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A management consultant’s primary goal is to solve a business problem. Their primary tool to carry out this is the ability to probe and ask questions. A lot of this probing is informal and takes place in the form of many conversations. Yet, there are times when a more formal and focused approach is required. That is called the focus interview. This blog covers the reasons for conducting such an interview, how to do it correctly and the pitfalls commonly experienced.
Focus interviews have four primary goals:
- To gain a thorough understanding of the interviewees role and responsibilities.
- To get an individual’s perceptions of areas of opportunity and potential barriers to improvement.
- To build commitment to and ownership of the change program.
- To “make a friend” — gain support for more assistance and involvement.
The focus interview helps the management consultant focus on opportunities. It accomplishes this in different ways:
- Provides the consultant with initial direction for further studies.
- Helps to establish a theme – what kind of project is needed.
- War stories and testimonials provide proof that need for improvement exists.
- Provides an opportunity to gain perceptual or job-related data.
Never forget that the focus interview is also your interview and is an important step in building the management consultants image:
- First impressions of the team and its methods are critical.
- Opportunity to: “defuse the threat”.
- Generates excitement and anticipation for the project.
- Solidifies broader buy-in and ownership of the need for change.
When conducting interviews remember that assessing tone, body language etc can provide strong indications of whether the consulting engagement will be successful. The focus interview therefore provides insight into:
- Deeper understanding of culture and sub-cultures.
- View of the breadth and depth of managerial skill and sophistication.
- Clients’ perception of probable success.
- Index of the readiness for or resistance to change.
- View of informal systems and networks.
Remember to prepare well so that you have a defined outcome in mind, can focus the interviewees and are sufficiently ready to catch “red-flags” and probe further:
- Level of detail must be enough.
- Format must be easy to check later for findings.
- Content must be meaningful and specific to interviewee’s department and experience.
- It is essential to understand:
- Departmental functions.
- Departmental performance.
- Opportunities for improvement.
- Relation to broader project.
When capturing responses, be ready to dig in for detail. Opinions are nice, but hard data can be compared, verified and presented:
- Obtain complete answers to all open-ended questions.
- Specifics for war story data (e.g., data, names, etc.).
- Bullets written in narrative form.
- Logical and consistent perceptions.
- Get to the real issues.
Remember that you work in a team. The last thing YOU would want is a colleague’s interview notes which cannot be understood. So don’t make the same mistake. Even if you work alone, remember the power of consulting is accumulated knowledge and experience. Write up the notes so they can be easily cross-referenced years from the day of the interview:
- Use interview form-plus lined paper.
- Print only – legibly.
- Reference text to bullets.
- Highlight hot buttons (critical items for further review).
- Write up bullets by card numbers on separate sheets.
- What is he/she really saying?
- Capture direct quotes when possible.
- Probe to check real issues.
Always remember that you have no more than 90 minutes (if you are lucky) to get…
- The individual’s job and their perceptions of it.
- How this relates to the total business.
- How their concerns relate to the project.
- What improvement opportunities they perceive.
- What improvement opportunities you perceive.
Management consultants typically make one of 4 common mistakes in a focus interview…
- Collecting incomplete answers:
- Position and educate the interview.
- Probe for detail.
- Not enough detail:
- Relate examples to narratives on attached sheets.
- Writing illegible:
- Set expectation that interview is being documented.
- Rewrite after interview.
- Poor rapport:
- Work the issue.
- May have to end interview and have another consultant do the interview who can develop a relationship with the employee.
Forewarned is forearmed. With that in mind here are our Top 12 reasons an interview can fail…
- interviewees ducks questions.
- interviewees changes agenda.
- interviewees does not want to do interview
- interviewees think you are assessing him:
- (Hire/fire decision).
- Interviewee does not believe your reasons for interview.
- Interviewee wants to be your best friend.
- Interviewee demands information from you that you cannot give.
- Interviewee is temporarily unstable.
- Interviewee runs out of time.
10. Interviewee has brought 5 colleagues along.
11. Client restricts interviewee list.
12. Interviewee has just been interviewed.
We recommend going through a simple checklist to avoid failure. Do not simply check them off. Think very carefully about the impact of the interview. Every client is different. Some are analytical, other hierarchical, while others simply hate consultants! This checklist will serve as a guide only. Make sure your clients unique context is built into the checklist below.
- Preparation of the Interview:
- Did you agree a location?
- Did you agree a start time?
- Did you check the hygiene factors (interviewee had a drink etc)?
- Did you check the name and position of the person being interviewed?
- Questions you should ask:
- Open ended
- Probing & Linking
- Venting (gives someone who was never heard, a chance to be heard)
- Closed (Yes or No)
- Questions you should not ask:
- Limited Choice
- Execution of the Interview – Introduction:
- Did you introduce yourself?
- Did you explain the purpose of the interview?
- Did you confirm/clarify the time contract?
- Did you confirm interviewee’s position/capacity?
- Did you outline the framework of the interview and explain roles?
- Did you explain to what end the interview would be used?
- Execution of the Interview – Close:
- Did you finish with an open question (is there anything else you would like to tell me)?
- Did you agree/clarify any next steps and timings?
- Did you thank the interviewee?
- Are your interview notes in a readable form?
- Do you have any verbatim quotations? (These can be very powerful, especially when viewed in context)
- Are the key points summarized so you know to whom and when to feedback your interview notes?
- Have you quality checked the interview – do you think it is honest and accurate?
Assuming all went well in the interview, it is essential to consider six elements when capturing your findings:
- Check out the client’s perceptions with them. Are his perceptions correct based on the early interview feedback?
- Review written documentation of problems. How do these compare with the feedback from the executives and frontline employees?
- Quantify wherever possible. Simple bar charts indicating the number of interviewees citing a problem is better than qualitative feedback.
- Be sensitive to hidden agendas and personal motives or issues. Interviews are not fact. Employees use them to further an agenda. So ensure you are cross-verifying information.
- Relate to the big picture.
- How will you present this? What is the visual style you plan to use
Focus interviews are a powerful method of extracting information from a client, building support for your work, determining other issues you made not have considered and creating your earliest data points for the consulting engagement. They force you to see above the financial analyses to test your thinking at the organisational level. This is a crucial test of your thinking.