When working to understand and improve a current process, it's often necessary to use a whole range of elicitation and investigation techniques. One commonly used technique is the stakeholder interview. Spending time speaking to relevant stakeholders individually (or in very small groups) can be an extremely useful way of building rapport whilst also learning about the current process. Interviews will often provide an opportunity for our stakeholders to be forthright and candid about tricky problem areas. Synthesizing this knowledge from multiple sources can help guide any improvement actions that we take.
In many ways, the term "interview" is perhaps too formal. Certainly the aim isn't to interrogate our subjects; in fact it's crucial that our stakeholders feel at ease when we are speaking with them, so that they feel able to disclose potentially problematic or difficult areas of the process. Yet, allowing an interview to become too informal and unstructured can mean that we stray off topic entirely. Stakeholders are typically busy people, and if we don't use their time effectively they may become disengaged and we might not get a second chance. So what can we do to ensure that we get the most from the time that we have with our stakeholders?
The Importance of Preparation
A key area is preparation and planning. It has often been said that "planning prevents particularly poor performance" and this is as true with interviews as it is with other activities. If we turn up without preparing, it is likely we'll appear unprofessional and will walk away with little more knowledge than we arrived with! When it comes to preparing, it is well worth starting by considering the outcomes that you are aiming to achieve and the scope of insight that you are hoping to obtain during the interview. These aspects help determine who should be interviewed, the length of the session and also the types of questions that will be most relevant. We might for example decide that our objective is:
"To understand Jayne Green's role in the manufacturing process, and compare/validate this against other insight we've obtained"
Our scope for this interview, therefore, would be constrained primarily to questions about manufacturing and Jayne's role within it. The conversation is likely to touch upon areas outside of this, and it's important that we plan our structure so that we keep to the most relevant topics.
Structure and Questions
Before determining the questions to ask, it is worth considering the overall structure of the session. An interview where you are aiming to build rapport with a stakeholder you've never met before might be structured very differently to an interview conducted with a stakeholder you know well. If you do not know the stakeholder, it may be necessary to start by explaining your role, details about the specific initiative and so forth. We might find that some stakeholders have never worked on a process analysis and improvement initiative before, and may be interested in knowing more about the overall context. Some may have concerns or worries that we can address in advance of the session and by doing so the session itself will run more smoothly.
Having considered our objectives for the session and the needs of the stakeholder, we can now turn our thoughts to the types of questions that we'll ask. It is generally best to plan an outline set of questions in advance, so that we can be sure that we stay on track and cover key areas. However, this is one area where flexibility will be crucial. It is quite possible that a stakeholder will mention something unexpected (but relevant) during the session which means it's necessary to delve further. Straying from the planned questions in this controlled way is natural and will make the session more conversational. It will also ensure that we do not miss potentially relevant details by sticking rigidly to the plan.
Having considered the questions, it is then worth sending a short briefing note to the interviewee. This can be a succinct agenda, perhaps stating the core objectives of the session and asking if the stakeholder has any questions in advance.
Successful interviews start with good preparation. Considering our stakeholders' perspectives, and ensuring they have the opportunity to prepare is crucial. Considering our objectives, and building our questions in advance will allow the session to run smoothly.