Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Focus groups don’t go far enough

After being the butt of jokes, focus groups are again receiving a favourable mention. It’s election time, after all: let’s find out what people think.

If the question that is the subject of the focus group is clear and accepted, then asking a group of people to discuss and express their viewpoint is valuable. This kind of conversational process embodies what is known as single-loop learning; that is, the broad premise is assumed to be valid. But a different form of discussion is needed where double-loop learning is required – that is, when the question being asked is itself open to question.

In organisations, single-loop learning helps with alignment and compliance. Double-loop learning opens up the possibility of change; it is a more challenging process. For those engaged in discussions aimed at achieving change, we need to replace the focus group with what Lesley Kuhn (Adventures in Complexity, Triarchy Press) calls ‘coherent conversations’.

The point about coherent conversations is that they permit ‘emergence’. This refers to the capacity of complex entities to exhibit unexpected and novel properties or behaviours not previously observed …’. Thomas Hunt Morgan captured the idea as long ago as 1927 when he said: ‘The emphasis is not on the unfolding of something already in being, but on the outspringing of something that has hitherto not been in being’.

Politicians and their favoured focus groups should take note. Single-loop questions such as ‘which of our policies do you prefer?’ have their place, but a sceptical and apathetic public has its own questions to ask about the name of the game being played.