My topic for today is, can the use of improved interviewing techniques, such as cognitive interviewing, yield better and more accurate information when transferred to the field of SR&ED?
The interviewing technique known as cognitive interviewing was first developed, by psychology professors (Fisher, Gieselman, Amador – 1989), to help the police conduct more effective and accurate interviews with the witnesses to a crime. It produces dramatically improved results (up to 75% more accurate) at eliciting the details of what happened, or what a witness remembers about those details. The primary developer of the technique, Ron Fisher, Ph.D., subsequently went on to apply the same interviewing technique to the world of aviation safety and crash investigations, so I will take it as already proven that the interviewing techniques are transferable across disciplines. But can the techniques be applied to SR&ED?
I’ll confess that I am just getting started with my own investigation of this topic, but here are some lessons I’ve learned so far:
Asking open-ended questions: One of the earliest keys to a successful interview seems to be the need to establish a rapport with the person being interviewed. There are always other things that the subject could be doing, and often, would prefer to be doing. Explaining briefly what we are seeking, and why, provides a sense of context for the interview request, which can be reiterated in the face to face discussion. To get the information flowing, we should ask open-ended questions, like “Tell me what happened with this project?”
Interrupt less, listen more: It’s common enough for us, as SR&ED practitioners, to try to zero in on the key SR&ED criteria – advancements, uncertainties, work performed – and too often, we will jump in to “refocus” (interrupt) a subject matter expert (SME) when their narrative about the project work seems to be predominantly a tale about the progression of a business project. We ask them to tell us what happened, and then we choke them off when they start to use the language of business instead of technology. The problem with interrupting is that it antagonizes the SME and makes them increasingly un-engaged in the process of remembering (on our behalf) what went on.
It may be less efficient, in some senses, but we need to let the “witness” unfold the tale at its own pace, as they remember it. It’s like peeling an onion – the real grief is in the layers underneath. We’ll get to the technical details by circling back once the whole fabric of the narrative has been understood, from the perspective of the one telling the story.
Leverage details the subject cares about: Use the narrative framework to help the SME remember details. If we are patient about going through what happened, and when, then the details will come, and details trigger details. People focus on details that matter to them – but not always the details that matter to us. However, it is important, if we are interviewing a technical expert, to understand why a technical detail matters to them. This is the measure of its significance.