Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 9;   March 1, 2006: Interviewing the Willing: Strategy

Interviewing the Willing: Strategy

by

At times, we need information from each other. For example, we want to learn about how someone approached a similar problem, or we must interview someone about system requirements. Yet, even when the source is willing, we sometimes fail to expose critical facts. How can we elicit information from the willing more effectively?

Josie stopped short, because she had just learned something that might break the impasse. She turned to Greg. "Wait a minute," she said. "Are you saying that you never use this system to review dormant accounts?"

Greg looked surprised. "Right," he began. "But I told you that two weeks ago in my office. What's the problem?"

In the conference room"I don't remember it that way," Josie explained. "But it means that we can eliminate about 20% of the work."

Josie and Greg might never figure out how they got confused, but one partial cause might be related to Josie's approach to interviewing, and Greg's approach to being interviewed.

Sometimes we interview others to elicit critical information — to resolve an ambiguity, to solve a problem, to create a design or to develop requirements. Most sources are willing, even eager to help. Yet we often come away from the effort with incomplete or wrong information. What can we do to make this kind of interview more effective?

Effective interviews
of the willing
start with
effective strategy
Effective interviews of the willing start with effective strategy. Here are some general principles that help.

Prepare yourself
Know what you want to uncover, and have a plan that will get there. Unless you're an expert, improvisational interviewing is unlikely to produce the results you seek.
Eliminate presuppositions
Presuppositions constrain responses. Contrast "How often do you use the system for viewing dormant accounts?" with "Do you use the system for viewing dormant accounts?" The former question presupposes the use. With the presupposition, responders who don't actually view dormant accounts might feel a "should" in the question.
Use context-free questions
A context-free question neither suggests its answer, nor biases the responder. For instance, "What's the customer's frame of mind?" is free of context. "Is the customer under time pressure?" is not.
Ration your questions
Even a willing source becomes less willing as the questions keep coming. Quotas vary from person to person, and some questions "expire" — they drop out of the quota — after varying amounts of time and intervening interactions.
Beware repetition
Asking about the same thing repeatedly, even when the questions aren't successive, can cause some sources to feel that they're under suspicion. They might become wary and guarded.
Plan for post-interview analysis
Review your results after each interview. Don't assume that you understood everything you heard the first time, or that you asked unambiguous questions.
Exploit synergy and follow up
Compare results from multiple sources, looking for discrepancies, re-enforcements and synergies. Look for what was not said by each responder. This process often generates a need to follow up for clarification.

Strategy is only one key to conducting a successful interview. Tactics are just as important, and they're the topic for next time.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Interviewing the Willing: Tactics  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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