Avoid The Focus Group of One

The broader your sphere of influence, the broader your sphere of listening has to be. Don’t let conviction get in the way of listening to others.

Mature professionals listen.

But, on the path to maturity, those same professionals learn to trust their gut, rely on convictions, and assert.

This is nothing new:  You become truly effective by moving from a regime of telling to a regime of asking.  In making this shift, you learn more, you lead more, and you do more.


Many leaders who are very effective at listening to those around them make a mistake that only tends to come from the isolation that leadership brings.  They stop (or never start) listening to people who are two and three levels removed from them.

The lesson here is this:  As your sphere of influence expands, your sphere of listening must expand in kind. 

This concept is especially critical when you contemplate so-called transformational changes to your organization that can impact customers, employees, and other stakeholders.

Why?  Well, it stems from a phenomenon I’ll call the “Focus Group of One.”

A focus group is a gathering of a group of people, usually from a target demographic, intended to collect impressions about an issue, product, or strategy.

When you make assumptions about how your decisions will impact not simply those who meet with you regularly, but also those in the field, stores, plants, or factories; you can fall into the trap of using your own intuition and experience as a guide instead of collecting impressions that may differ from your own.

You use a focus group, it’s just a focus group comprised of your own experience over time–the many different “selves” from your experience–instead of a focus group of people facing the impact of your decisions here and now.

“When I was a salesperson, all I cared about was making my numbers; and I didn’t want the distraction” might be a refrain a CEO would make when deciding not to extend training to a portion of his sales force.

This can have negative consequences.

Why?  Here are a few ideas:

  • People are different – People have different wants and needs than you do, and you should beware making decisions based on what you want and need.
  • Experiences are different – People have different experiences in the field, plant, or line than a given executive might have had.  The mere fact that the executive is an executive may show that his or her experience was different (or coddled) and a bad reference case for making decisions today.
  • Your recollections change – You may forget what it was like in the field.  You may only remember the wins and forget the hard times. You also, given your experience, probably ended your time in the field pretty well.  There is a cognitive bias called peak-end bias that shows how our brains tend to remember the most intense part of an experience, and the way we left it.  We forget the run-of-the-mill times; and generally you as an executive are making decisions that affect the run of the mill.
  • You are muddled by your biases – Knowing the right thing to do and overcoming your incentives to do otherwise can be very, very challenging. If you face a defining moment that can have big impact on your organization, it might be best to listen to those impacted first.

So what?

To get out of the focus group of one, you can employ a few different methods:

Easiest is to just go and listen to folks.  That takes time, and in some organizations comes with a substantial hierarchy filter.

Next would be to listen to those closest to you on their impressions of the impact.  But, keep in mind they are biased as well.

Finally, and probably most effective, would be to send a few trusted agents into the field to gather real impressions of possible changes.  Reflect on them.  Then make the decision.

Don’t fall into the Focus Group of One trap.  Listen to those you lead.

Please share your thoughts and experiences on the impact of and how to avoid this trap.

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