Questionable Behavior

Managers who wisely follow the Six-Step Program Planning Cycle (PRB, December 2006) know that checking in with stakeholders occurs on two occasions--during the needs identification and assessment phase (Step 2), and after program implementation during the evaluation phase (Step 5). However well intentioned these data-gathering efforts are, it is a common oversight to limit questions to either one format (i.e., paper survey), or only one group of people (i.e., randomly chosen homeowners).

Asking questions takes place during casual conversations, interviews, paper surveys and public meetings, but organizing all of the options according to three factors or dimensions encourages managers to seek a variety of sources, rather than focusing only on one or two. By using a model of program assessment (Figure 1), managers can obtain a wide range of detailed, “rich,” and accurate information, thereby avoiding the unfortunate consequences of decisions based on incomplete or biased data.

Answer Questions First

It is important to ask yourself several questions before you are able to question an audience:

· Are you intending to do most of the talking, or are you more concerned with listening?

· Do you have a structured set of questions to ask (such as those printed on a paper survey), or do you prefer that questions arise naturally in the course of a discussion?

· Will you be interacting with a single individual, or with a larger group of people?

(Note: A fourth dimension--personal or impersonal--is not included in the diagram, but actually is an attribute of each of the previous three dimensions.)

By taking all three factors into consideration--and visualizing in three dimensions--several general types of situations can be identified.

An unstructured opportunity for you to listen to a group of stakeholders that encourages them to express uncensored opinions is referred to as a community forum. Typically, those present are attending voluntarily in response to a general invitation, so you have no advance notice of who may or may not show up, or even what they might say. This ambiguity creates a free-form atmosphere that allows myriad (and sometimes refreshing) points of view to emerge. The opposite of this type might be represented by a city council meeting, where an agenda is followed, reports are presented by selected personnel, and speaking is restricted (all enforced by Robert’s Rules of Order).

A structured conversation (talking and listening) among managers and a fewer number of stakeholders is termed a focus group, which frequently is used for exploring or evaluating previously generated ideas. (Increasingly structured versions of the focus group are the nominal group technique, and the Delphi technique: see Edginton, et al., 2004.) In contrast, a brainstorming session among members of a similar small-sized group is not overly inhibited by structure or already formed notions.

Putting The Model To Use

Imagine that you are considering trading existing city parkland (located next to the school district’s campus) for an undeveloped, but desirable, parcel of land owned by the school board. In most cases, only administering a paper survey to residents (or placing the idea on the ballot) to gauge their support, or only hiring a consultant to present a site plan to city council and the school board will not be sufficient.

However, using the (impersonal) paper survey to generate interest and raise issues, followed by a (personal) community forum at which those issues are fleshed out, followed by brainstorming and focus groups to offer refinements to the consultant who then presents options to council and the school board (and back to the community at another open forum), creates multiple opportunities to explore the options and possibilities fully, all the while accumulating the aforementioned detailed, “rich” and accurate information.

The process may take more time, but in the end, no one will question how you reached a good decision.

Kim Uhlik is Assistant Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at San Jose State University, where he coordinates the Leadership and Administration emphasis. He can be reached via e-mail at

Work cited:

Edginton, C.R., et al. Leisure programming: A service-centered and benefits approach (4th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004.