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Be the Focus Group Ninja!

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

Full transcript below

The technique coming to you from the BA Martial Artist this month is all about Focus Groups. In this segment you will learn what a focus group is, why they are beneficial and how to effectively execute them.

So, what is this thing called a focus group? The name itself gives you a clue, but I want to share with you the definition from the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK) & the Business Analysis Book of Knowledge (BABOK)

  • According to the PMBOK a focus group “brings together prequalified stakeholders and subject matter experts (SMEs) to learn about their expectations and attitudes about a proposed product, service, or result.”

  • According to the BABOK a focus group is, “a means to elicit ideas and opinions about a specific product, service, or opportunity in an interactive group environment”

Essentially, a focus group is a way to understand expectations, ideas and options about a specific product in an interactive group environment with stakeholders. Now you can conduct focus groups before you deploy a product, or even after the product has been deployed to gain insights. It is important during these focus groups you are actively listening and asking the right questions to ensure you are clearly understanding the needs, and expectations. In addition, there are things you can do to ensure you keep the group focused on the goal at hand that we will be discussing later. But before we get to that, let's talk a little bit about why focus groups are beneficial.

Now focus groups are beneficial because:

  1. They provide a platform for all voices to be heard.

  2. They bring clarity on stakeholder and subject matter expert expectations, needs and options.

  3. They provide a controlled focused environment to gain understanding and clarity.

These groups do not have to be large and in most cases less is more. What I have found is that you need to ensure you have the right people in the room at the right time. Some individuals will not open up with feedback if their manager is in the room for fear of what they say being held against them. Be intentional in how you organize the sessions and who you have in the room with each other.

Which is really a great segue into the execution of the focus group. The tips I am about to share with you are the tips I have found to be the most successful, not only for me, but for others who I have observed run successful focus groups.


First step is to identify the topic of discussion and the desired outcome. I can't stress this enough. It is really important to understand, and articulate, to all involved the TOPIC, the PURPOSE of the topic and the desired OUTCOME for the focus group session. This will not only help you stay focused, but help all involved to stay focused on the goal at hand. Let me go a little deeper though on what I mean by outcome.

Let's say for example, you work for an organization that would like to be more efficient in how they deliver their products/services to their customers. You have been tapped on the shoulder to understand the different processes in the organization and have been asked to find improvement opportunities. Meaning, you are looking at improving different business processes to make them more efficient and eliminate wasteful steps. As you have been conducting this work you have found the "Modify Mortgage Loan" process has a lot of opportunity for improvement and you have also found this particular process in its current state is posing A LOT of risk to the organization from an operational, reputational and financial perspective.

However, you want to gain insights from other stakeholders and SMEs to determine if they identify with what you have uncovered so far, and what other improvement opportunities may exist. You decide to leverage the Focus Group as a way to gather these insights as you can control who you have in the room to get that candid and honest feedback.

So, now that you know the topic, you have to think about what is the desired outcome you want out of the meeting. You don't want the meeting to just be a gripe session which can easily happen if you don't facilitate this right, but the desired outcome is two-fold:

  1. Confirm that what you have encountered as improvement opportunities is accurate.

  2. Identify any additional improvement opportunities you may not have captured from those who are closest to the process to mitigate risk to the organization, provide a more efficient process to the internal stakeholders in the organization, and provide the optimal customer experience desired.

So as you conduct the focus group session you want to stay focused on these 2 desired outcomes to ensure you get what you need out of the session, and the session is as productive as possible.

So now let's move over to the next steps which is...


As stated, before you want to make sure you have the right people in the focus group that interact with this process. This would be the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) that actually perform the process, individuals who interact with the process, such as your downstream and upstream partners, and your customers who receive the service today. You want to make sure you understand how all of these individuals relate and work with each other because as stated before, you may need to have individuals in different focus groups in order to get that authentic and candid feedback.

Now, once you have identified your stakeholders I recommend you reach out to them PRIOR to putting the focus group meeting on their calendar if at all possible. This is a great way to build relationships, adds a personal touch, and can aide in executing the meeting. In addition, with just the reach out you may get some insights on others who you may need to engage with, or invite to, the focus group that you are not aware. Better to find out prior than in the meeting, which results in you having to schedule more focus groups.

Once you send the focus group invitation, make sure within the invitation you:

  1. Introduce/re-introduce yourself and your role

  2. Explain why you are having a focus group meeting in case the meeting is weeks out, and when it does come up, it will spark a remembrance for all involved

  3. Explain the topic of the meeting a

  4. Explain the desired outcome/outcomes of the meeting.

If you have a finalized agenda make sure to include that in the meeting invite, if not, advise a formal agenda will be coming prior to the meeting, as well as, any other meeting materials. The formalized agenda and materials should be sent whether the meeting is in person or virtually. Yes, you can do focus group meetings successfully virtually. There are some things you should consider which we will discuss later on.

As we talk about the agenda let’s discuss materials in general.


Make sure when you are preparing for the meeting you have the materials ready that you will be sharing with the stakeholders. If you would like the stakeholders to review the information prior to the focus group make sure to send it out in enough time they can review it. Meaning don’t send the document 1 hour before the focus group. Consider when you are scheduling the focus group how much time the stakeholders will need to review information if necessary.

Now I had mentioned this before, you should have a formalized agenda. The agenda level-sets the meeting, sets expectations for the meeting, and is a great way when stakeholders go off on tangents to reel them back in based on the topics on the agenda. Let’s discuss a little bit what should be included in the agenda:

  1. The name of the meeting

  2. The date, time, and location of the meeting

  3. The purpose of the meeting

  4. The desired outcome of the meeting

  5. List of attendees

  6. Materials included for the meeting and if they should be reviewed prior to the meeting

  7. The topics that will be discussed in the meeting

  8. A section for next steps

  9. A section for actions items and decisions

  10. A section for parking lot items

Now I would like t stop here and take a moment to discuss why I recommend a section for next steps, action items, decisions and parking lot items.

  • Now the next steps will outline what comes next based on the information obtained in the focus group. This is important and a way to close out the meeting to alert all stakeholders what is next.

  • Your action items will outline specific to-do’s assigned to individuals during the focus group. Make sure to have due dates and accountability assigned to every action item. Don’t leave the action items generic in description or with no due date, this will make it harder for action items to get done as individuals will lose sight of them, and they don't have clear accountability.

  • Now the decision section allows you to outline the decisions that were made during the meeting and who made them. This is important from a historical perspective and can bring back remembrance on why certain strategies or paths were taken, especially in those instances where individual have what I call "convenient amnesia". Make sure to capture the decision as detailed as possible, who made the decision and the date the decision was made which would be the date of your focus group.

  • The parking lot section is reserved for those items that need more discussion. Sometimes other items come up while you are discussing a topic; however, that particular topic may not align to the desired outcome of the focus group. Therefore, you want a place to put those items so the attendees voices are heard and they know what they brought up will be addressed at some point, if not directly in the focus group.

Okay now that we have talked about the materials and the agenda, let’s discuss the actual execution of the focus group.


Let's first start with the day prior to the focus group. Make sure you have all the materials organized and put in a place you can easily access them. If you are conducting the meeting virtually make sure to consider these things:

  1. Ensure the platform being utilized is set up and working as intended. Make sure you know all the different features you will be using, and how to easily get to them, and advise others on how to engage using those features if applicable as well.

  2. I recommend you do a dry run with someone to ensure your audio and visual is working as intended.

  3. Make sure any materials you are sharing are easily accessible on your device.

  4. Make sure you are comfortable navigating between different documents and applications if need be.

  5. Ensure you are in a location to conduct the focus group with no distractions or background noise.

  6. Prepare to be 10 minutes early to the meeting so you are settled and ready to go when others join. There is typically at least 1 person who joins the call early.

  7. Identify a backup plan if the technology doesn’t work as intended, prior, or during, the meeting.

If you are conducting the focus group in person ensure you have everything ready and accessible to you. Make sure the room is ready to accommodate the stakeholders and SMEs and make sure all materials are printed, or instructions have been given to the participants on what they should bring to the meeting. Ensure everything in the room is working as intended and that you have a back up plan as well if anything in the room is not working as intended.

  1. Whether in person or virtually arrive to the focus group at least 10 minutes before the focus group to get settled. I recommend when you schedule the focus group in person, you add in 15–30 minutes on both sides of the start and end date of the meeting. This allows you time to set up prior to the meeting, and extra time on the back end in case the meeting runs a little over to ensure you are not interrupted by another meeting.

  2. When stakeholders start to arrive to the focus group, greet them. If virtual you can engage with them by asking a question they can respond to in the chat component of the technology platform. If in person you can add an icebreaker to your agenda to set a nice tone for the meeting. The ice breaker will depend on how many people are in the meeting and how much time you want to dedicate to that portion of the agenda.

  3. I highly recommend that before you do an icebreaker you do set the stage with “Working Agreements”. Working agreements are similar to ground rules where you set boundaries for the meeting, but I prefer to use the phrase working agreements and you will know why here in a minute. I typically start it off with a couple of the agreements and then I have the attendees add theirs. So a couple of examples of working agreements are:

    1. For an IN PERSON MEETING - We agree that cell phones will be silenced or put on vibrate to minimize distractions.

    2. For a VIRTUAL MEETING - We agree to not multi-task and focus on the topic and desired outcome of this focus group to ensure a productive meeting.

    3. You would then ask the attendees what would they like to add to the working agreements. The attendees are now vested in the rules as they helped to create them, therefore, they have an accountability to follow them. This is why I like the term Working Agreements.

  4. Once you complete the working agreements and you have chosen to do an ice breaker now would be a great time for that. Make sure the ice breaker doesn’t take up too much time. Remember this is just to break the ice and set the tone. Make sure the ice breaker is appropriate for the environment.

  5. Now it’s time to go over the agenda so everyone is on the same page once again about the purpose of the focus group, the desired outcome, the topics that will be discussed, the materials that will be leveraged, and how the meeting will flow as far as capturing information. If you are lucky enough to have someone else take notes, or scribe, for you that would be ideal because you can really focus on facilitating the focus group and actively listen and engage with your stakeholders.

  6. Now that the logistics are out of the way it’s time to facilitate the focus group by following your agenda and feeling, and watching the energy in the room. Make sure all voices are heard through collaboration and active listening. As you are conducting the meeting through sharing of information, and asking questions, make sure to do pulse checks along the way to ensure everyone is tracking with the meeting and clear of what is transpiring. Take a moment to pause and ask for questions or commentary throughout. In addition, if an attendee has not offered any feedback, you may want to ask them for their thoughts to engage them. Not everyone feels comfortable sharing and sometimes they need some help. Remember to do more listening than talking though when you get to the heart of the meeting because you are there to glean information and understanding.

  7. Leave the last 5 minutes for wrap up and to articulate next steps and action items to ensure all items were captured and everyone is on the same page. Thank everyone for their time and adjourn the meeting. Make sure to send out any notes or materials you committed to during the meeting.

  8. Once you are back at your desk ensure you store the information somewhere securely and all action items and next steps are placed somewhere for followup and follow through.

  9. It's also good practice to conduct a retrospective on the the focus group session. Think through what went well and what can be improved. Take time to reflect on how the meeting went to improve future focus group sessions. We are always learning and evolving.

A focus group is an amazing way to gather insights. You can do them prior to, during, and/or after projects/initiatives. They do not have to be intimidating. It just takes some planning, preparation and organizing. The more you do them the more comfortable you will get with them.

Now go forth and conquer!

Until next time,

The BA Martial Artist is signing off!

P.S. Make sure to take advantage of the Free Agenda Template


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