In business, we are often asked to draw conclusions and make recommendations. We have to engage in fact finding to ensure that the pieces of information on which we base our conclusions and recommendations are facts, not just speculation, assumptions, or opinions; we have to check any information we obtain. Most of our fact finding will be about how things are done, but it is also important to understand the underlying reason – the why things are done in a certain way – especially during the initial questioning. Our aim is accuracy. We lose credibility if the facts we are using can be challenged by others. This also requires that all evidence be documented in archives for future reference.
There are a number of different methods of fact-finding, and we need to decide which is the most appropriate to achieve the objective. Circumstances may dictate we use a combination of the following methods:
- Existing Records include business artifacts, such as organization charts, job descriptions, company reports and accounts, departmental/procedural records, and user manuals. These are appropriate to use when well-established processes are in place and documented.
- Written Surveys and Questionnaires can be used to collect information about attitudes and “hard” data from a large group. The advantages of using this method are that they cover a large target population and are reasonably inexpensive. The drawbacks are the low return rate from participants, generally 20 – 50% from random samples, and the need for very careful construction in order to obtain valid information. Of great concern is that participants self-select, meaning that people with strong feelings, either good or bad, will be more likely to respond than people who are indifferent to the topic.
- Telephone Surveys are a rapid method of surveying the targeted population. They are more expensive than written surveys, but achieve higher rates of return. These are difficult to use for sensitive or personal topics since respondents will be reluctant to reveal this information.
- Direct Observation and Site Visits are very useful at the beginning of a project to get a better understanding of the operations and begin building trust and rapport with the participants. It’s always a good idea to go and see things for ourselves, although this may be expensive.
- Interviewing and Discussion require good preparation and a certain amount of skill to be productive. These should be scripted, but allow the interviewer leeway to pursue tangential topics.
- Workshops / Focus Groups are an excellent approach to use for brainstorming, envisioning new approaches to a problem, and getting up to speed quickly on new topics. Typically, an interactive workshop contains between 5 and 20 participants and is conducted by an experienced moderator. Focus groups tend to be smaller in size, averaging between 6 and 12 participants. The main differences between the two group-types are workshops tend to be used for internal staff who will break into sub-groups to tackle specific issues, while focus groups are used for customers or external shareholders.
- Internet/Virtual Conferencing is used to gather “expert opinion” from around the world. This is typically rapid and makes efficient use of resources, but requires technological infrastructure.
- Database Sources such as Dun & Bradstreet, Gartner Group or Standard & Poor’s can offer useful background information that can be reviewed before using one or more of the other fact finding methods.
During fact finding, it is important to pay attention to the non-verbal behavior of the respondent. The use of voice provides additional meaning to the words spoken. For example, a long pause before answering may mean the person is trying to conceal or soften their real attitude. A hesitant “Yes” may really mean “No”. And stock phrases may indicate the person disagrees with you but is unwilling or unable to argue the point.
Observing physical cues also provides information. Restless shifting and tense shoulders often indicate discomfort with a topic, while looking away may mean the answer is not the whole truth. We need to observe the way that words are spoken.
The key skill in interviewing is active listening, meaning we objectively weigh the evidence being presented and pay attention to the non-verbal behavior, as well as the verbal components of communication. We can really demonstrate active listening by reflecting back, paraphrasing and empathy:
- Reflecting Back. Words or emotions may be reflected back. An example is: “So, if I’ve got it right you enjoy your work generally, but find working with telecom clients more exciting.”
- Paraphrasing. Repeating what the interviewee has said, but use your own words rather than the exact words they used.
- Empathy. Listen to the way things are said and, if there is an underlying emotion, we can comment. For example, “You sound a little disappointed with that”, or “You were really animated talking about telecom customers; you seemed quite excited by the opportunities with them.”
Fact finding requires planning and skill. Well done, it provides a solid basis for analysis, drawing insightful conclusions, and making sound and logical recommendations.
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Tom Grzesiak, PMP, is an instructor for Global Knowledge and is the president of Supple Wisdom LLC. Tom has over 20 years of project management and consulting experience with IBM, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and dozens of clients. He has trained thousand of project managers and consultants. Global Knowledge is a worldwide leader in IT and business training. More than 700 courses span foundational and specialized training and certifications. For more information, visit www.globalknowledge.com.
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