The Indispensable Focus Group

The Indispensable Focus Group

“Thank you all for being here. Alan, Lisa, Josh, Yana, Katie, Ramón. Now I’d like to get everyone’s first impressions [on the new phone design]. Who’d like to jump in?……Anyone?…….How about you, Ramón?”

“It’s just stupid.”

In the hit HBO show “Silicon Valley”, tech giant Hooli commissions a focus group to gain insight into what regular consumers think about their new phone. In a jab at corporate, market-research focus groups, the moderator tries to have a casual, friendly conversation, but comes across as cold, impersonal, and robotic. The moderator responds mechanically to Ramón, “Okay, so Ramón feels the phone is stupid. Could you elaborate, Ramón? Stupid how? Please, be as specific as possible, Ramón.”

Good Focus Groups Aren’t Clichés

While it may be easy for popular media to poke fun at focus group clichés, effective focus groups are a useful method for measuring a group’s opinions, reactions, and needs. Our focus groups are an invaluable step in our Integrated Operating Environment (IOE) process (details at, following a leadership Vision Session and subsequent employee Operating Environment Survey. Our focus groups provide an open forum to capture unique individual and group observations and encourage the generation of ideas for delivering on the client’s top Strategic Priorities, Decision Criteria, and Design Attributes from the Vision Session. Additionally, focus groups allow the IOE team to take a deeper dive into dominant trends and explore underlying reasons for information obtained from the previously administered survey.

Perhaps most importantly though, as an effective change management tool, focus groups help build buy-in. They provide a forum for employees to voice their concerns and suggestions in a safe space. They allow more people to lend their voice to the process so that when the project is complete, employees can point to their contributions and feel collective ownership in their new space. It helps that our clients and focus group participants are invested in the outcome of their new office space enough not to respond with “It’s stupid” to every question.

Our Operating Environment Survey generates important, quantitative data describing employees’ work processes, space use needs, cultural attributes, time utilization, and work styles. Focus groups give us deeper meaning behind these numbers. This allows us to use the data to identify insights, to uncover opportunities, and to tell a story about how the client operates.

The Stories Behind the Numbers

An example from a recent client highlights the power of focus groups to help us build a story behind the depth of information we receive from the survey. Survey data indicated that employees perceived the current culture of the organization to be far more hierarchical and market oriented than a preferred future state. While this was valuable information to know, it was not clear how this hierarchy and market dominance manifested itself in the day-to-day operations of the organization. It was only through focus groups that we uncovered critical insights that informed both our space- and process-oriented recommendations. Across focus groups of different make-ups, participants described how workspaces were assigned almost exclusively by hierarchy, without regard to job function. As it happened, many senior employees were assigned to large, private, windowed offices, while their job function required them to travel extensively throughout the year. This left large swaths of windowed space vacant for extended periods of time. The closed doors and drawn blinds of empty offices blocked any natural light from reaching the interior spaces where employees in workstations were present every day. Focus group participants described how this arrangement led to a feeling of resentment of hierarchy among employees and fostered negative attitudes of entitlement.

In response to these findings, we proposed a layout that positioned workstations, and hence the workers present every day, along the building windows, with glass-fronted offices placed in the interior for the more senior employees. The lack of private offices on the perimeter allowed natural light to reach further into the building, affording light both to those in workstations and interior private offices. This space-oriented approach would improve window space utilization, reduce a negative perception regarding hierarchy, and thus move the organization forward towards a preferred future cultural makeup.

Through focus group discussions, we were also able to uncover how the market-dominated culture manifested itself within the organization. With this information, we were able to propose policy-oriented recommendations to address the misalignment between current and preferred cultural states. Comments across focus groups highlighted a top-down overemphasis on the quantity of work product produced at the expense of field-level impact and results. Competitive inter-departmental rivalries emerged as divisions vied for limited resources and attention. Many participants lamented the decline of the collegial atmosphere that once existed. As part of our recommendations, we suggested a realignment of productivity metrics that increased the emphasis on engagement and field-level impact to complement the existing measures of quantity of work product.

The Importance of Listening

When wrapping up a focus group, we distribute feedback cards. Perhaps the most common remarks we receive mention how useful the discussion is and how appreciative respondents are for the opportunity to voice their opinions. However, they often include a chief caveat that the usefulness of the session depends on whether their feedback is listened to and considered by the organization’s decision makers. Employees want a voice and to be engaged in the process. They have the practical knowledge to have a say in how their organization is run, their space is designed, and how best to operate. Focus groups help them have that voice. Not only are focus groups a powerful tool in our process, but they are empowering to the people who take time out of their day to participate. We recognize the value in employees’ insights and opinions and genuinely care about what they have to say. So, while the moderator on “Silicon Valley” offers robotic repetition in a failed effort to build interest and rapport, we’ve found that an open ear and the promise of a more exciting, customized, and effective workplace are more than enough to engage people.


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