By Terry Linhart

Focus groups are one of the most common methods that professional consultants use in their work. Leading a focus group seems easy enough, right? In reality, focus groups are full of peril if not designed and conducted properly. I’ve sat in the back of enough rooms watching organizational leaders try to save a buck or two by leading their own focus groups. As I watch them lead their people, I squirm and wince. Consistently, the “answers” they got don’t really reflect their group. Their people responded, but the responses weren’t representative.

All of the work they put into forming and leading the focus groups ended up with nothing. Really. It felt like data, but they were loosely-organized ideas that the leader heard as confirmation of his/her project.

Focus groups can generate more well-ordered thoughts that dig beneath “bumper sticker” ideas. I want to help you make your next focus group time amazing. But first, I think there are three consistent reasons that leaders have problems running focus groups.

3 Problems with Most Focus Groups

  1. We don’t REALLY want to know how their organization is doing. This is ESPECIALLY true with nonprofits. In our design phase with clients, we often politely ask if they really want to know how their initiatives are going or if they want us to just affirm what they’re already doing. We say it with light-hearted humor, but the point remains: Our modern leadership conversations aren’t often leading us to facilitate openness and honesty. The “leader first” structure that is prominent in today’s leadership has an inherent shadow feature – that the leader has insulated himself/herself from criticism. While it’s okay for evaluations to take place on middle managers and frontline people, good feedback on the executive level of organizations and businesses is less frequent. And it’s even less so in local churches where power is more centralized with the lead pastor and a small elder board.
  2. We don’t get ALL of the members of focus groups contributing. This results from poor methods, trying to do too much, and working too fast. A truism of qualitative methods like focus groups is that they take time and require reflection. Too often leaders are moving to the next question before the more well-formed answers emerge. Because driven leaders work at a fast pace, they assume that others do as well. Not true. Good focus groups require fewer questions and more time to make sure that all of the focus group members have time to respond. In fact, I’ll say that often our BEST responses will come from the folks who need a handful of minutes to think through what to say and how to say it best.
  3. We used methods that don’t discover the best insights. Focus groups underperform not because it’s a bad method, but they fall short when we use a simple question-response method. We may get a group to report some answers on paper, but it’s just a list. What do those responses mean? Are they all equal? Do we just have a handful of lists that we then order and weight based on what we desire for our groups?

That’s what usually happens.

So, we spend energy on focus groups and walk away with a list of responses that have come from the most talkative folks or those who have some agenda (or something they’re defending) or (even worse) from the outliers who have opinions that represent less than 10% of your people but seem to be more significant because they showed up to your focus groups. In focus groups remember that the most talkative ones are often the outliers, the defenders, or the pretenders. They don’t represent your people well, have some agenda that keeps them from being honest (with themselves or with you), or they don’t really know what’s going on (but act like they do).

5 Ways to Make your Focus Groups Amazing

I want to pass along the insights I’ve gained over the 20+ years I’ve been consulting and researching using this valuable method. And, of course, it’s my hope that the next time you (or an organization you know) needs to do some inquiry, you’ll consider hiring us to assist with that process. There are some STRONG advantages to have an outside group come in and lead your project. As I share these tips, my assumption is that the leader has called together 24 or more people for the focus group time and then has divided them in the room into 4 or more groups (keeping each group’s membership to eight or less).

  1. Pay attention to group membership. This topic is worthy of its own blog post. There’s no hard-and-fast rule here for what to do, but who’s in what group is a “thing” for you to consider. Let’s say you’ve pulled together 30 people for an evening where you’re going to do focus groups in a room (the most common way leaders of organizations use focus groups). Let the people self-select who they sit within groups and then pay attention to the choices they’ve made. But you can’t read TOO much into that. Remember, in qualitative methods (like focus groups), the only data you want is what is reported to you by the people. You likely may want to rearrange groups. You can choose to have each focus group (focus groups are made up of 4-7 members, no less and no more) be a mixed “cross-section” of people or you may want to group your people within a specific demographic, which is usually gender and/or age. The important thing is that you have a well-thought reason for doing so in light of your goals.
  2. Use multiple types of questions. Don’t just ask for a list of factors or problems in each question, but get creative with your questions. I like to ask consensus-building questions (see #3), but I’ve also presented a scenario or story and then had the group respond (e.g. fix the problem) without prompting/guidance from me. But, remember you’re trying to get the “inside scoop” on areas you can’t see, so ask the best questions possible … and then listen and learn. If you are thinking of leading some focus groups, we can consult with you for an hour on the phone and help you craft the process and analysis so that it’s the most fruitful and helpful and worth your time.
  3. Get group consensus. Instead of generating lists of responses, limit what each group can provide. Have them ALL agree on the Top Three answers to your question. Or even a single response! Having participants, in agreement with one another, collectively attach value to their responses is one the primary advantages of the focus group method. You have key people in a room, so have them work on the analysis before you do. Too many leaders just want the lists and then they’ll make the decision as to what’s important. That will likely just lead to more frustrated people in the organization. If you’re taking the time to get people together, let them take their responses and the provide you with the best one(s) and show you what’s not as imperative.
  4. Have groups rank responses. This is another question that leads to a gold mine of insights, especially with people who may not understand how qualitative data can be valid. Have your groups take their responses and then rank order them in importance (or some other value), numbering them as they do so. So, the top answer on the list gets a “1” and so forth on down to no more than 10. The lower the number, the higher the ranking (think “we’re number 1”). You can vary this a bit by selecting ALL of the answers from your various focus groups in the room (whether exhaustive or a consensus-driven “top 3” list), and then have each group SEPARATELY rank the top five. You’ll then get to see how various groups feel about the same things. This is where your group composition (see #1) comes into play. Imagine that men and women or younger and older people ranked the issues differently. Then you can have a large group discussion and really get somewhere on the topic rather than just leaving the even with a list of 15 ideas.
  5. Know that the elephant is still in your room. If you’re trying to lead focus groups and you have some sort of oversight with the people, your results will be tainted. Even if you use the previous four approaches,  there will be bias in the responses as people answer in ways that work for/against your influence. Some will answer and influence in ways they think you want to hear (or they’ll respond in ways just to oppose you) and others will respond in opposition to what you’re trying to do. Either reason leads to biased data. If you’re self-selecting 6-10 people to meet with you for a focus group, the data will be even more inaccurate in representing your context.

We can help you

That’s why a group like Arbor Research Group can help. We conduct focus groups all over the country (and around the world now) each year. We, as an outside agency, often combine a focus group methodology with an online survey and then a series of one-on-one interviews. The triangulation among the three methods gives the data a richness and helps by zeroing-in past the bias.

The Arbor team of trained researchers have a proven ability to easily move in and out of local contexts and get the necessary insights for strategic decision-making. They can garner buy-in for future initiatives while uncovering the underlying issues that leaders can’t (or want to) see. Each Arbor project is custom-designed each visit for maximum effectiveness and efficiency (that saves you money!). And, through it all, the relationships will remain intact while leaders walk away with the insights they need.

When we’re finished with a project we get at least one of two responses. First, people say, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. In fact, I enjoyed that.” People expect research to be clinical, like going to a dentist. But, when done well and right, it’s actually a very nurturing process. In fact, the second response we hear from leaders is “even if we didn’t get any data or insights, this process had been helpful for us.” When the Arbor team shows up and leads a project, the conversations and reflections are helpful as people have a chance to share openly and honestly and be listened to by caring experts. Just that process alone, for many of our clients, has been a significant chapter in their growth and history.

Whether you need some methodology coaching or want to discuss a potential project idea, please connect with me and I’ll quickly respond to set up a free no-obligation phone call to talk more about your needs.

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