Clients often contact us for help with “assessments”. We love to help leaders understand how people in their organization think and feel and what drives certain behavior.

But before we go to work, we always ask five questions:

  1. What decision will you make based on the results of this assessment? Answering this question usually takes a bit of work — but the payoff is worth the effort. Clarity of intention is vital to an effective assessment.
  2. Who will be involved in making and implementing this decision?  Humans, by their very nature, resist work in general and change in particular. If an organizational assessment effort is going to require someone to do something… anything… it’s smart to involve them in planning the assessment.
  3. What type(s) of information do you need to make this decision? Broadly speaking, assessments fall into three categories:
    • Observations: data is collected by watching, measuring, counting… without interaction between the observers and observed. Selecting specific, precise behaviors or conditions to look for is important; if data collection requires judgement or discernment, it will be debated and argued.
      Pro’s: observational data is objective and difficult to dispute or ignore. Observations answer the question, “What’s happening?”
      Con’s: observations are labor intensive: they must be conducted at many locations, at all times of day.
    • Surveys: data is through by people answering questions on-line or on paper. Designing effective, accurate surveys is incredibly difficult, and if the stakes are high, it’s worth hiring an expert.
      Pro’s: surveys are inexpensive and highly scalable; they create the impression of inclusion. Surveys answer the question, “What do people want to tell us?”
      Con’s: survey results are often inconclusive and subject to interpretation and debate. Surveys often raise more questions than they answer.
    • Interviews: data is collected through conversations with individuals or groups.
      Pro’s: interviews provide the richest information, allowing follow-up questions exploring interesting or unexpected answers. Interviews can answer the question, “What do people say and why?”
      Con’s: interviews are subject to the skills and biases of interviewers, and the comfort and candor of interviewees. They are the most subjective, and thus, easiest to dispute or dismiss.
  4. How will you use the information to make the decision? It’s often useful to play ‘devil’s advocate’ at this point and ask, “What results would we need to see in order to do X? What results would mandate we do Y? What will we do if the results are inconclusive?” Answers to this question may force you to re-think previous questions!
  5. How will you follow-up with participants after the assessment? How will we thank them and share what we learned? Failure to close the loop will increase skepticism of future assessments.

Keys to success:

  • Dry-runs: go make a few observations, ask a handful of people to complete your survey, or try out your interview questions with a couple of co-workers. Will go get the information you need to make your decision?
  • Multiple approaches: for example, start with observations (‘the facts’), and then use a survey to identify issues (‘broad themes’) followed by interviews to explore and understand (‘deep dive’). 
  • Sincere, thoughtful invitations: let people know it’s coming, how the information will be used, and that their candor is needed / expected.

Organizational assessments are important tools in every leader’s tool-kit, but when done poorly, they lead to wasted time and skepticism. Take time to clarify your intentions before undertaking your next assessment. Understanding precisely which data you need and why will make your assessment far more effective.

Interested in learning more? Ready to conduct your best organizational assessment ever? We’re ready to help. 

About the author: Andy Erickson is a fouder and principal consultant at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at