÷ Participants) and you might end up as the nincompoop in this true tale a friend reminded me of recently. 

A new boss was coming on board. He announced his arrival by scheduling a one-hour meeting with the five department heads who had been reassigned to report directly to him. The invitation explained that he wanted “to meet his new executive team and learn how each of their departments contributed to the organization’s goals, what issues they were facing, and what ideas they had to increase overall efficiency and effectiveness.” One by one, the directors slipped into stunned silence as their new VP dedicated the meeting’s first 50 minutes to proudly presenting a dog and pony show glorifying himself and his management style. With only ten minutes left until the meeting’s end, the new leader of five departments finally said “Let’s go around the table and each of you tell me about yourself and what you do.” 

Which tells you all you need to know about his management style, doesn’t it?

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