Employee Participation (Part II): Practical tips for facilitating productive participation.

Employee participation in change has many benefits, but also many complexities.  Productive participation takes skill on the part of the change leader and participant. The best way to build this skill is through experience.  So, in Part II of our post on employee participation and change,  we provide a summary of practices and methods you can experiment with in your participation approach. We cover a variety of methods, providing tips on how to effectively use each, as well as links to resources providing additional practical advice.

As you review these methods, I encourage you to keep in mind the ideas outlined in Part I of our review of participation, which provides a framework to aid you in developing an aligned participation approach — i.e., choosing participatory methods that are appropriate for how you intend to use employee input in your change effort.  

I also strongly encourage you to proactively experiment with these methods — you'll on learn how to effectively facilitate them, by actually facilitating them. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.  

General Tips for All Methods

As I was putting together this post, I recognized I was writing some of the same things again and again. So, here’s a list of six things to keep in mind regardless of which participatory methods you use.

  1. Don't talk; listen. If you remember nothing else, please remember this!  Talking should be done 80% of the time by participants and 20% (or less) by you. Context setting is important, but beyond that your role is to listen, not talk, explain, defend, or judge.  If you aren’t used openly listening, it will probably take some practice…especially if you are in a role of “manager” or “leader”.
  2. Keep it simple.   Work hard to clearly frame the question on which you want input — whether in a survey, interview, or brainstorming session.  Keep your focus narrow — stick to the essentials and make sure you get them right.  And don’t worry about getting fancy. You’d be surprised what you can do with paper, markers, tape and some wall space.  (Also…skip the PowerPoint, if at all possible.)
  3. Say hello!  Participation takes courage.  Help people out by making them feel as comfortable as possible.  When facilitating a session, do what you’d do as a good host at your home.  Greet individuals as they arrive, show them around, help them get to know one another, and share how much you appreciate them being there.  Don’t skip the niceties. They serve an important purpose.
  4. Take detailed notes.  Document everything you see and hear with as much detail as possible.  You’ll eventually work with broader themes, but initially, details are essential to ensure you are understanding and interpreting input accurately.
  5. Always follow-up.  Be sure to send a thank you and highlight key takeaways to all participants, regardless of what method you used.  This helps to demonstrate your intent to use input provided, and reassures participants that they haven’t wasted their time.
  6. Translate,  integrate & act.   Analyzing input and incorporating it into your overall change or implementation process is essential.  Be aware that this can take at least as much time, if not more, than gathering the input.  I’ve had good success with translating themes gathered from employee input into key principles or requirements that can be used as guides throughout the change or implementation effort. I like this approach, because it keeps employee input ‘alive’ and visible in the effort, by integrating it directly into plans, communications and evaluation.

Surveys

Surveys allow you to reach a larger and more diverse group of people than you can with most other methods. The downside of surveys is that they provide less in-depth information and insights, can be hard to get people to complete (particularly online) and without some understanding of survey design, can be misinterpreted. 

In my own work, I always use surveys, but see them as one part of the overall participation puzzle and never the sole source of input. I’ve also seen practitioners have good results with pulse surveys — 2-3 questions asked at key milestones in the change or implementation effort, or after presentations or design sessions.   Such periodic doses of feedback can be instrumental in helping change leaders address misunderstandings and course correct in real time.

Tips for getting surveys right:

  • Keep is short.  Most of the time, limiting your survey to the essential questions is wise. What are the key things you absolutely must know from those surveyed?  Ask those few questions, and provide one open-ended question to ensure you give people a chance to tell you anything else that’s on their minds.   (Keep in mind, open-ended questions require more time to analyze.) 
  • Be consistent.  Structure questions consistently, using similar ranges, definitions, phrasing, etc.  This not only will make it easier to analyze your results, but will also help respondents more quickly understand and answer your questions.  
  • Test it first.  Test your survey out with a few people prior to distributing it widely. This can help you uncover areas in need of improvement, from clearer wording to improved question structure. 
  • Remember, surveys don’t only happen online.  These days, when we think ‘survey’ we generally think about online survey instruments.  However, if you have a room full of people, you may consider a quick paper survey that you can get back from them immediately.  When choosing your method, consider both how you’ll get the greatest response, as well as the effort required to process the survey results.

Additional resources for getting the most from surveys:

  • While focused on social science research, this tip sheet from Harvard's Program on Survey Research,  provides guidance on developing survey questions that is broadly useful.   
  • Want to know if your survey response rate is acceptable?  Who doesn’t?  Michigan State’s National Social Norms Center put together some of the potential answers to this commonly asked question. 
  • For general survey hints check-out these 10 tips from Survey Monkeyor 4 tips from Qualtrics, two companies that offer survey and research related services. 

Interviews

A structured conversation with a single individual can provide a trove of useful insights and ideas for those designing a change and planning for its implementation.  Interviews work well across the organizational hierarchy — from line staff to executives.  Contrary to what you might think, you don’t have to do that many interviews to get the information you need.  A few representatives from each key stakeholder group usually is sufficient.  Which is a good, because successful interviews require a big investment of time — scheduling, conducting the interviews, typing up notes, analyzing notes and following up with the interview subjects.

Tips for getting interviews right:

  • Always plan ahead.  While you’ll want to leave open space to dig deeper into topics as they come up, it’s always best to work from an interview guide with clear questions. Particularly if you are interviewing a variety of individuals on the same topic. Keep questions themselves as short and open-ended as possible.
  • Schedule for at least an hour.  It takes a while for people to feel comfortable in an interview.  You’ll generally want at least 60 minutes for an interview with a single person.  If you can only get 30 minutes, be sure you are clear on 2-3 questions you want to cover. Also, keep in mind, you’ll need more time if you are conducting a group interview, which generally produces less in-depth insight than individual interviews.
  • Remember, you’re there as a curious listener.  You’ll want to do introductions and provide an overview of your purpose and how you’ll use the information gathered in the interview.  Other than that, you are mainly there to ask questions and listen openly to the answers.  Not to add your two cents, correct or otherwise judge. Although an interview should be conversational, it's different than a conversation.  
  • Work as a team.   Be sure to work with a partner, with one person taking notes and one person facilitating the interview.  It’s very hard for one person to do both well.  If you have a working group, project sponsor or other members of a team that can help to conduct interviews, use them.  Conducting interviews is a great way to build the understanding and commitment of team members. It also helps with the workload!
  • Note EXACTLY what the person says.  Notes in bullet form or with vague summaries will be of little use to you a few days after the interview…especially if you're interviewing a lot of people.  You won’t remember who said what.  You may also find you only truly understand what a person has told you once you’ve reread your notes a few times.  Detailed notes can be the gift that keeps on giving. (If you can record an interview great, but I’ve found it makes people nervous, so I usually just write really fast!)

Additional resources for getting the most out of interviews:  

  • Design firms are experts at gathering and using customer/stakeholder input, particularly through interviews.  Check-out the interview tips provided in Ideo's Design Methods toolkit, here.  For more in-depth coverage of the topic, try the Stanford D-School's method card on interviewing for empathy

Observation

Observing people using a product, implementing a process, or interacting with one another is a great way to understand what people truly do.  Not what they say they do, what they are supposed to do, or what they’d like to think that they do.  I have never failed to gain great insights from observation. However, some people are reluctant to be “observed”.  Although this type of participation doesn’t demand much extra effort on the part of the participant, it does demand trust.  It’s important to emphasize — and remind yourself — in observing your role is not to judge, or evaluate, or teach, but simply to document and learn from what you see.

Tips for getting observation right:

  • Take pains to make people feel comfortable.  Explain that you there to better understand how they work, what they experience, or how they interact with one another.  You are there to learn from them, not to evaluate them.  Explain how you will use what you’ve learned.
  • Ask questions to ensure understanding.    To avoid misinterpreting what you see, you may need to ask questions.  You may be able to do this in real time.  However, some observation environments (such as a large meeting) may require you to observe as a ‘fly on the wall’ and follow-up with a key contact to ask questions later.
  • Take detailed notes.  Write down everything that you see and hear.  Take down direct quotes and as much detail as possible.  This will help to ensure you document what you actually observe, instead of what you think about what you observe.

Additional resources for getting the most out of observation:   

  • This quick summary from the site Design Research Techniques provides an overview of one observation method known as shadowing. It also includes additional resources and references. 
  • IDEO offers a twist on the observation method, suggesting participants get in on the act and observe other participants.  Learn more about their peer observation technique here

Brainstorming

While brainstorming has received mixed reviews for the quality of ideas it generates, I find it’s an excellent tool for uncovering what employees are thinking about a specific topic.  When I facilitate brainstorming or group input sessions, I view every person as a wealth of great ideas and challenge myself to get the greatest number of ideas from each person.  To achieve this almost always means that people do not share ideas one at a time, or comment on each idea…which results in a few people dominating, a lot of people looking at their phones, and ending the session leaving a lot of value (ideas) still tucked up tight in people’s heads.  

Tips for getting brainstorming right:

  • Clearly frame & focus the session.  Ensure input is relevant by clearly outlining the focus of discussion and defining what’s in-scope and out-of-scope.  Keep discussion focused on possibilities and recommended improvements by using “what if”, “how might we”, and “I wish” questions, rather than focusing on what people “don’t like” or “what doesn’t work”.
  • Be sure there is ample blank wall space.  Create visual documentation of the discussion that everyone can easily see and interact with.   This keeps the discussion vibrant and on track.  A big wall on which you can post ideas is best, but a series of flip-charts will work in a pinch.
  • First, generate ideas in silence.  Consider starting your session by having participants work on their own!  For example, have each participant write down 3-5 answers to the key question(s) you are using to frame the session.  Some researchers assert that having people do this three times for each question, (three rounds, generating 5 ideas in each round) is more effective at generating truly novel ideas than an oral brainstorming session where everyone calls out their ideas.  (Liedtka and Ogilvie, 2011).
  • Then, use rapid sharing, followed by theme identification, and discussion.  A key to successful brainstorming is facilitation.  You need to actively guide people through the process.  Instead of having each individual share and explain all of their ideas — which is the tendency — have everyone write down their ideas and rapidly call them out as they stick them on a wall.  You can then facilitate the group to identify themes of similar ideas, which can then be discussed more efficiently and effectively.  It also has the benefit of helping participants see where their ideas converge and diverge and increases the energy in the room.
  • Take detailed notes.  In addition to all the paper generated by individual participants, have a note taker capture quotes from discussion. The more detail, the better.

Additional resources on getting the most out of brainstorming:  

Working Groups (vs. Advisory Groups)

One of the more in-depth forms of employee participation is membership in a working group developed specifically to focus on a particular issue.  In my view, to be successful working groups must produce something (policy, recommendation, process, etc.) — not just engage in discussions about it. For that reason, working group participants must be able to dedicate the time necessary to produce a deliverable within a defined period of time.  I’ve found it’s best when these groups are comprised of people who have a stake in the issue AND are particularly good at problem solving and working with others. 

For this reason, it’s best to avoid having “honorary” members on your working group— those who appear as members on paper, but never in meetings.  If you feel you need input from a broader, representative body consider forming an advisory group of other stakeholders to provide periodic feedback on or input to the deliverables of the working group. Or host design sessions (2-4 hour sessions where stakeholders are directly involved in developing rough solutions to specific issues).   If you need to draw on particular technical skills of an individual, consider interviewing them, rather than having them on a working group.

Tips for getting working groups right:

  • Ensure work group participation is a development opportunity.  Membership in working groups is usually above and beyond the other duties of the employee.  Take time to understand what members would like to get out of the experience and work to ensure they get opportunities to achieve that. 
  • Keep the group small and clearly scoped. I've found the best size 5 people or less.  The larger the group, the harder it is to manage and actually get work done.  As noted above, the working group is not a committee focused on discussion.  Its purpose it to work — i.e., produce something. Therefore, the scope of work should be defined and well understood by both the group and those the group reports to. 
  • Clarify and agree on expectations with members upfront. When you invite staff members to participate in the working group, be clear on the specifics of the commitment involved (time, work load, etc.).  Work with managers to confirm the employee has their support to be involved in the effort.
  • Work from a plan and a schedule.   The working group should be clearly led and facilitated to make the most of the investment of resources and energy that the working group represents. Develop a plan for the effort with clear milestones and deliverables and work to it.
  • Call on members to be advocates.  Ask working group members to lead discussions, presentations or interviews, particularly, but not exclusively, with their peers in the organization. This can strengthen the working group members commitment and engagement with the effort as well as ensure the participatory nature of the work is clear to all stakeholders. 

Additional resources for getting the most out of working groups:  

My efforts to find practical, additional resources on working groups were, unfortunately, not very successful. If you have resources to recommend, please share them in the comments section.  

Practice makes perfect (or at least better!)

As mentioned at the start of this post, your ability to effectively facilitate employee participation in your change and implementation efforts will increase dramatically the more you do it.   Put these methods into practice and get feedback from participants to help you improve over time. You'll likely find some of the tips above work well for you...and others don't.  Create your own list of tips!  Becoming more skilled at gathering and using employee input is a skill that pays off through more successful implementation efforts. It's a skill worth developing. 


References

Boddy, Clive. "The Nominal Group Technique: An Aid to Brainstorming Ideas in Research." Qualitative Mrkt Res: An Int J Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal 15.1 (2012): 6-18. Web.  

"The Bootcamp Bootleg." Dschool.   Web. 22 July 2016.  See here

Design Kit. IDEO, Web. 22 July 2016. See here. 

Kaner, Sam, Lenny Lind, Catherine Toldi, Sarah Fisk, and Ber. Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, 2nd Edition. N.p.: John Wiley & Sons, 2007. Print. 

Liedtka, Jeanne, and Tim Ogilvie. Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers. N.p.: Columbia UP, 2011. Print.  See here. 

Liedtka, Jeanne, Tim Ogilvie, and Rachel Brozenske. The Designing for Growth Field Book: A Step-by-step Project Guide. New York: Columbia UP, 2014. Print. 

Sutton, Robert I., and Andrew Hargadon. "Brainstorming Groups in Context: Effectiveness in a Product Design Firm." Administrative Science Quarterly 41.4 (1996): 685. Web.  See here.