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Cheat Sheet - How To Run A Focus Group


I had the rare opportunity to observe a highly respected Agency veteran run a focus group and thought to myself, "Better write this down before I forget it." It was one of those educational experiences you cannot ever duplicate in a classroom. 
This leader made the following look natural ("I'll just be winging it") but in fact if you look at the steps it is highly sophisticated.

STAGE I: PREPARATION

Step 1: Recruit
Get executives to volunteer people. Reach out to the people with a short email and reassure them that the focus group will not be painful. Choose a non-intimidating setting that feels conversational.

Step 2: Homework
Give people something to think about in advance. Attachments to an email.

Step 3: Schedule & Remind
* If possible, have a third party reach out to the participants to invite them and coordinate date and time. There is a subtle hierarchical distinction between the scheduling and the inviting that should be kept intact if possible.
* Let them know a day ahead of time that you're looking forward to seeing them at the focus group.

Step 4: Structure
* Roles and responsibilities - in this case 1) executive/focus group leader 2) support person/subject matter expert (me) 3) note-taker (someone high-level who can capture the essence of what is going on, not just write things down) 4) timekeeper 5) scheduler; participants.
* Note-taker is especially important: Make sure someone is recording comments and action items for later reporting out. The note-taker cannot be the moderator. They can be the timekeeper.
* Have an order of operations ready - what are you trying to accomplish and how will you break that into tasks? (Example - you are talking about Issue A and then turning to Issue B, then coming to closure).
* Have a timeframe that you stick to. We went with 2 hours and it worked. The afternoon seemed to be a good time, it seems like people are more reflective around 2-4 p.m. versus in the morning they're trying to get things done.

Step 5: Handouts
Bring extra copies of the homework for people who forgot them. Have plain white paper and pens on hand.

STAGE 2: AT THE FOCUS GROUP

Step 1: Introductions & Background
* Go around the room. The moderator can start with themselves. Just say name and where you work. Don't introduce rank.
* Take questions about the project.
* The moderator explains what the purpose of the group is, the genesis of the project, and why it's important.

Step 2: Topic A 
Allow an hour to an hour:15 for this one. Participants are asked to take out their homework and review again in the context of the group. Initial comments are requested.
The moderator:
* makes sure to elucidate the members' comments rather than inserting themselves into the comments - they are neutral.
* injects reality into the conversation at strategic points - lightly managing expectations.
* makes sure that quiet members talk and that dominating members don't talk too much.
* repeats back what the participants say to make sure their viewpoint is heard.
* uses the participants' first names and asks to be reminded if they forgot.

Step 3: Short Break
This can be an actual break or the moderator can make small talk as there is a transition from Topic A to Topic B. Five minutes.

Step 4: Topic B
Rinse and repeat Topic A, but a little shorter because people are tired by now. About 30-45 minutes.

Step 5: Closure
* Do a brief exercise to come to some form of closure, even if it's only to solicit final ideas. Have people write down final thoughts on a piece of paper and hand it in.
* Thank the participants and let them know what's going to happen next in a concrete way. Answer the question: The information from this group will go where and matter how and why?
* Note that everything is subject to change - manage expectations.

STAGE 3: AFTER THE EVENT - FOLLOWUP

Step 1: Appreciation
It's nice to send a short note thanking people for their time.

Step 2: After Action Review
Group debrief - how did that go? What are we doing next?

Step 3: Notes
Notes go back to team for synthesis. Group collaboration site is updated. 


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