Six focus groups, three lessons

I often hold meetings with stakeholders in advance of kicking off any workshops. Sometimes those meetings are one-on-one, sometimes they are in a focus group format. The approach depends on several factors like company culture, mandate complexity, and stakeholer interdependence. The ultimate purpose of these meetings is to co-create meaningful objectives for the strategic planning exercise, and to develop a methodology which will resonate with the group. I call this “honoring the group.” Often these sessions will bring to light things that the client was not aware of.

In the COVID context, of course, these preparatory sessions are done virtually. There are many differences between how focus groups are carried out in person and online, of course. The common themes between the in person and virutal sessions are related to ethics, preparation, and participation. I wonèt go into those element, rather, I want to share three things I learned while actually facilitating six virtual #FocusGroups over the course of three days.


1- Body language is important. You can read it even in a virtual meeting with people you don’t know. Participants lean in, they nod, or shuffle papers, or look away. Tip: research has shown that turning off your “self” view will allow your brain to focus on what’s important – other people. It works.
2- Relationships matter. People want to connect and hear each others’ stories, even if they don’t know each other. A few times I thought the introductions were going long, but reading the participants’ body language told me that people cared about what was being said. I found another way to meet my objectives for the focus group, without taking away from the connection being forged between the participants.
3- Great planning and support are not optional. Prepare, prepare, prepare, your content and methodology…then be ready to roll with the punches. Find someone reliable to act as co-facilitator, who has a skill you do not, to catch what you miss.

The payoff of what many people see as an extra step in a strategic discussion process is immense. People arrive to the workshops after the focus groups sessions already feeling heard and knowing that theyève had some input into its design. The outcomes from the actual strategic planning workshops themselves have far surpassed my expectations. My clients have called them “pivotal,” “crystal clear,” and participants have said they were “highly engaging” and “meaningful.”

If you’d like to hold high impact conversations with multiple stakeholders virtually, send me a note at lesley@lesleyantoun.com or call me at 514-518-7975.

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