Dialogue: Nominal group technique

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Purpose: Nominal group technique is a special-purpose method for problem solving or idea generation. It taps and combines individual judgments to arrive at decisions that could not be determined by one person. It is not a tool for routine meetings or for negotiating or bargaining. Instead it is a technique for judgmental or creative decision making where there is lack of agreement or an incomplete state of knowledge about either the nature of the problem or about what is required to reach a successful solution.

Description: An important preparatory stage is to determine the focal question. The main process is then organised into six stages.

Determining the focal question

Providing a good, productive question for deliberation using the nominal group technique requires:

  • clarity about the objective and desired outcomes of the meeting
  • cross-checking the objective with considerations of the desired level of abstraction and breadth versus depth
  • developing a set of alternative questions
  • pilot testing the questions with a sample group to determine which will be most effective.

The six stages of the main process

  1. Silent generation of ideas in writing
    Each individual in the group silently writes down ideas in response to the focal question. This requires adequate time for thinking and reflection (around five minutes). While each group ideally has between five and nine members, the process can simultaneously involve several such groups.
  2. Round-robin recording of ideas
    Each group member in turn presents one idea (without being interrupted, or responded to, by other participants) which is recorded. This continues, with participants presenting additional ideas one at a time, until all ideas are recorded. This process allows equal participation in the generation of ideas, encourages a depersonalised focus on the problem, and allows a large number of ideas, including conflicting ideas, to be raised. If an idea that has been recorded stimulates a new idea in another group member, they are encouraged to write it down and report it during one of their turns in the round-robin.
  3. Serial discussion for clarification
    Each idea is discussed in turn to clarify what the words mean, as well as to convey the logic or argument behind the idea. Discussion can also touch on agreement or disagreement, as well as the relative importance of the idea in relation to other ideas. The point is to allow an equal and balanced discussion of all the ideas, with the focus on ensuring that everyone in the group understands the idea, rather than trying to secure winning votes for the idea.
  4. Preliminary vote on item importance
    Each person then privately votes to rank the ideas. There are different ranking methods that can be used, for example, each participant can be invited to choose their top five ideas and then rank those from most to least important. The point is to provide a process that encourages participants to make careful, iterative decisions rather than hasty ones, and to avoid some participants steam-rolling others into compliance. The rankings are then tallied. The process can end here, but two additional steps increase judgmental accuracy.
  5. Discussion of the preliminary vote
    The purpose of this discussion is to examine any inconsistent voting patterns and to provide an opportunity to rediscuss items which are perceived to have too many or too few votes. The aim is to revisit the clarification step to ensure that there are no misunderstandings of particular terms. It is not to exert social pressure to achieve a particular outcome.
  6. Final vote
    This can use the same process as in Step 4 or more refined rating methods.

Source: Andre L. Delbecq and Andrew H. Van de Ven developed the nominal group technique in 1968. They advise that ‘[i]t was derived from social-psychological studies of decision conferences, management-science studies of aggregating group judgments, and social-work studies of problems surrounding citizen participation in program planning’ (Delbecq, Van de Ven and Gustafson 1975: 7–8).

Delbecq, A. L., Van de Ven, A. H. and Gustafson, D. H. (1975). Group techniques for program planning: A guide to nominal group and Delphi processes. Green Briar Press: Wisconsin, United States of America. https://sites.google.com/a/umn.edu/avandeven/publications/books/group-techniques-for-program-planning

There are many examples of the method's application and of modifications to the process. See, for instance:

Delbecq, A. L. and VandeVen, A. H. (1971). A Group Process Model for Problem Identification and Program Planning. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 7, 4: 466–492. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1177/002188637100700404

Hugé, J. and Mukherjee, N. (2018). The nominal group technique in ecology and conservation: Application and challenges. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 9, 1: 33-41. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.12831

McDonald, D., Bammer, G. and Deane, P. (2009). Research Integration Using Dialogue Methods. ANU E-Press, Canberra, Australia.
Full text online at: http://press.anu.edu.au/publications/research-integration-using-dialogue-methods

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Posted: March 2019
Last modified: April 2020