Sharing Focus Group Feedback
How Do You Talk to an Organization about Itself
During strategic planning I am often asked to design survey or focus group processes to hear from staff and leaders across an organization about organizational strengths and challenges and to synthesize the findings from that effort. For years, I’ve noticed a regular pattern. Employees worry they’ll get in trouble for saying anything bad, while leaders are rarely surprised by what they hear but differ sharply in how they react to and interpret the data.
Many leaders are excited to share the findings with their organization. They want to take the lead in naming the difficult issues to productively frame and give permission for team members to have important and frank conversations. Other leaders, though, are concerned to frame the findings more positively, to make them sound like opportunities rather than problems. A finding about the mismatch between community needs and service mix, for example, turns into one about a growth in opportunities to provide care in key areas. It’s not necessarily that these organization can’t or won’t acknowledge problems or discuss difficult issues, but that there are real differences in organizations that shape how leaders can most productively tell the story uncovered by the data.
When crafting the presentation of data back to an organization, it’s important to consider two questions.
1. What is the political and cultural climate?
As much as we recognize the importance of psychological safety, leaders and top teams navigate a politically and emotionally complex terrain. They may have parent organizations, boards or other important stakeholders who are sensitive to certain issues or messages. Within the organization, culture and climate can impact how people hear and interpret feedback, for example middle managers may be quick to feel criticized or anxious. Top teams can also have complex dynamics, for example conversation around important issues can fall into well-established and unproductive patterns. I once worked for with a company that struggled with its marketing strategy. Different leaders were passionately committed to different approaches, and as soon as the conversation got anywhere near marketing, everyone would line up on their familiar “sides” and the conversation would unfold predictably and without conclusion. In crafting a message and story around the data, then, it’s essential to understand WHAT is hearable BY WHOM, and what old and unproductive patterns can get in the way of helpful exploration of important issues.
Because of these complex dynamics, I find that a minimum of three, and sometimes many more, iterations are required to find a way to tell the story of the data so that the essential messages land, and the emotional reaction doesn’t swamp the capacity of leaders and teams to engage productively with the information. For this reason, working with a small team that can react to successive drafts and who can take the perspective of different audience members is invaluable. There is also an essential role for senior leadership to react to and vet any feedback presentations before they are more widely distributed, as it will fall largely to them to handle the reaction and consequences. The top leader should review any presentation of the data before other leaders, and leaders should see it before their team members. If the data are drawn from a relatively limited group of individuals, sharing it with those people before it circulates widely is also appropriate. It can be especially important for leaders to put the data into context and to help their team members understand what they are expected to do with the information before they see
2. What are the conversations the organization needs to have?
Sharing the data is typically a first step to tee up a conversation (or series of conversations) about strategic issues and choices. How the issues are framed and introduced through the data can significantly impact how the conversation unfolds. Understanding what important work will happen AFTER the data are presented is just as important as understanding how it might land. Typically, it’s helpful to identify what important decisions need to be made, what needs to be acknowledged and what needs to be celebrated.
Identifying the strategically important decisions that need to be made, and separating those from the many other things about which people care passionately can be a challenge. Focus group and survey data tend to identify the topics and issues about which people have strong feelings, but these are not always the same as the important strategic decisions. Those decisions are the ones where leaders can make a meaningful choice between distinct options, and where significant consequences follow from that choice. Most often, senior leaders have a good sense of the big decisions before the data collection effort is designed, and that understanding usually evolves as the data is synthesized and debriefed.
One way to help the organization focus on the work ahead is to watch out for and distinguish issues that often look like decisions, but aren’t, including:
- Gravity Problems: Gravity problems are problems that can’t be solved. These are often significant challenges in the environment in which an organization operates. In healthcare, it’s not uncommon to hear about problems with payment policy. As much as leaders and team members might like to engage in policy advocacy, most aren’t in a position to impact those policies. Payment policy is, for them, a gravity problem. As such, it might appropriately and helpfully be included in the “Things to be Acknowledged” category below, but don’t tee it up as a decision to be made.
- Dilemmas: Dilemmas are often experienced as tension between two or more goals or states that appear to be in conflict but are both necessary and important. For example, many organizations experience a tension between operational efficiency and innovation. Both are important in academic clinical enterprises, and managing the tension between them is part of the work of leadership in these settings. However, to some managers and team members it can seem as if the organization can and should make a decision about its priorities once and for all. Teasing out these dilemmas, separating them from major leadership decisions, and helping leaders find a productive way to acknowledge them and develop some transparency about how they manage them can be extremely valuable.
- Decisions that have already been made. In complex organizations it sometimes takes a while for everyone to recognize a decision that has been made. Some managers and team members may to continue to treat an issue as undecided long after leadership has taken action. Be careful to get the story right around these issues and don’t create an expectation that a decision might get unmade.
Things to be Acknowledged
Invariably, focus groups, interviews and surveys turn up many concerns about the organization, particularly when participants are invited to share their thoughts on organizational strengths and challenges. Talking about the things that middle managers and team members worry about saying out loud but that leaders already know presents a rich opportunity to strengthen relationships among team members and leaders. However, getting the story right and setting the context well are important to avoid exacerbating existing challenges. A few guidelines are helpful:
- Credibility: It’s important to capture and accurately reflect concerns that were surfaced in the data. Framing concerns in a positive light is helpful when they are associated with real and believable opportunities. Make sure, though that you don’t spin things so much that staff don’t recognize the issue they raised or think you are avoiding an important truth.
- Blame: When confronted with an organizational challenge, many people start looking for someone to blame. The allocation of blame then distracts from recognition of the organizational issue and productive conversation about how to address it. Be careful to frame issues and concerns in a way that avoids a focus on who is to blame.
- The Emotional Reaction: Feeding back survey and focus group data invariably provokes an emotional response, and that response is important to setting up any conversation that needs to happen. It’s particularly important to think about anxiety. Depending on the audience and issue, a little bit of anxiety can help to provoke important conversation, but have a plan for how that conversation will unfold and most especially how you will contain and address the anxiety. Leadership needs to be present and needs to take an active and visible role in follow up. Free-floating, unattended anxiety about and organization, particularly by people who don’t feel empowered to do anything to address the cause, can damage the organization.
Things to be Celebrated
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of emphasizing the negative, but recognizing and understanding strengths is as, if not more, important to making strategic decisions than understanding challenges and weaknesses. Celebrating those strengths and the contributions of managers and team members in developing and sustaining them can also bring colleagues to the table as partners in thinking about what might happen in the future. As with developing a story around things that need to be acknowledged, you need to keep it credible. If focus groups or surveys included many responses about strengths, failing to acknowledge those undermines your credibility. At the same time, putting an overly rosy spin on tepid feedback won’t fly either.
Organizational dynamics are highly complex, and feedback about both strengths and challenges is often hard to parse. Different people group concepts and experiences together in different ways, and it’s common for people to use broad terms like “teamwork” to cover a great variety of behaviors and experiences.
I often find a very large number of comments related to a complex tangle of organizational characteristics. For example, I may hear that team members like their colleagues and think they are committed to the mission, capable, brilliant, innovative, collaborative, passionate about their work, hard workers and a few other things. These concepts can all be grouped together to make a point about collegial relationships or respect among colleagues, or they may be teased apart and linked to other comments about the organization to make separate points about the importance of the mission, the capacity for innovation or other organizational capabilities. The way in which these concepts are grouped and named has a subtle but powerful impact on how the organization thinks and talks about itself. In choosing how to do this, look for ways to draw insight from the findings and make the synthesis meaningful and relevant to the conversations the organization will be having in follow up. Separate cause and effect where possible, and think hard about what connections or juxtapositions might be particularly helpful in provoking thoughtful reflection on important issues and decisions.