Master Facilitator Journal

Master Facilitator Journal | Issue #0496, July 13, 2011

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Dear Friends,

How often has a company approached you with absolute certainty about the nature of their problem and what needs to be done to fix it? There is often quite a difference between what people in organizations think they need and what they really need. They're often too much a part of the dynamic to objectively see what needs to changed.

A competent facilitator, consultant, or coach will spend time interviewing key players in an organization to get a relatively objective assessment of what's going on within it prior to designing an intervention. This week's article, Success in Needs Assessment Interviews addresses just this process, and was written by Karen Lawson, PhD, president of Lawson Consulting Group based in Lansdale, PA.

Check out the Consulting Today article collection summaries at the end of this issue with several themes for
facilitators, consultants, and coaches.

If you or your colleagues are interested in submitting an article for consideration, please email your ideas. I'd love to hear from you. We hope our work continues to bring inspiration to your world. Thank you for being a part of our growing community and please continue to send your wonderful feedback.


Steve Davis


assessment primer
facilitator questions
needs assessment

The Point

Success in Needs Assessment Interviews
Get to the heart of your groups problem before trying to solve it.

Self-Facilitation Skill

Every year companies spend millions of dollars on consulting projects that do not achieve the desired results. One reason the projects fail is that all too often the organizations, and the consultants they engage, overlook the importance of identifying exactly what is needed before they begin their work. It’s ready, fire, fire, fire, and no aim at all.

A needs assessment can prevent a quick fix, bandage approach to business problems. A good assessment will help ensure that the solution addresses the real problem, and effectively
focuses resources, time and effort. There are many ways to do a needs assessment, depending on the issue the client is dealing with, the type and level of the consulting you'll be doing. You’ll probably do several, including:

  • Research the company and industry to deter-mine trends and problems.
  • Review records (e.g., quality and production records, exit interviews, performance reviews).
  • Administer a written survey (self designed or customized generic).
  • Conduct benchmarking to determine best practices (internal or external).
  • Observe workers and meetings.
  • Interview employees, managers, executives, perhaps even vendors and customers.

Chances are, no matter what else you do, you’ll do some interviews. So, for this discussion, we'll focus on conducting needs assessment interviews. Here are some factors to help you get the best information.


Plan the interviews. Begin by reviewing your overall plan for data collection. Decide who should be interviewed (which levels, which people, whether it will be representatives or everyone). “It’s ready, fire, fire, fire, and no aim at all.”

Decide who should do the interviews. Then decide the time frame in which it will be done, considering the schedules of the project, the organization, and the interviewees. Decide how much information you’ll collect, and whether you want to interview people alone or in focus groups.

Before the interview: Schedule the interview. Contact interviewees well in advance of the interview. Give them some choice of times if it's possible.

Send an agenda. Indicate your purpose, and describe logistics information like time, duration, location, and whatever else will help them feel comfortable. It’s also helpful if you can send the questions in advance so they can prepare or think about their answers.

Clarify confidentiality. Many consultants prefer not to be told information the interviewee wouldn’t want shared. If you choose to offer confidentiality, tell interviewees if information will be summarized but not attributed. If you are using focus groups, the participants must understand the importance of not divulging what they learned in the session. Confirm the client's policy for reporting legal violations.
Ensure privacy and remove distractions. While you might think this is a given, in today's “cube” environment, it can take special arrangements to have privacy for an interview. Emphasize the importance of the interview with the interviewee, and with those who might interrupt or distract.

During the interview

Orient the interviewee, and make them comfortable. Explain the overall objective of the project to the extent that you and the client have agreed is appropriate. Generally, the more candid you can be about the purpose, the better information you will get. Explain the entire data collection process. Tell the interviewee what information you will record, and what you will do with the information. Tell them what feedback they will get on the information gathered, when, and in what format. Give them refreshments if you can.

Clarify and confirm. Your questioning and listening skills will determine your success. Balance open, closed, analytical and clarifying questions so people have room to express their information and priorities without feeling grilled or led.

Clarify carefully if an interviewee rambles or talks in generalities. Get examples. Make sure you under-stand just what they are saying and not saying. Summarize key points to confirm your understanding.

Respect their time. Ask your questions, record the information you need, and get them on their way. Both they, and the client who pays for their time, will appreciate that.

Record additional action items. In the course of interviews you may hear of things that need immediate attention. If it’s something in your control, do it right away. If not, do what you can to ensure it gets done. Prompt action will help employees feel their opinions are valued, and increase willingness to participate in the future. Follow up carefully.

After the interview

Summarize the data. With unstructured inter-views, this could be a major transcription effort. For check box interviews, data entry is easier. Reminder – lock all records up securely. Interview data can be intriguing for curious employees.

Identify key themes. This is a creative and important part of the needs assessment process. Plan to allow yourself enough time to do this well—to draft it, and then to think about it, and perhaps review it with others before you report it. Review your interview notes one more time when you think you’re done, looking for ideas that are clearer now that you see the themes.

Remember it’s qualitative data. Interviews are data, but they are not statistics. Resist the temptation to assign too much weight to the numbers that come from them. It’s a thermometer, not a cat scan.

Make it graphic. Charts can provide graphic pictorial summaries of the trends and themes in the data you‘ve collected. You can also make your final report interesting with colorful quotes direct from the inter-views. They are anecdotal but powerful information. The needs assessment process in general, and interviews in particular, may take time, but it is the only way you can ensure the consulting you do is exactly what was needed.

With a good needs assessment, and especially with excellent interviewing, you’ll uncover the real issues of the organization. You’ll reduce trips down blind alleys. You’ll save money, time, and employee good will in the long run. And all that will increase the likelihood that the client will want to work with you in the future.

About the Author: Karen Lawson, Ph.D. is president of Lawson Consulting Group, based in Lansdale, Pa. She specializes in organization and management development, and is the author of six books, including Executive Development: Grooming for Competitive Advantage. She can be reached at (215) 368-9465, or

© 2000, 2004 consulting today. All rights reserved. Web:, 6325 Hilltop Rd. Orefield, PA 18069 Phone: 610.366.0165 E-mail:

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