(This post is part of the 31010 Series of posts on Risks & Ventures. For more information on this series please follow this link.)
The Nominal Group Technique is a group decision-making and risk assessment technique which is particularly useful in situations where it is important for each individual in a group to be able to express an opinion, but there is also a possibility of a group decisions being led and formed by members of the group that are the most senior or are inclined to express their opinions most strongly, rather than necessarily by those who have the best insight and ideas. These two issues being two of the potential problems with risk assessment technique of Brainstorming, which is much more well-known and used much more frequently.
Let’s imagine you are in a meeting at work and the person leading it is asking everyone what they think about a particular subject.
Let’s also say that the meeting is about an important strategic issue, perhaps like the launch of a new product, service or work process, and that the person leading the meeting is more senior than anyone else and has strong feelings on the topic which are likely to be well-known to the other meeting participants.
Most of us will have been in a situation like that at one point in our professional lives so it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine.
How each other individual participant responds and expresses themselves in this meeting will depend on some different factors, including but not limited to:
- The personality of this meeting leader: whether for example they are known to be receptive to different opinions and don’t mind being challenged, or whether they are known to prefer to have what they already think reaffirmed by their subordinates.
- The general business culture in the geographical area you are working.
- The culture in that specific unit / department / office (as applicable).
- Who is attending the meeting, for example whether it is just people from one unit / office or company or whether a mixture of internal or external functions and organisations are represented.
- The seriousness of the outcomes from the meeting and which stakeholders are going to be impacted.
- What the participants (like you) bring to the meeting, for example:
- do they have unique subject matter expertise or knowledge that you can pass on, or are they just there for information, interest, or even to make up numbers;
- how secure they feel in their positions in the organization;
- whether they feel giving short-term criticism might have more significant effects on how they are viewed by this manager and more generally within the company; and,
- how much they care about the issue and / or need this work.
Again, I am sure that most of you can understand this type of situation and similar variations. It can be broadly summarised by saying that the information presented in the meeting, the way the participants contribute, and the outcomes from it are all going to be hugely influenced by these types of factors irrespective of the merits of the ideas that are each individual participant may hold.
In fact, even if there isn’t a specific designated leader in the group the participants will be influenced by other circumstantial factors including: who speaks first; who the most senior person is in the context; what they are saying; who are the most popular or least popular participants and what they are saying; the size of the group; and whether the group can be divided into distinct sub-groups, for example representatives from two different offices or functions of the same company.
A good meeting moderator or chairperson should be able to compensate for some of these factors, but the effect of things like groupthink where a group tends to converge towards a particular position at the expense of alternative views, and the minimal group paradigm, where individuals are inclined to support ideas presented from members of sub-groups that they associated with, have both been well-documented in formal research studies as well as in real-life.
As an little example of the impact that a senior figure in the room can make, even when they are not trying to be difficult, I remember I was once doing some instruction at a training event for a group of delegates that worked for a large media organization. There were about 15 people in the room all holding a range of experiences and functions, and they included someone who was one of the more experienced and well-known journalists in the organisation: the kind of person that hosts the main morning or evening news program. No-one in the room was directly supervised by anyone else though, as far as I was aware.
As I began presenting the session that morning I was surprised how unresponsive and unwilling to contribute to the discussions the group collectively was, compared to previous similar groups. Guessing what the issue might be, I started picking on some delegates asking them questions and to express their views, in the hope that everyone would start to engage a bit more. Deliberately setting up a couple of easy questions to others in the room before turning to this senior journalist to ask what they thought.
Once that person had spoken – and it happened to be a particularly incisive contribution that should they were taking the training seriously – the rest of the room started engaging much more. By implication they less senior members of the group had got the ‘go ahead’ to join in too, and after that the whole atmosphere in the room seemed to lighten a bit. Conversely, if that person had chosen to say something that showed there were not engaging with the training that would have given me a big challenge to win over the rest of the room.
How Does the Nominal Group Technique Work?
The Nominal Group Technique is a bit like brainstorming where structured discussions takes place in a group setting, but in this case group members are given the opportunity to formulate their thoughts individually rather than a collective process.
This is how it works:
- A group is presented with an issue or questions relating to a topic.
- Each individual member of the group writes down their thoughts about the issue or their responses to the questions as applicable, silently without discussing them with the rest of the group. This can be done in separate locations too if necessary, for example if there are reasons to think that participants would give more authentic answers under those conditions. As an additional step the content can be anonmised or submitted electronically in a format or through an app that renders it anonymous from the perspective of the meeting.
- The answers are collected by a moderator and they are then raised and discussed amongst the group as applicable.
- If a group decision is required it is possible to allow voting to be held anonymously too.
- Further rounds of individual engagement are possible too, giving the participants the opportunity to reflect further on what they have learnt from the others. (1)
The nominal group approach doesn’t remove some of the problem factors entirely, for example there is always the possibility that any stronger or more senior voices in the room will still quickly dismiss alternative positions once these are shared, but this technique at least allows contrary views to be openly expressed, and gives those senior or strong voices an opportunity to reflect further.
It also helps to take some of the personal pressures on individual participants who may be less confident at expressing themselves verbally in a meeting situation. They may find that for example what they thought were individual or unique views on a topic are actually shared by many others. In most circumstances it is also easier to ignore a verbal comment in a meeting, put down to mis-interpretation or just waived off, versus a written response in a structured group decision-making format that has been deliberately designed to elicit diverse opinions.
One problem with the Nominal Group Technique is that it may reduce a little bit of the creativity and blending of ideas that you get with Brainstorming where ideas and opinions can build on top of each other as participants reflect on what the other participants are saying, however it’s completely possible to start an idea-generating or decision-making session with the Nominal Group Technique and then move on to a Brainstorming session afterwards.
In conclusion, the Nominal Group Technique is an effective risk assessment technique, useful for soliciting opinions and decisions and establishing the context in risk assessment situations; and while we have discussed using the technique in formal business situations it’s also very possible to take quick, practical group decisions with the Nominal Group Technique too, anywhere you want, and as quickly and slowly as you want, all you really need is some pieces of paper and something to write and some people who are prepared to express their opinions under those conditions.
(1) This is similar to the Delphi Technique, which we discussed in a previous post.