The Delphi Method
Achieving Well Thought-Through Consensus Among Experts
It's a common observation to say that when you get three experts together, you'll often end up with four different opinions.
This is particularly the case in areas such as resource allocation and forecasting where the conclusion reached depends on a number of subjective assessments.
In cases like these, arguments can quickly become passionate, and disagreement can often become intensely personal and bitter.
More than this, in face-to-face discussion, situations of groupthink can occur. Here (for example) the eccentric views of early or charismatic speakers can achieve undue prominence as the group seeks to find consensus. This can lead to poor decision making.
This is where an approach like the Delphi Method, also known as the Delphi Technique, is needed to reach a properly thought-through consensus among experts.
How to Use the Tool
The Delphi Method works through a number of cycles of anonymous written discussion and argument, managed by a facilitator. Participants in the process do not meet, or even necessarily know who else is involved: the facilitator controls the process, and manages the flow and consolidation of information.
The anonymity and remoteness of the process helps to avoid issues of groupthink and personality conflict. More than this, it gives people time to think issues through properly, critique arguments rigorously and contribute fully.
The editing of responses by a facilitator means that inflammatory interventions can be toned down and input can be consolidated efficiently. And the iterative approach means that arguments can be refined and tested until they are robust and fully-considered.
To use the technique, use the following steps:
- Clearly define the problem to be solved.
- Appoint a facilitator or chairperson with the skills and integrity needed to manage the process properly and impartially (the rest of this process assumes you are this person).
- Select a panel of experts with the depth and breadth of knowledge, and proven good judgment needed for effective analysis of the problem.
- Get individual panel members to brainstorm high-level approaches that might be used to solving the problem.
- Consolidate responses, and iteratively resubmit these to the panel until a stable and comprehensive list of approaches has been developed.
- Check with the process sponsor that all possible solutions to the problem have been identified and that no approaches have been missed.
- Work with individual panel members to develop each of the possible solutions to the problem.
- Consolidate these possible solutions, and send them out to all panel members.
- Panel members then critique solutions, and feed their comments back to the facilitator.
- The facilitator and panel members refine proposals or, if appropriate, discard them.
- This goes on (iterating back to step 7) until a stable analysis of options has been conducted and a final conclusion has been reached.
This is a time consuming technique and a lengthy process, and as such should only be used for decisions with major consequences. However, techniques like this are needed for large-scale decisions: without them there's firstly a real risk that the wrong decision will be made and, secondly, even good decisions can be undermined with misplaced criticism.
As a facilitator, you'll speed the process up by setting clear and appropriate deadlines for feedback. However, take care not to give undue weight to early submissions – this is far too easy to do!
Beware: the Delphi Technique puts a huge amount of power in the hands of the facilitator. A crooked or biased facilitator can manipulate the flow of information in such a way as to reach an outcome that an honest process would not reach.
See http://www.eagleforum.org/educate/1998/nov98/focus.html for a highly-critical but useful article highlighting how the technique can be abused. Everyone about to engage in a Delphi exercise should understand the points in this article before the process starts, so that they can guard against these abuses.
The Delphi Method is a structured approach to problem analysis which makes sure that problems and proposed solutions are thoroughly explored and examined.
By using a remote and anonymous approach, it avoids the problems of groupthink and personality conflict that can lead to poor group decision making. More than this, it allows the time for detailed analysis and careful criticism that so often is not possible within a group analysis and decision-making process.
The process works through a number of cycles of anonymous written discussion and argument, managed by a facilitator. The facilitator controls the process, and manages the flow and consolidation of information.