4 September 2009 • 7:00 am

Perception Is Reality: Why Subjective Measures Matter, and How to Maximize Their Impact – Part III

This series of posts (in three parts) is adapted from an article of the same name that appeared in Harvard Business Publishing’s Balanced Scorecard Report in 2006.

In Part I, I asserted that perception matters very much to the strategy of an organization. Perception of external stakeholders, of customers, and of employees. Often, the change program requires measurements of customer and employee perceptions. How organizations go about gathering these perceptions is a key factor in the success of the change program. In Part II, we examined the challenges of survey design, and its impact on the effectiveness of the strategy-driven perception research. Here, we conclude with consideration of alternatives to surveys, and an examination of how to use perception data in the context of the change program.

Consider Focus Groups or Interviews

While most perception measures come from surveys, focus groups and interviews are also valuable tools. Focus groups can be a component of a survey (answering the complex question, “why are employees unhappy?”), or can simply serve as a way of capturing the perceptions of a small group when surveys would not be effective or practical. A focus group can reveal complex root causes for perceptions that may not be anticipated in a set of multiple choice responses.

Focus groups typically involve eight to twelve subjects and one or two facilitators, with generally no more than five questions. Experienced facilitators employ several techniques to elicit and structure responses from participants, which may be captured through flip charts, note taking, or audio and video recording. Because facilitators affect results, it is vital that they be experienced, neutral, and knowledgeable about the topic. Specially designed focus-group facilities feature one-way mirrors to enable skilled observers to capture participants’ body language and group dynamics without influencing them. Internet and other technologies now enable on-line focus groups, from simple discussion boards and blogs to real-time sessions assembling people from different locations to interact with text, audio, and even video.

One-on-one interviews are another valuable technique. By separately asking members of a group with similar characteristics a standard set of questions—for example, asking salespeople the same questions about follow-up calls to customers after a store visit—you get the benefits of a focus group (more detailed, qualified responses and more flexible dialogue), without the burdens of scheduling and travel.

Put Your Findings in Context

With survey data in hand, how do you best present it? It’s easy to present survey data in graph form, but graphs by themselves don’t tell a very useful story. Including all the detail in a change program progress report is usually not necessary, though the detail should be available to the leadership team so they can drill down if they want. What is necessary, however, is context. The performance advocate for the overlying strategic objective should work closely with the research designer to analyze the survey findings, considering them in the context of data from prior surveys and other measures in the report—and presenting that context in the reporting.

Focus group feedback, including carefully selected participant quotes (paraphrased when necessary to ensure anonymity), should be summarized through the facilitators’ written analysis. The research designer should attend the management discussion of the findings to answer technical questions and help shape subsequent research requests.

Because of the very real danger of simply replacing the old “comfortable fictions” with new ones, leaders should balance their reasoned judgment with a healthy skepticism when making decisions resulting from their enriched understanding of stakeholder perception.

How is perception research done in your organization? Do leaders shun surveys because of what they might learn? Do employees suffer from ‘survey fatigue?’ Please offer your comments and insights below.

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