Conducting Successful Focus Groups

Michael Nolan1

Abstract: Focus groups are widely accepted as a critical data-gathering method that produces key results at a reasonable cost. The method is particularly important when the goal is to gather perceptions, opinions, suggestions, attitudes or feelings about a specific topic. Focus groups are also used to get insight into why these beliefs or feelings are held.

The three keys to planning and conducting successful focus groups are: 1) selecting the right participants, 2) preparing effective questions, and 3) establishing ground rules that support and encourage participation.

As talent development practitioners, we use focus groups to help improve the planning and design of new development programs, as well as, provide a means of evaluating existing ones. They should create a supportive environment that truly encourages employee engagement.

Conducting Successful Focus groups have two benefits:

  1. We gather the information we need about attitudes and perceptions as they relate to our talent development products, services or programs.
  2. As participants interact with each other we may also find out how their attitudes and perceptions were developed and this could be extremely helpful if we want to change them.

A potential flaw to online or phone surveys, and even individual face-to-face interviews, is that these methods assume individuals already know how they feel and they can form these opinions in isolation. In reality, people may need to listen to the opinions of others before they solidify their own personal viewpoints. Some opinions are developed quickly and held with absolute certainty, while other opinions are more fluid and evolve over time. Evidence from experience facilitating focus groups suggests that people do influence each other with their comments, and during the ensuing discussion the opinions of an individual might shift2. A skilled facilitator can discover how that shift occurred and the nature of the influencing factors.

1 Michael Nolan is President of Friesen, Kaye and Associates, a learning and performance improvement organization, specializing in facilitation and custom-designed learning interventions.
2 Albriecht, T. L., Johnson, G. M., Walther, J. B. Understanding Communication Processes in Focus Groups. In Successful Focus Groups: Advancing the Art. Edited by David L. Morgan. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications Inc., 1993.

Often the questions that are asked in a focus group are reasonably simple and straightforward. They are the kinds of questions a person could answer independently in a few minutes. However, when these questions are asked in a group environment, and supported by skillful probing, the results are candid comments about individual perceptions. A supportive and permissive group environment gives individuals the opportunity to express emotions that often do not emerge in other forms of questioning.

A skilled facilitator will make great effort to develop this permissive environment by implementing a process which includes: 1) the selection of the participants, 2) the nature of the questions, and 3) the establishment of focus group ground rules.

Selection of Participants

Focus groups are usually conducted with six to 12 participants, selected because they share specific characteristics related to a topic or issue. Focus groups are best conducted with participants who share common characteristics, and these similarities are reinforced at the start of the discussion. For example, the facilitator might say, “We have invited you to participate in this focus group because you have all joined the organization within the last six months. We want to hear your perceptions and thoughts on the current on-boarding process.”

Since the rule for selecting focus group participants is uniformity, not diversity, we must ensure that all participants meet the criteria. For example, they all come from the same organizational levels, or have similar roles and responsibilities. If participants lack this unity they may be more hesitant to share their beliefs and feelings and will often defer to someone else in the group whom they feel is more knowledgeable, influential, or in a higher organizational position.

The other crucial selection factor that the facilitator must keep in mind is buy-in or ownership by those who will be most affected by the new program. Since client ownership is critical to the long-term health and success of any talent development intervention, all client groups included in the scope of the project must be represented in the focus groups.

Nature of the Questions

The quality of the data collected is directly related to the quality of the questions. Questions therefore are the heart of a focus group. A skilled focus group facilitator may appear to use spontaneous questions, but they have been carefully selected and phrased in advance to elicit the maximum amount of information.



The focus group uses several types of questions, each of which serves a distinct purpose:

  • Opening Questions are used to gather quick facts that are common to the participants.
  • Introductory Questions are used to introduce the general topic of discussion and provide the participants with an opportunity to reflect on past experiences and their connection with the overall topic.
  • Transition Questions move the conversation toward the key questions that drive the focus group study.
  • Key Questions are the four to six open-ended questions that focus on the critical topic areas.
  • Summary or Final Questions bring closure to the discussion, and enable participants to reflect on previous comments. The responses gathered are critical for the facilitator during the analysis phase.

Quality questions require forethought and planning. Successful focus groups begin with well-thought-out questions that are appropriately sequenced. Open-ended questions allow participants to state what is on their minds without introducing any bias as to what the facilitator suspects they are thinking.

Establishing Ground Rules

Ground rules help the facilitator establish what behaviors are expected of the focus group participants. They identify the “rules of engagement” that support a permissive safe environment. Some examples are to:

  • participate actively
  • speak one at a time
  • treat everyone’s ideas with respect–don’t criticize
  • minimize side conversations
  • keep focused on the topic or question

Opening statements by the facilitator could also include other ground rules, for example:

  • “There are no right or wrong answers but rather differing points of view.”
  • “Please share your point of view even if it differs from what others have said.”
  • “We are just as interested in negative comments as positive ones.”
  • “We’re recording what is said because we don’t want to miss any comments.”
  • “We will be on a first name basis today, and in our later reports no names will be attached to comments.”
  • “Please be assured of complete confidentiality.”
  • “Today’s session will last about an hour and a half.”.

Whatever ground rules are established, their sole purpose is to create an environment where the facilitator can openly gather perceptions, opinions, suggestions, attitudes or feelings as they pertain to the talent development program.


The focus group is created to accomplish a specific purpose through a defined process. The purpose is to obtain information of a qualitative nature from a predetermined and limited number of people. Focus groups provide an environment in which opinions and other disclosures are encouraged and nurtured, but it falls to the group facilitator to bring focus to those disclosures through open-ended questions within a supportive and permissive environment.

FKA President
Michael Nolan