Less is More: Survey Design and Creating Change

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One of my favorite childhood movies, Jurassic Park, taught me an important life lesson that I’ve never forgotten. In one scene, John Hammond, creator of the titular theme park, enthusiastically describes the advanced technology and scientific capabilities the park’s scientists have developed and proudly shows off numerous species of cloned dinosaurs. Despite the ‘cool’ factor of such a feat, you may recall Jeff Goldblum’s skeptical response when he fiercely proclaims, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should!”

The Complexities of Survey Design

Like the impressive (albeit ill-advised) developments of Jurassic Park, current survey platforms and technology are advanced enough to accommodate most any survey structure that you can think of. Branching, skip logic, text piping, conditional questions, surveying sub-populations of organizations – we’ve seen it all, and our systems can do it all! The result is that survey seekers may be tempted to design the ‘ultimate survey’ – technology allows us to build a web of highly custom survey items that address every conceivable topic, issue, or opinion that employees may hold, while definitively identifying specific reasons for low scores or unfavorable employee perceptions. If enough follow-up questions, department-specific survey items, and open-ended comments are incorporated, the secrets of organizational engagement will surely be revealed, or so we think. The unfortunate result of these efforts can be a misplaced focus on survey logistics; more time is spent explaining the survey results to leaders and employees than is spent discussing the changes to be made because of the results!

At DecisionWise, we believe in designing surveys that address each individual organization’s culture and needs, which is why our expert consultants spend time in detailed conversations with our clients during the survey design process. When appropriate, we encourage our clients to use some of the advanced survey elements available to us. That said, trying to fit all organizational questions, possibilities, and variations into one survey may be akin to genetically engineering dozens of dinosaur species based off one ancient DNA sample. It gets messy, complicated, provides data that can be difficult to understand, and may come with other unintended (but hopefully not deadly) consequences.

Back to Basics

For us, the survey itself shouldn’t overshadow the ultimate goal of improvement. Employee surveys are only the start of what should be an ongoing conversation to identify areas of improvement, employee perceptions, and organizational change. Often, and especially in organizations that do not have a history of conducting employee surveys, employees doubt the sincerity and value of the survey to begin with. Our research indicates that only half of employees respond favorably when asked I am confident that changes will be made as a result of this survey. This view likely does not originate from an insufficient survey or lack of relevant survey items. Rather, it stems from the fact that employees don’t see a lot of communication, action planning, or change implementation between surveys.

One of our change models, Explore, Explain, Execute, acknowledges that further questions may be raised by initial survey results. The Explore component encourages organizations to investigate these questions through focus groups, the Engagement Summit, and action planning. This keeps the conversation open between employees and leadership and reinforces the fact that leaders are truly hearing what their employees have to say. Rather than seeking comprehensive employee input through one annual survey and calling it good, involve employees in the process. Let them continue to speak their minds, share their ideas, and participate in the improvement process. We believe that engagement is a 50-50 proposition, and that if “employers build the foundation, employees will do the rest.” (ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement). So help employees do their part!

Group of multi-ethnic business people meeting

The Bottom Line

Most organizations do not have enough experience with employee surveys and implementing change to need a highly complex survey design. Data-driven decisions are important, but cannot, and should not, replace the importance of the people factor. Using an organization-wide survey that incorporates key elements of satisfaction and engagement can provide a great initial view and serve as a first step towards further exploration, conversation, and collaboration. Give employees a voice and empower them to be involved in creating change – this is where the greatest improvements will be achieved.