From Data Collection to Engagement

How to Turn Surveys, Interviews and Focus Groups into Impactful Tools

Surveys, interviews and focus groups are often used in strategic planning or organizational change efforts, particularly in academia, professional services, and fields, where employees have critical experience and expertise that matters to the planning process, and where the effectiveness of the plan requires the active support and engagement of your team. These tools, however, have taken on a different quality in the last few years, as the pandemic has created new stresses on employees and changed the ways in which people work together.

I have been struck both by the potential of remote work technologies to engage more people more conveniently, and, paradoxically how much more rare real connection has become, with workers eager for opportunities to be seen and heard by leaders and colleagues. Over the past few years it has become common for strategic planning focus groups and interviewees to describe the experience as “cathartic” or “refreshing.” Participants often thank me for giving them a chance to express their concerns and feel heard, even though that wasn’t the original intent of the activity. Given the potential power of these of engagement opportunities, especially in this current environment where teams have felt isolated, I expect to see their use continue.

Meanwhile, employees in many fields are overburdened. As leaders, we need to think even more creatively about designing and executing information collection techniques for employees that maximize the potential of engagement and connection, without adding excessive burden.

In creating successful data collection and engagement events and processes, I’ve come to see the design process as involving these key steps:

  1. Clarify the desired outcome. It’s worth the time and effort to push beyond the initial statement of purpose to articulate the desired outcome. For example, your initial purpose might be to solicit employee input on a draft strategic plan, but there is a difference between doing so in order to inform planners and doing so in order for employees to feel heard.

Generally, I encourage leaders to target more than one desired outcome, but it’s important to know what the priorities are, as not all approaches work equally well for all outcomes and the differences in cost and time can be significant. If you are launching a data collection effort, I encourage you to consider an array of outcomes, including:

  • Collecting information to inform a decision or project
  • Creating opportunities for employees to express themselves and feel heard
  • Supporting employees to connect with one another
  • Enabling employees to connect with leadership
  • Recognition, appreciation and thanks for employees
  • Exploring and/or explaining complex issues and decisions

Whatever your purpose and priorities, be sure to document them. It’s easy to get excited by the potential of these activities, and you want to keep your focus on your goal.

  1. Specify the audiences well. As with the purpose, defining the audience can take a bit more effort than you might think. Large categories such as patients, customers, employees, alumni and faculty include distinct subgroups that may have different information to share and/or may be best reached through different approaches. Those who are dissatisfied with their experiences are also likely to respond differently than those who are pleased. It’s worth the time to specify in some detail whom you want to reach and whether you need to distinguish the feedback from different groups.

  2. Identify what’s in the way. We’ve probably all received surveys that we’ve ignored because we don’t have the time or just don’t care enough to provide feedback. There are many reasons people may or may not be willing to give feedback. For each of the groups you want to reach, it’s important to identify the things that might make it hard for them to engage with you and/or to speak honestly. These include lack of time or interest, as well as fear, distrust or a concern that you don’t care. There are design approaches that can mitigate the impact of many of these obstacles, but it’s important to know what they are so you can design appropriately.

  3. Specify time, logistics and budget. It goes without saying that there are significant differences in the cost, effort and time required for different engagement approaches. It’s also easy to get caught up in the work and expand an effort beyond its original scope. I don’t think I’ve ever launched a series of interviews and focus groups and not had the sponsors say, “can we add one (or three) more?” To save frustration down the road, clearly specify and document any timing and budget constraints. Also specify who will be responsible to handle each step in the process. It’s surprising how often organizations send out surveys without having a plan for analyzing the data.

  4. Design in detail. Once you have the challenge and constraints spelled out, you can design your engagement approach. The design options and features are endless, and multiple approaches can be combined to create rich and distinctive experiences (e.g. surveys embedded in focus groups or large group events). Some of the most common approaches are defined here, and include:

  • Interviews
  • Group interviews and focus groups
  • Drop in focus groups
  • Large group events
  • Discussion forums and boards
  • Surveys and comment forms
  1. Communicate and follow up: Before you invite anyone to a meeting or survey, you should plan and craft your communications carefully. Participants are unlikely to make the time to participate or share their views unless they know why it's important, what you will do with the information and whether there are any risks to them. They will also respond differently depending on who sends the message. A note from their immediate supervisor will land differently than a note from a leader they've never met. Typically, I plan for at least five distinct communications:

  • A general message about the initiative that includes an explanation of anticipated data collection activities and the planned uses of the data. This usually goes to a broad audience.
  • A targeted invitation to each individual asking them to participate in a specific event or survey. This invitation usually includes some language explaining why their input is particularly important. If the data will be confidential, mention that here as well.
  • An explanation at the beginning of every event or survey explaining what the initiative is, what will happen with the data, and what the expectations of confidentiality are.
  • A thank you for participating shortly after the event/survey. A simple note may be enough, but public acknowledgement of their contribution of time and thought could also be helpful.
  • When it is time, a message letting them know what happened as a result of their participation and thanking them again for their input.