Preparing for a stakeholder interview part three – using “FOC”

I have just published a couple of articles on preparing for an interview. The first was on clarifying the goal for the interview and the second was on using an approach I called GRIFT to create a more robust structure.

The final stage of preparing for an interview is to come up with an agenda and preferred set of questions.  In some cases you might use a very detailed and structured approach, while in others you might not spend any time preparing your questions.

Either way it helps to have an overall structure for an interview and one approach you might try for this is to use “FOC” or Frame-open-close. You can use this approach when preparing for an interview or you can use it without any more preparation as the interview starts.

Open and closed questions

Closed questions are those that require a short answer that is generally something the stakeholder could choose from a list (ie they have a finite or closed set of possible answers to choose from).

Closed questions include:

  • Is that true? (Choose yes or no);
  • What time did you get home? (Choose a time); and
  • How many people went to the restaurant? (Choose a number).

Closed questions are good for restricting the answers you get. They limit the stakeholder to providing the specific information you want. But they also restrict the stakeholder from exploring or explaining a topic.

Open questions are the opposite. They provide the stakeholder with an infinite or open set of possible answers to choose from.

Open questions include:

  • What happened?
  • How did you do that?
  • Tell me more about the issue (a statement that leads to an answer).
  • Why did that happen?
  • So what – what impact will that have?

Open questions are good for gaining an understanding of the subject matter and for exploring a topic in detail.

Framing the question

Sometimes an interview might feel very “stilted” or fragmented. The interviewer asks a question, the stakeholder pauses and then gives a vague sounding answer and then the interviewer pauses before asking another, unrelated question. It may seem to the interviewer that the stakeholder was reluctant to provide information while to the stakeholder it seems to be a disjointed and uncomfortable experience.

Where this is the case it may be that the interviewer is asking good questions but is not providing any context or structure to help the stakeholder think about and respond to the question.

For example, let’s assume that Steven grew up in Melbourne Australia. His family owned restaurants and he often worked in the kitchen after school.  He is now publishing a cookbook that includes a lot of the recipes he learned growing up.

An interview could flow like this:

Interviewer Did you grow up in Melbourne?   (Closed question)
Steve Yes
Interviewer In restaurants? (closed question)
Steve Yes
Interviewer Was it good, growing up in   restaurants? (closed question)
Steve Yes, I really learned a lot
Interviewer And now you have written a book.   (“Closed statement”?)
Steve Yes – it is based on my experience   growing up around restaurants and the different cooking styles that I   encountered.
Interviewer Oh.    OK, did you base the book on the recipes your mother and father used?   (closed question)
Steve Yes

The interviewer might get better answers if he or she asks open questions. But even then, the questions might come out as disjointed or unconnected, making it hard for Steve to answer without having to stop and think about each question.

On the other hand the interviewer could frame the conversation with a short introduction and then ask a simple open question:

Interviewer I understand that when you were   young you spent a lot of time in working in your family restaurant (frame).   What was that like? (Open question).
Steve Yes, I used to spend nearly every   afternoon working in the kitchen after school …

Framing the question like this gives Steve a context within which to understand the question and also helps both Steve and the interviewer to create more of a flow in the conversation.

FOC – Frame – open – close

FOC or Frame-open-close is an approach to creating a structure around the questions.

It is often better to ask an open question to open the topic up for discussion and then follow on with a closed question to confirm that you understood what was being said. So it is common for experienced interviewers to deliberately plan an interview around open questions, which are then supported by closed questions to confirm or clarify your understanding to the answers given to the open questions.

Rather than just asking a question though, you can start by providing a short statement (or “frame”) to prepare the stakeholder for the type of question that will follow. Just as a picture frame is designed to help the viewer to focus on the picture, a frame in an individual helps the listener to focus their thinking on the question being asked.

This then gives you a pattern to follow:

  1. Frame the question with a short statement to give your stakeholder some context.
  2. Ask one or more open questions to explore the topic.
  3. Ask closed questions or summarise what the stakeholder said in order to confirm your understanding before moving onto another topic.

FOC as an agenda for the interview

Just as you can structure your questions around a topic area by using FOC, you can do the same for the agenda of your interview.

This will at least give you a structure for the interview.

  • You will start by framing the whole interview with an opening statement and then you will ask a series of questions.
  • Your main questions will be open questions to allow the stakeholder to give a more detailed explanation than if you asked all closed questions.
  • Finally you will sum up the interview by running through a summary of what you learned.

But of course for each open question you can also use FOC to create context and confirm your understanding of each major question or topic area.

For a more complex interview, you may find that the GRIFT approach (explained above) can provide the content you can use to create an introduction (or frame) for the whole interview.

The interview may also cover a number of topics that each consist of a number of questions and also justify an introduction (frame) and summary (close) to support those questions.

Similarly, a complex interview will often end with a list of action items as well as a summary of what was covered in the whole interview

The FOC approach can therefore be scaled up to give structure to the agenda and then scaled down to give structure to the individual questions.

In practice I often also use my “question compass” to explore each area.  I do this by using a structure like this

(new topic – frame): Which brings me to the question of how you incorporate ethereal conductive cooking into your recipes

(open – question compass): What do you mean by ethereal conductive cooking … etc

(Close) So ethereal cooking is a key part of what you do. (next topic)


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