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The Hidden Power of Focus Groups


We normally think of focus groups as a way of gathering information. That information goes to managers who, in their wisdom, decide what to do. After the decision comes planning and then the execution of those plans. Of course, that's how it's supposed to work, in practice managers may not have time to review the information from the focus group. Even if they have reviewed the information, they may not get around to making any clear decisions and plans. If they had made a decision and come up with a plan, there's still no guarantee it will be executed.

This is the normal top-down way of using focus groups. Yes, some information flows from the bottom-up, but all the action is driven from the top down. There is a different mechanism for how a focus group can lead to action, and that’s to leave the onus for action on the focus group participants.

How focus group participants drive action

You might think of action taking place in organizations in two distinct ways. One is senior management instituting a significant change. This might be new equipment or processes or policies. The other form of action is the day-to-day work of employees and managers. An employee might decide to take time to help a new hire get settled rather than just doing their own work. A supervisor might check with a stakeholder in another department before proceeding with some project. A manager might decide to praise someone for their efforts rather than just walking by them.

The first form of action involves planning. The second form of action is spontaneous. Both are important, but we may underestimate the power of those spontaneous actions because they are less visible and less controllable.

Focus groups affect spontaneous action by changing the perspectives of the participants. If you run a focus group on safety, you might expect the outcome to be information that leaders will use to plan new processes. However, the more important outcome might be the insights and perspectives that the focus group participants gain in the session that leads to a change in their day-to-day behaviour.

Imagine that a focus group discussion leads the participants to recognize that accidents often happen to people new to the job, even when we think their job isn’t particularly dangerous. The next time a supervisor notices a new hire about to do some work, even if it’s just climbing a ladder to change a light bulb, then they may take a moment to make sure they do so safely. It’s not a plan nor a policy nor a procedure; it is just a change in perspective that makes a difference.

Running the focus groups

A focus group can accomplish both purposes of feeding information upward and changing the perspectives of participants at the same time. The key is not to focus on the information gathering because that will signal that you expect participants to be passive. You want participants to think deeply about the issues, to share their own experiences, and to think about what they personally could do differently. Changing their thinking can lead to better spontaneous action. To fulfil the desire to provide information to senior managers, someone from HR can act as a “documenter” who records the insights that managers will care about.

In HR, we always should be alert to the importance of the intangible factors that can make a difference. Changing the spontaneous behaviour of employees by leveraging the power of focus groups is one such intangible.


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