By Michael Ritzius

Professional Development has been undergoing a much-needed makeover in recent years, especially at NJEA. Educators are moving toward more participant-led approaches, rather than presenter-led approaches. The proliferation of Edcamps across the state is an example of this. NJEA has been working to redefine professional development as a collective pursuit that leads to systemic change. Practices such as World Café and Open Space drive participatory leadership, which assumes that expertise and experience are found throughout a roomful of educators rather than solely in the PowerPoint presentation of a traditional workshop presenter.

More recently, NJEA has been using what is known as design thinking to complement and extend the participatory work. For some background, see these previous Review articles: “Professional Development Redefined” and “Participatory Leadership: Shifting from Buy-in to Ownership.” You can find these article on by searching each article title.

At the heart of this work is the need to develop collective understandings among the participants of a school community and organize those understandings so that the community can work productively. This requires people talking to each other in an intentional way. A Design Thinking approach called Stakeholder Interviews can meet this need.

What is a stakeholder interview?

A stakeholder interview is an intentionally crafted conversation to understand the shared lived experiences of a group of people and identify areas to act. It can be used for any number of reasons—preparing for a shift to block scheduling, understanding the impact of a program such as positive behavior interventions and supports, a new curricular approach, or community organizing—any situation that could have diverse and complex consequences.

The approach is especially useful for large groups with only one hour needed to interview every member. The largest group so far to use a stakeholder interview approach had 720 members. Interviews are guided by an interview protocol consisting of roughly five to seven questions meant to serve as conversational prompts, as opposed to a questionnaire or survey. Afterward, interviews are collected and analyzed through a process called affinity mapping, which is a method for finding patterns and trends across qualitative responses. For a beginners guide to affinity mapping, visit

How to use stakeholder interviews

Stakeholder Interviews are equal parts science and art. Fundamentally, they are a qualitative research tool guided by principles (the science). These principals, from Dr. Otto Scharmer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, include:

  Access transparency and trust. Be open and honest with your intention in conducting interviews.

  Engage in appreciative listening with suspended judgement. Listen to interviewees to see and understand their experience from their perspective. Avoid inserting your own experiences into their story.

•  Leverage presence and silence. Give the interviewee your full attention. Work to silence your inner monologue and urge to interrupt or fill quiet with your own voice.

  Embrace your ignorance. As the interview unfolds, trust and ask the questions that occur to you, even if they reveal a lack of basic understanding.

  Give the conversations appropriate time. Allot 15 minutes at a minimum.

  Process the interviews. Report what you have learned back to participants.

The art of stakeholder interviews is in how you structure the engagement. Personally, I have conducted stakeholder interviews for whole memberships all at once or over the course of weeks with smaller building-level engagements. I have conducted them with members, parents and students with groups as small as 12 and as large as 1,600.

What does a stakeholder interview look like?

Stakeholder interviews could be a series of one-to-one conversations or a large-scale membership wide engagement. For the large-scale engagements, it is recommended that a nonparticipating facilitator be used to conduct the meeting. The facilitator will manage materials, time and provide directions for the participants. In these large-scale engagements, participants will form triads with each playing a role—interviewer, interviewee and notetaker. Over the course of 20 minutes, the interviewer will use the interview protocol to host a conversation with the interviewee while the notetaker records in detail. After 20 minutes, everyone changes roles and repeats until each person has had an opportunity to be interviewed.


This approach has rendered several surprising results. Aside from providing leaders with new insights into addressing challenges, the collective approach helps develop empathy across the membership. It builds a sense of shared purpose along with shared understanding. It leaves participants feeling heard and empowered to act in ways that benefit the greater community. It is a research tool that also sets the stage for organizing for change.

If you are curious about the stakeholder interview approach, please email me. You may also read more at The Presencing Institute at MIT. Visit

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