Do the discussion guide. In the moderator’s quest to impress their clients, to uncover key insights, he/she might become overly complicated in their moderation. This can have some unintended consequences. If the moderator makes sure that the questions are at least addressed, then he/she has done their job. Perhaps only the bare minimum, but they did their job. The questions were asked and answered.
Being a moderator requires thinking on the fly. Not only do questions need to be asked and answered, but the answers need to be processed and evaluated to see if further follow up questions are required. This is not easy task and is not something that moderators can do on automatic. It requires engagement with the respondents as well as knowledge of the field/market.
While engagement is in the basic job description of a moderator, how deep one’s knowledge needs to be of a field/market is often an unknown. Of course, one should always research the field and topic before any group, but sometimes respondents might nevertheless give answers that are outside of that knowledge.
If a moderator is working in a group concerning a market/industry that he/she does not know much about or has limited experience with, do the discussion guide. You may be asked to probe in future groups but then you will know what needs probing and what does not. It is the client’s job after all, to make sure the moderator knows what insights are necessary and what are not. But it is also a responsibility shared by the moderator to be sure that he/she understands the discussion guide and potential respondents well enough to conduct the group effectively.
But, when in doubt, just do the discussion guide. Don’t get fancy because if a moderator asks a probing question that is not appropriate, rapport with both the respondent and the client suffers – sometimes irrevocably. As any moderator knows, people focus on mistakes more than what has been done correctly. Avoid the mistakes – do the discussion guide.