Turning Focus Groups Inside Out

ABSTRACT - A comparison of two group-interaction methodologies was used to suggest some opportunities for improvement of focus groups to be explored in methodological research. The Synectic's group problem solving methodology was chosen for the comparison because it had been developed from an extensive research program.


William A. Cook (1982) ,"Turning Focus Groups Inside Out", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 62-64.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 62-64


William A. Cook, General Foods Corporation


A comparison of two group-interaction methodologies was used to suggest some opportunities for improvement of focus groups to be explored in methodological research. The Synectic's group problem solving methodology was chosen for the comparison because it had been developed from an extensive research program.


Research on ways to improve the focus group interview has been quite limited. Somehow, our emphasis on developing moderator expertise has produced an art form more than a scientific tool. Consequently, there are many skillet moderators, but little canonized knowledge on record. Lists of "Do's and Don'ts" have proliferated, but testable hypotheses have been infrequently postulated and less frequently put to test.

We have expressed strong reservations about the use of focus groups for a variety of purposes, but we have been less clear about those applications for which they are suited. Even though many of us decry the use of focus groups for decision making, their output looms larger than life ant, indeed, often does influence our decisions.

The intent of this paper is to highlight some lines along which we might develop research programs to improve our use of the focus group interview. The vehicle for this is a comparison of focus group methodology with that developed by Synectic's Inc. for group problem-solving meetings. My choice of Synectic's was motivated by their heavy reliance on research as the basis for development of their methods. In fact, they continue to modify their process as further experimentation indicates ways of improving such meetings.

Both the focus group and the Synectic's group share the same mixed blessing. The group interaction which is integral to them both is at once a blessing and a curse. To achieve the desired synergy, the group leader must relinquish some control to the group and that introduces certain risks and complexities.


Let me clarify what I mean by these two terms. By focus group interview, I refer to an interview between a trained moderator and a group of 6-12 willingly recruited participants. The composition of the group varies according to the needs of the client, but generally they do not know each other or, at least, lack any working relationship. By a synectics group I refer to one using the group problem solving procedures developed by Synectics Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Most often these groups are composed of fellow workers who bring with them certain pre-established roles and relationships. Their participation may be in response to managerial fiat instead of their own choice. A smaller group is likely with six considered optimal in most cases. Like focus groups, synectic groups generally have a pre-established agenda, but there is wide latitude in following it.


The objectives for the focus group interview are generally stated in such nebulous language as:

To provide a source of ideas or hypotheses to be tested in subsequent research.

To improve our understanding of how a given segment talks about or thinks about this topic.

To provide the creative team with input for creating an ad or a campaign.

The objective for a synectics problem solving group is to develop one or more possible solutions to the problem before the group. An acceptable solution must be novel, feasible and sufficiently well-developed to have identifiable next steps from the point of view of the person whose problem it is. The group approach is usually dictated by the failure of the person whose problem it is to come up with a satisfactory solution alone and/or the need for group participation in the implementation of any solution


In the focus group there are two designated roles: moderator and participant. The moderator is responsible for both the content, or what gets discussed, and the process, or how it gets discussed. Typically, the content focus shifts within a session from the general to the specific. The procedure can vary from a "serial interview" where the moderator poses the same question to each participant in turn to the moderator sitting as a silent observer of a free discussion among participants. The moderator usually is fairly active in the discussion as he tries to balance participation among group members, direct the content toward some focal area, and to get participants to be more self-disclosing than they typically are in a statement of opinion. The participant's role is to "be herself", to tell what she does or doesn't like or want to understand or whatever. Sometimes participant' choose other roles for themselves rather than the implicitly assigned one. Under such circumstances, the moderator may find that there is suddenly:

A Co-moderator, who interjects her own questions into the proceedings, and often her own opinions, too.

The Interpreter, who explains to the moderator what everyone else just said.

The Expert, who speaks for the group on every topic and takes issue with any who disagree.

Or any of a number of other disruptive, counterproductive roles.

In synectics groups, the roles are explicitly identified. They may change during the meeting with the consent of the group, but a training session is used to convey what is permissible behavior for each role and what is not. At the end of the training an attempt is made to secure an informal verbal contract with each participant so that they understand the importance of each one filling their role. Leadership of the meeting is divided between two people-one taking process leadership and one content leadership. The Process Leader, or Facilitator, serves as: scribe, recording the meeting activity on a large easel pad; traffic cop, insuring the free expression of ideas and that the rules are followed; time keeper, seeing to it that breaks and session endings occur on time, etc; and catalyst, by changing pace or focus when needed to stimulate activity. The client is the person who owns the problem and has chief responsibility for implementing the solution He tries to stay out of the process and to listen receptively to the ideas offered by the group. The rest of the group are designated as participants. Their job is to aid the client principally by offering evocative ideas. Criticism of ideas is primarily restricted to the client and at specified points in the meeting. Both clients and participants are urged instead to try to build on existing ideas overcoming any negative aspects they see.


It is not surprising that a communications network analysis of these two types of groups reveal substantially different patterns of interaction. The presence of the client in the latter case is quite a significant difference in composition.

Ideally, the focus group would have balanced and abundant interaction among participants with minimal involvement by the moderator (See Figure l). Frequently, the moderator or another member of the group will evolve into a "node" with communications primarily channeling through that person as shown here. Where this occurs, group participation is reduced.

With the synectics group, the client ideally is a node in the communications network (See Figure 2). The participants want him to understand and consider their ideas. At times the communications will be formally restricted to interaction between the Content and Process Leaders for brief periods while the Content leader or Client indicates his desire for the group to redirect its attention. Typically, the group is privy to this dialogue but their input is limited. Since ideas are recorded by the Facilitator, there is a tendency to speak to the chart pad or to the group at large. Too much of this may weaken group cohesion and the willingness of participants to listen to each other and build on one another's ideas. Consequently, the moderator must exercise some effort toward pushing communication back down so that participants interact more. A light, friendly atmosphere is very valuable here just as it is in a focus group session.


There are numerous barriers to effective group interaction in these two types of meetings. In the focus group, a common inhibitor to participation is one's perceived lack of expertise on a topic. Similarly, if a person views her opinions as uniquely different from the rest of the group, she is less likely to expose herself as an oddball. Other sources of group heterogeneity (race, sex, SES, product usage, etc.) may also restrict interaction and self-disclosure. Where both spouses are present there is a good chance that one will speak for the couple while the other sits silently In the case of various professional groups, such as doctors, the participants are inclined to state the "party line" instead of disclosing their own views or feelings when they are surrounded by their peers.

Additional barriers to effective group interaction are found in the typical synectics group. They center around the groups previous working relationships with each other and with the problem being addressed. Issues of turf and lack of trust are common in large organizations and bear heavily on how a group interacts. Similarly, there are various pre-conceived notions regarding what the "real" problem is and how it should be attacked. Getting all the hidden agenda out on the table is not always possible, but deserves some time. The practice of gathering a list of alternative problem statements from which the client is to choose is a good means of accomplishing this


There are several means used by Synectics practitioners to restructure group interaction. These may have applicability to improving focus group methodology. For mnemonic purposes I have identified four R's of Restructuring as:

1. Relegating new roles

2. Rechanneling criticism

3. Recognizing contributions

4. Relating to reality

In the relegation of a specific person to the role of client, the ability to focus the meeting is substantially enhanced. At the same time, by removing process control from the client, the participants are assured that whatever the clients views, their ideas will receive a fair hearing. Freeing the participant to serve as an uncritical resource permits them to consider riskier, more fanciful ideas than they might otherwise.

The rechanneling of critical thinking is brought about through various means. The use of more open-ended language such as "I wish..." or "How to.. " is part of that Allocating separate periods to expand or alter the groups perception of the problem (to blue-sky it) and to narrow the focus and introduce practical considerations insures that blue-sky thinking can occur without the risk that it will stop there. Encouragement to seize on that which is of value in an idea and to build on that doesn't lead to an immediate elimination of our knee-jerk critical response, but it does reduce the frequency of such behaviors.

The formal recognition of contributions does more than just get an idea recorded for future reference, it bolsters the participant's sense of security and rewards her for actively participating. In addition to summarizing an idea up on the chart pad, the facilitator may request elaboration or clarification of the idea from its contributor. The facilitator may turn to the group and specifically ask for a build on that idea to provide additional reinforcement for it, or comment that a new idea is a nice build on someone's previous idea.

Relating the synectics problem solving activities to reality does more than provide a concrete, practical outcome, it serves as a milestone, a tangible reference point for the group, representing how far they have moved toward solving the problem. Of course, a reality-oriented solution is more likely to be translated into action than a blue-sky one. The need for both kinds of thinking derives from the difficulty we have with our practical approaches in escaping our old ways of thinking about the problem wi rh all their inherent limitations

This notion of closing the loop is one I have found very helpful. It provides a chance for the group to see just what they have accomplished. To determine that they have brought something new to bear on the problem and that it is implementable is very rewarding. The articulation of the next steps to be pursued provides a bridge between the meeting and the future where the ideas will be realized

Speaking of closing the loop, I would like to ask you to join me in considering some ways of translating the elements of synectics into researchable hypotheses for studying focus group methodological development. Perhaps you have experimented some in a less formal fashion and have an idea you would like to share. I would like to study the impact of recording the ideas in a focus group up on a pad. I would expect that it would reward the participants for contributing and would serve to focus attention. A simple experiment might involve the note taking in the presence of the group for one set of groups and behind the mirror for another.

I have experimented with presence and absence of client in a focus group session, but not to the point that I would generalize my experience. I would hypothesize that group participation would be increased if the client was present but restrained in her level of activity. I would further hypothesize that group participation would decline if the client took a more active role. I doubt that the bias toward expressing only positive views is a serious issue if the client expresses sincere interest. I hope that you will join me in seeking answers to these and other relevant issues.







William A. Cook, General Foods Corporation


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09 | 1982

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