Generating Creative Conflict in Focus Groups

by DJI

Which is better: Consensus or Creative Conflict?

The second of two focus groups of the evening has just finished. Someone observes that both sessions were remarkably smooth in that broad consensus was evident/achieved on almost every issue. The moderator comes through the door and sits down next to the client Research Director to discuss the evening. Should they be happy or disturbed?

If you said “happy” you may be missing a ton of learning opportunities. All seasoned researchers have seen groups (fortunately rarely) devolve into nothing more than arguments among competing egos and those sessions are unproductive.

But there is much to be said for the benefits of creative conflict in qualitative research … whether diads or full groups. In fact groups without conflict are elevator music; those with it are more akin to great blues or jazz … more complex and more memorable. In the end, the learning is almost always richer and more relevant. In fact, those are the two key benefits … greater richness and greater relevance.

Richness… through Diversity in Perspectives

To grasp the need for creative conflict in a group discussion, one needs to appreciate the following:

  • People (i.e. respondents) are generally nice. They want to get along with the strangers in the room and they want to please (or at least avoid irritating) the moderator. So, they will generally avoid conflict or argument … holding back a perception or view that they fear might be controversial.
  • A conversation about an issue that is not particularly personal will be just that – a conversation. Possibly intellectual to some extent but not visceral. On the other hand, a debate on an issue where parties feel loyal to a position is more likely to generate passion and get at the true feelings that motivate attitudinal or behavior patterns.

Imagine four diehard Red Sox fans and four diehard Yankees fans in a room and ask them to describe a typical Green Bay Packers fan (different sport, different geography) and you’ll probably get a nice conversation (elevator music). Then ask them, as a group, to describe a typical Red Sox and a typical Yankees fan and watch the passion level soar. Conversation becomes debate and comments reflect feelings that are held with much stronger conviction … feelings that actually influence behavior. (Now we’re getting somewhere). Just remove Red Sox and Yankee loyalists from the recruiting specs and imagine substituting Pepsi and Coke, or iPhone and Galaxy, or Walmart and Target … or your brand and its chief competitor.

Relevance… through Moderator-Directed Comparisons

Once real debate is generated and respondents begin to defend their positions or feelings, the conversation can be guided to issues relevant to the business. It can work on anything from gun control to package design to product proliferation to ad campaign concepts.

It is easy to generate creative conflict when the group is recruited to include people who come through the door on opposite sides of the fence/issue. Put four Bud Light loyalists on one side of the table and four Coors Light loyalists on the other – you will learn much more about the advertising and growth opportunities for one of those brands than when you use the more conventional approach of separating the groups by brand. The debate will reveal much deeper and more relevant insight into what each brand may or may not offer in terms of image reward.

But even when the whole group has a common brand loyalty, the moderator can generate creative conflict but referencing a (fictional) group earlier in the day and paraphrasing the comments of those who felt exactly the opposite about the brand or package design that this group is now embracing. If the client’s concern is that the new package design may be slightly too masculine in image, I would tell the group that the earlier respondents had complained about the masculinity of the design and have the group try to re-create the conversation and then add their feelings on the issue. And I’m not shy about arguing the “anti” side (in this case too masculine) with some aggression and passion. It almost always enhances engagement of the group and the relevance of their comments.

At the end of the day the whole idea of Qual is to generate learning and insights that are richer and more relevant than a client might obtain another way. And that is when creative conflict can be invaluable. If it’s all going too smoothly, consider adding a grain of sand. The pearls you get may be those of wisdom.