Monday, January 13, 2014

The multi-dimensions of fact-finding

Steven Worth, President at Plexus Consulting Group, LLC

When you have a room full of "type-A" personalities ready to make strategic decisions we have found nothing focuses attention and provides direction like the facts. Lacking independently-generated facts a group of decision makers will tend to be dominated by the strongest personality in the room or whomever claims to have possession of the "facts." A fact-free environment invites chaos and almost always results in poor decision-making.

But finding the facts is not easy. Our most thorough fact-finding follows a five step formula:

Step One--review existing research and seek out trends knowing that individual snapshots in time can sometimes be misleading. Use this secondary research to create the basis of a quantitative survey.

Step Two--When large databases of stakeholders exist they offer an ideal opportunity to develop "statistically valid" information--a quantitative sampling that can provide a picture of what larger population segments think within a relatively small margin of error.

Step Three--Usually quantitative survey results uncover interesting findings that lead to other questions along the lines of "why are we seeing this?--what is motivating people to say this?" Such questions can only be explored usefully in one-on-one conversations with people who are widely regarded as well-informed. These "opinion leader" interviews are usually done by phone and are designed to flesh out our understanding of the statistically valid findings from our survey even though the interviews themselves are not usually representative enough to be statistically valid.

Step Four--By now we should have a fairly good understanding of the key opportunities and challenges that we face, and we may even have a glimmer of various ways forward. We also know perhaps that different stakeholder groups may have different responses to all of this; and this is where we use focus groups to flesh out what those differences might be. The idea of a focus group is to put similar stakeholders together so that they can react as a group. It is in such groups that we see if men and women, older and younger professionals, Europeans and Americans, see the facts in different ways and would react differently according to their interests and perspectives. This step allows us to be able to predict what ideas and approaches will work and what will not among different stakeholder groups; and sometimes these groups unveil entirely new ideas and approaches to consider. (The thing I always find fascinating is how individuals may say one thing when interviewed separately but who might voice an entirely different opinion when in a group of peers. Peer pressure can produce sometime strange results!)

Step Five--By the time we have reached this step, we will have a fairly good idea of the various directions the organization is likely to want to consider, so we use this step to examine benchmarks or best practices of other organizations that have undertaken similar programs or projects to see if there are relevant lessons to be learned.

Not all clients have the budget to undertake all five steps, but those that do find themselves with a treasure trove of data that can be turned into intelligence for multiple uses. They also inevitably find strategic decision making a much more pleasant and productive experience than those groups that try to wing-it!

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