Jon, over at the Business Evolutionist, writes about interviewing skills in The Long Interview. In particular, he talks about eliciting information that goes deeper than the surface details that people usually offer.
I've been fortunate enough to spend years of my life interviewing people about processes and experiences. For a good chunk of the early 90's I focused on processes in the legal profession (and lived to tell the tale!). One challenging aspect of these interviews was eliciting the things that could go wrong in the process. Lawyer interviewees could expound ad infinitum on every aspect of their work except that one. It's as though they had a cranial implant that prevented them from discussing problems. They'd stammer, or stare at you with a blank look, or search their minds for some way to paper over any difficulties. Anything but admit that problems did occur.
Unfortunately, you can't really understand a process until you know how to break it. We needed to ask the question in a way that preserved the infallibility of the interviewee. Here's our alternative:
Congratulations! You've just won an all-expenses paid 6-month vacation on a private tropical island. The only catch is that you have to leave tonight, and you won't be able to contact the office until you return. You have 15 minutes to train your replacement,and your bonus is riding on their performance. What do you need to tell them so they can succeed?And we got all the information we needed about problems and contingencies to prevent them! In interviewing, understanding the context can be as important as the questions themselves. What barriers will the interviewee's brain put in the path to understanding? How can you eliminate those barriers? In many cases, your old friends WIIFM* and MMFI* will help you immensely, as they did in our interviews with attorneys. Lawyers spend their lives advising other people on how to avoid all sorts of possible problems, and were perfectly comfortable answering questions posed in those terms.
The next time you need to ask an important question, design it for the context in which it will be answered.
*What's In It For Me and Make Me Feel Important
posted by Mike at 7:35 AM