Extreme Methodologies for Group Decision Making, Problem Solving, and Consensus Building: Brainstorming, Delphi Method, Nominal Group Technique (NGT)…

“For any business, group, or organization to function effectively, it must make decisions that are in the best interest of the entity: How should those decisions be made? –Consensus? Voting? One-person rule? Secret ballot?”

Consensus building is a recognized method for groups, businesses, and associations who want to resolve complex issues. It is based on a set of management principles where the main goal is reaching consensus through facilitated dialogue and interactive methods.  A facilitated consensus building session is designed for group decision making and complex problem solving.

Examples of some typical meetings for which we employ consensus building include: bringing executives, entrepreneurs or stakeholders together in order to identify the key barriers to their business; helping representatives from an organization with diverging views find a common position; facilitating representatives of an interest group to define options for action on a given issue; or finding common ground for stakeholders who disagree on the best way to tackle an issue through legislation.

In the final analysis, how you make decisions at the strategic level is just as important as the decision itself. The best decision in the world is nothing without a powerful consensus for action. People who enter into a consensus decision-making must come armed with critical and creative thinking skills that will allow them to efficiently and effectively function at the strategic level.

Building consensus is a slow process, but it’s necessary to get everybody on board before taking a decision. But there’s one big misunderstanding about consensus, and that is ‘compromise’: It’s tempting to dilute other team members ideas to reach consensus or ensure that everyone gets a bit of what they want, so that they’ll agree to go along. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. In the book “Extreme Toyota” the authors show how Toyota embraces conflicts and doesn’t settle for compromises. They identify six contradictions that are central to Toyota’s way of working:

  • Moving gradually and taking big leaps.
  • Cultivating frugality while spending huge sums.
  • Operating efficiently as well as redundantly.
  • Cultivating stability and a paranoid mindset.
  • Respecting bureaucratic hierarchy and allowing freedom to dissent.
  • Maintaining simplified and complex communication.

The Japanese call it ‘Nemawashi’ and it is an informal process of talking to the people concerned, gathering support and feedback, so before a formal meeting starts, participants have already drawn conclusions regarding information to be presented at the meeting. The original meaning of the word “Nemawashi” is to smooth around roots before planting. Although we may not be able to emulate the Japanese culture, there are other methodologies, for example: Brainstorming, Delphi Method, Nominal Group Technique (NGT)…

Brainstorming: In brainstorming a facilitator briefs the meeting attendees and asks the participants to name their ideas about a given subject. The facilitator encourages the participants to name any idea they can think of, even ones that seem silly, and makes a list on a board or flip chart.

What happens in brainstorming is that the ideas of one person generate new ideas from another person, and a kind of chain reaction takes place, producing the identification of many ideas. However, unless you have an ‘excellent’ facilitator, there could be minimum participation from the attendees and few ideas will be identified, and that could affect the success of the session.

Another problem affecting participation is when there is a large difference in the status of the individuals attending. A person who is the supervisor of some of the participants may intimidate them or dominate the meeting…

Delphi Technique: Is based on the Hegelian Principle of achieving ‘Oneness of Mind’ through a three step process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.  In thesis and antithesis, all present their ideas on a given subject, establishing views and opposing views.  In synthesis, opposites are brought together to form the new thesis.  All participants are then to accept ownership of the new thesis and support it, changing their own views to align with the new thesis.

Through a continual process of evolution, ‘Oneness of Mind’ will supposedly occur.  The power of the Delphi method in gaining consensus are; comments are anonymous, which helps people avoid defending their original position; it allows people to be gradually swayed by the majority without undue direct social pressure; it sees what others have said or scored and then they can rethink their own position…

Nominal Group Technique (NGT): In ‘nominal group’ the participants are known to one another as in brainstorming, but the ideas are submitted to the facilitator as anonymous written lists. The facilitator lists the ideas on a flip chart or a board, and the participants add more ideas in other rounds of written lists until no additional ideas are added. This technique reduces any status concerns or intimidation that might be present in a brainstorming session but does not eliminate it entirely.

The process prevents the domination of discussion by a single person, encourages group members to participate, and results in a set of prioritized solutions or recommendations.  Some of the obvious advantages are; voting is anonymous; opportunities for equal participation; and distractions inherent in other group methods are minimized. As to disadvantages; opinions may not converge in the voting process; cross-fertilization of ideas may be constrained; and the process may appear to be too mechanical…

In the articleNominal Group Technique” by Mycoted writes: Nominal group technique (NGT)’ is a structured from of ‘brainstorming’ or ‘brainwriting’, with up to 10 participants and an experienced facilitator. Various forms of the procedure can be undertaken, however, the classical form uses the following steps:

  • Anonymous generation of ideas in writing, begins with the facilitator stating the problem and giving the participants up to 10 minutes to jot down any initial ideas privately. The facilitator also writes down his own ideas.
  • Round-robin recording of ideas, allows each person in turn to read out one idea, which the facilitator writes up on a flip chart for all to view and numbered sequentially. This is repeated going around the groups until all ideas are exhausted and any duplicates are eliminated.
  • Serial discussion to clarify ideas and check communication is encouraged by the facilitator. Working through each ideas systematically asking for questions or comments with a view to developing a shared understanding of an idea.
  • Preliminary anonymous vote on item importance is usually carried out.
  • Further discussion and voting, takes place if the voting is not consistent. Steps can be repeated and any ideas that received votes will be re-discussed for clarification.

One major advantage of NGT is that it avoids two problems caused by group interaction: First, some members are reluctant to suggest ideas because they are concerned about being criticized. Second, some members are reluctant to create conflict in groups. NGT overcomes these problems.

NGT has the clear advantage of minimizing differences, ensuring relatively equal participation, and generally is very effective at producing large number of ideas, which often are not found in less-structured group methods. Major disadvantage of NGT are; the method lacks flexibility; conformity of the members; structure of the method; and the time required to prepare the activity.

Delphi Method and Nominal Group Technique:  Although the methods use different processes, the ultimate point of both methods is intelligent brainstorming. The Delphi Method “is effective in improving and clarifying the collective judgment of experts”. Any expert around the world can be included in the Delphi Method. The NGT technique on the other hand is “a structured method for group brainstorming that encourages contributions from everyone”. So either method can be used…

In the article “Prioritization Process Using Delphi Technique” by Alan Cline writes: The Delphi technique was developed by the RAND Corporation in the late 1960’s as a forecasting methodology. Later, the U.S. government enhanced it as a group decision-making tool, which established a factual basis for its workability.

Delphi is particularly appropriate when decision-making is required in a political or emotional environment, or when the decisions affect strong factions with opposing preferences. The participants (or panel) might be employees of a specific company or experts selected from the outside for their in-depth knowledge of a given academic discipline or manufacturing process.

In the original technique, no matter who they were or what their specialties, the experts were to be kept isolated from one another. Later elaborations of  the methods eased such restrictions when circumstances seemed to warrant it; indeed, in some cases the panels met in person in a highly structured conference setting.

The purposes of keeping them apart, or at least tightly structuring their communications, were to restrict undue influence that individuals may wield in group situations and, if necessary, to protect participants’ anonymity. The essential steps in a traditional anonymous Delphi study are as follows:

  • Articulate a problem.
  • Ask participants to provide potential solutions through a series of carefully designed questionnaires.
  • Participants complete the first questionnaire anonymously and independently.
  • The results of the first questionnaire are tabulated at a central location, transcribed, reproduced, and forwarded to each participant.
  • After reviewing the initial results, members submit new solutions.
  • They may make new estimates, and each round of results invariably triggers new resolutions.
  • The submission of new solutions based on reiterations of the questionnaire process is repeated until the participants reach a consensus.

Generally, three to four cycles of the process result in a consensus among the participants. There are several advantages to the Delphi technique; it can be used in a wide range of environments, e.g., government planning, business and industry predictions, volunteer group decisions; it protects participants’ anonymity and from criticism over their proposed solutions, and from the pitfalls of “groupthink”.

On the other hand, the technique has its drawbacks; it’s time consuming; it requires much thoughtfulness in preparing the resolutions. And, as with survey and other respondent-dependent research designs, the results are determined in large part by how they are framed and conducted…

In 1939, a team led by advertising executive Alex Osborn coined the term ‘brainstorm’. According to Osborn, “brainstorm means using the ‘brain to storm’ a creative problem and to do so in commando fashion, each ‘stormier’ audaciously attacking the same objective.”

Any and all ideas are considered legitimate and often the most far-fetched are the most fertile. Done right, the methods tap the human brain’s capacity for lateral thinking, associations, and consensus. The outcomes: Better decisions, Better implementation, and Better group relationships.

“Typically, these are NOT a democratic vote. Ultimately, the manager guides the group to a level of agreement and then the manager makes the decision. It is NOT made by the group, but WITH the group.”