Group Decision-Making Techniques

Group decision-making techniques are strategies for structuring group members’ interactions to enhance the quality of a collective decision. It is a set of rules or procedures that specify the process members should follow when contributing to a decision pertaining to their group.

An effective group decision is characterized by a full use of members’ resources, an efficient use of time, and a high-quality outcome. A number of group process deficiencies or roadblocks can hinder one or more aspects of effectiveness. For example, group members may withhold critical input because they do not want to interrupt another person (i.e., production blocking), feel apprehensive about being evaluated by other group members, have been interrupted by another person such as a domineering teammate, or be prone to social loafing wherein individual effort decreases as group size increases. Furthermore, members may ignore teammates’ input because they are unwilling to consider alternative viewpoints or because they are distracted as they closely monitor the conversational flow for opportunities to state their own ideas. Collectively, these and other barriers can cause groups to evaluate solutions before all members have provided input or exhausted their supply of ideas and suggestions.

A group decision-making technique is designed to enhance effectiveness by diminishing barriers and roadblocks such as those described earlier. Four of the most commonly cited group decision-making techniques are brainstorming, the nominal group technique, the Delphi technique, and the stepladder technique. These techniques vary in the manner in which they structure group problem solving. They also differ according to the particular process deficiencies they aim to minimize.

Brainstorming

Groups often make ineffective decisions because they either fail to sample an adequate domain of alternative solutions or do a poor job of evaluating and selecting among the alternatives considered. Brainstorming is a group decision-making technique designed to address the first of these two issues by increasing the range of ideas and solutions available for the group to explore. Brainstorming groups meet specifically to generate alternatives. They are instructed to produce as many ideas as possible. Brainstorming does not provide a problem solution or decision itself. Instead, it produces a list of alternatives that will later be considered, discussed, and evaluated when it is time to reach a final decision.

The ground rules include the following:

  • Suspend judgment: Evaluation and criticism of ideas during brainstorming should be avoided.
  • Permit freewheeling: Group members should offer any ideas they have, no matter how impractical. Wild ideas, even those considered too risky or impractical to implement, are expected.
  • Emphasize quantity, not quality: Quantity should be stressed, not quality. All ideas should be expressed. None should be screened out. This is intended to encourage people to move beyond their favorite ideas, thereby producing a more complete range of alternatives.
  • Encourage pooled creativity and synergy: Members should build on others’ ideas when possible. People should feel free to make combinations from others’ suggestions.
  • Ignore seniority: During brainstorming, group members should behave as if everyone were the same rank. Political motivations should be set aside. Brainstorming should be characterized by a relaxed, cooperative, uninhibited, congenial, egalitarian atmosphere.
  • Ensure all voices are heard: It is important to ensure that all members participate in the brain-storming session, no matter how reluctant they are to contribute.
  • Record all ideas: Every idea produced during the brainstorming session should be recorded for later discussion.

The purpose of brainstorming is to prompt divergent thinking, produce many different ideas in a short period of time, and encourage full participation among all group members. It is designed to minimize stifling ideas by domineering members, interpersonal conflicts, stereotypes of others’ expertise or intelligence, habitual patterns of silence, and evaluation apprehension.

Brainstorming can be implemented in one of several ways. In one version of brainstorming, group members convene and randomly verbalize their ideas, which are captured by a tape recorder or a facilitator who writes them on a flip chart. Research has shown this strategy to be less effective than simply having people generate ideas on their own, independent of the group. Social anxiety and evaluation apprehension prevent some members from blurting out their ideas in a group. Additionally, groups experience production blocking, which is a norm where only one member speaks at a time. During production blocking, ideas that might have emerged are forgotten or censored while a member awaits the opportunity to speak.

Electronic brainstorming is an alternative that is more effective than the face-to-face procedure described earlier. During electronic brainstorming, group members enter ideas into the computer, either anonymously or not, and each member is able to see the ideas shared by others. The production-blocking problem described previously is all but eliminated because multiple people can enter ideas simultaneously. Research has shown that this form of brain-storming is more effective than its face-to-face alternative, with electronic brainstorming groups performing as well as or better than people generating ideas on their own.

The Nominal Group Technique

The nominal group technique facilitates both the generation and evaluation of ideas. Unlike brainstorming, this strategy results in a final group decision. The nominal group technique typically involves the following steps:

  • Write ideas in private: After the problem at hand is understood, members silently generate their ideas in writing. No discussion among members is permitted at this point.
  • Take turns reporting ideas: Members take turns reporting their ideas to the group, one at a time, while a facilitator records them on a flip chart or blackboard. Again, no group discussion occurs during this step. This round-robin listing continues until each member has no more ideas to share.
  • Discuss ideas: Next, group members discuss the ideas that have been recorded. The main purpose of this discussion is to clarify, criticize, or defend the stated ideas.
  • Vote on ideas: Each member privately and anonymously prioritizes the ideas. This nominal voting step may involve a rank-ordering system, a weighted voting procedure, or some similar mechanism for reporting preferences.
  • Calculate the group decision: The group decision is calculated mathematically, based on the vote described earlier. The final decision is the pooled outcome of the individual votes.
  • Repeat if necessary: Some variations of the nominal group technique allow the generation-discussion-vote cycle described previously to be repeated until an appropriate decision is reached.

The nominal group technique was developed to overcome a number of decision-making roadblocks. The highly structured and task-focused nature of this strategy is thought to encourage the efficient use of time by reducing the propensity for nonproductive digressions and hostile arguments. The nominal group technique likely decreases evaluation apprehension by having members write their ideas privately and by separating the brainstorming phase from the later idea evaluation phase. Requiring group members to brainstorm their ideas independently and in writing also facilitates idea generation by reducing production blocking. Taking turns reporting written ideas encourages balanced participation and discourages domineering or high-status members from blocking others’ input. Members may also experience an increased sense of accountability and a decreased propensity for social loafing, because members are required to publicly state their written ideas. Finally, the round-robin listing of ideas prevents groups from prematurely evaluating solutions before all members have provided input or exhausted their supply of suggestions.

Despite its positive features, some have argued that the structured nature of the nominal group technique may limit creativity. Research has shown that groups organized according to this method express less decision satisfaction than those using a conventional, unstructured, consensus meeting approach. They also express less decision satisfaction than those relying on the Delphi technique.

The Delphi Technique

The Delphi technique is a method for collecting, organizing, reviewing, and revising the opinions of a group of individuals who never actually meet. This procedure, which is directed by a nonparticipating coordinator, generates a group decision without physically assembling members. Ideas are solicited and provided via questionnaires. The Delphi technique typically involves the following steps:

  • Solicit input: The coordinator sends initial questions to members via a mail, fax, or e-mail survey.
  • Independently generate ideas: Members brainstorm and then include their opinions and ideas on the survey, which is returned to the coordinator on completion.
  • Summarize input: The coordinator summarizes the input received from members in a way that maintains member anonymity.
  • Distribute summary: The coordinator sends the summary of everyone’s opinions to all group members.
  • Revise, refine, and prioritize earlier input: After reading the summary of opinions, members are given the opportunity to revise their earlier input, refine ideas, comment on idea strengths and weaknesses, prioritize the opinions being considered, and identify new ideas. When finished, they send their input to the coordinator.
  • Repeat as necessary: The third through the fifth steps described earlier are repeated until members have no further input to add.
  • Form final decision: If a clear consensus emerges after the final round of surveys, the exercise is finished. Alternatively, the members may be asked to rank or rate the final decision options. In this case, the group decision is the alternative with the most favorable rating or ranking.

By requiring members to work independently, the Delphi technique can promote accountability, decrease social loafing, equalize participation, eliminate the biasing effect of domineering members, prevent impaired communications stemming from unproductive disagreements and conflict, avoid the logistical problems (e.g., scheduling) that occur when trying to assemble a dispersed group, eliminate production blocking, and ensure that a premature decision is not made before all ideas are expressed. In addition, the anonymity of group members’ input can decrease evaluation apprehension and minimize pressure to conform.

Research has shown that groups structured according to the Delphi technique are more satisfied than both nominal and conventional consensus groups. However, the Delphi process can take a long time. Some estimates indicate that this process, when conducted by postal mail, takes about 44 days on average. Another limitation of this technique is that it completely eliminates direct interaction among group members, which can lead to fruitful synergies under the right conditions.

The Stepladder Technique

The stepladder technique is a group decision-making strategy that staggers the entry of members into a group. Like the nominal group and Delphi approaches, the stepladder technique facilitates both the generation and evaluation of ideas. Unlike its predecessors, the stepladder approach allows groups to form a final decision collaboratively and collectively rather than having an outside party derive the group decision by combining independent inputs.

The stepladder technique commences by forming a two-person core group. These two members begin discussion of the problem at hand by presenting their individual ideas to each other. When they feel they understand each other’s ideas, a third member is brought into the core group. This member presents ideas and a preliminary discussion ensues. Next, a fourth member is brought into the core group to present ideas and then participate in the preliminary discussion. This process continues until each member of the team has joined. Once all members are present, the group works together to form a final decision. The stepladder technique has four ground rules:

  1. Allot sufficient individual problem-solving time: Each member must have adequate time to think about the problem at hand before joining the core group.
  2. Require entering members to speak first: On entry, a group member must present all ideas before hearing the core group’s preliminary solutions.
  3. Allot sufficient group discussion time: An adequate amount of discussion time must be allotted to discuss the issues immediately after an entering member presents ideas.
  4. Delay final decisions until all are present: The group must be fully formed with all members present before a final solution is determined.

By requiring each member to present ideas independently and without knowledge of others’ ideas, the stepladder technique may promote accountability, decrease social loafing, decrease conformity, and equalize participation. Moreover, the stepladder technique can minimize the biasing effect of domineering teammates by giving each member an uninterrupted presentation opportunity on entering the group. Finally, by instructing groups to wait until all are present before forming a final decision, the stepladder approach can prevent groups from arriving at solutions prematurely, before all members have exhausted their supply of ideas.

Compared with members of groups using a conventional, unstructured, consensus meeting approach, members of stepladder groups have reported feeling less pressure to conform. Following their group decisions, stepladder members are also more inclined to consider their group friendly and believe that they collectively agreed on a final product, worked unusually well together, worked hard on the task, proceeded in an organized manner, and devised a better-than-average solution. Tests of the technique have shown that stepladder groups do tend to produce higher-quality decisions than conventional groups. This is true for time-restricted, face-to-face stepladder groups where each step is monitored by an outside coordinator who enforces time limits at each phase. It is also true for self-paced, face-to-face stepladder groups that self-regulate and determine how much time is needed at each step. Research has cast doubts on whether the time-restricted stepladder technique improves the decisions of dispersed, computer-mediated teams using text-based software to collaborate online. However, the self-paced stepladder technique has been shown to improve the quality of dispersed audio-conferencing groups collaborating by telephone.

References:

  1. Dennis, A. R., & Valacich, J. S. (1993). Computer brainstorms: More heads are better than one. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 531-537.
  2. Fox, W. M. (1989). The improved nominal group technique (NGT). Journal of Management Development, 8, 20-27.
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  4. Hornsby, J. S., Smith, B. N., & Gupta, J. N. D. (1994). The impact of decision-making methodology on job evaluation outcomes. Group & Organization Management, 19, 112-128.
  5. Rogelberg, S. G., Barnes-Farrell, J. L., & Lowe, C. A. (1992). The stepladder technique: An alternative group structure facilitating effective group decision making. Journal of Applied Psychology, 77, 730-737.
  6. Rogelberg, S. G., & O’Connor, M. S. (1998). Extending the stepladder technique: An examination of self-paced stepladder groups. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 2, 82-91.
  7. Rogelberg, S. G., O’Connor, M. S., & Sederburg, M. (2002). Using the stepladder technique to facilitate the performance of audioconferencing groups. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 994-1000.
  8. Thompson, L. F., & Coovert, M. D. (2002). Stepping up to the challenge: A critical examination of face-to-face and computer-mediated team decision making. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 6, 52-64.
  9. Valacich, J. A., Dennis, A. R., & Nunamaker, J. E., Jr. (1992). Group and anonymity effects on computer-mediated idea generation. Small Group Research, 23, 49-73.

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