Can the ‘Wisdom of the Crowd’ Really Lead to Better Decisions?

Enhance group decisions with nominal group techniques. Learn how to collect structured and anonymous input for effective decision-making. Expert guide.

NGT is a structured process for gathering input from a group, originally developed in the 1960s by Andre Delbecq and Andrew Van de Ven. The key ingredients are individual brainstorming, round-robin sharing of ideas, discussion and clarification, and anonymous voting. The secret sauce is in the structure – by alternating between solo thinking time and group sharing, NGT ensures equal participation and reduces the influence of dominant personalities or groupthink.

So why bother with all this structure, you might ask? Can't we just let the ideas flow freely like wine at a Roman bacchanal? Well, as much as we enjoy a good Dionysian revel, there's a time and place for structured brainstorming. Unstructured group discussions tend to be dominated by a vocal few, while quieter voices get drowned out. Ideas get jumbled together, and it's hard to tell the signal from noise. NGT cuts through the chaos like a knife through a hunk of aged cheddar.

Let's get into the nitty-gritty of how to run an NGT session. The first step is to gather your group and lay out the ground rules. Emphasize that this is a time for generating ideas, not critiquing them. Encourage wild brainstorming – the wilder, the better. Quantity is more important than quality at this stage.

Next, give each participant a stack of sticky notes and set a timer for silent brainstorming. During this time, each person writes down as many ideas as they can, one per sticky note. No talking allowed – this is a time for individual reflection.

Once the timer goes off, it's time for the round-robin sharing of ideas. Going around the circle, each person shares one idea at a time, sticking their note on the wall or a shared board. No discussion or debate allowed yet – just rapid-fire sharing until all ideas are out in the open.

Now comes the fun part – discussion and clarification. The group can ask questions about each idea, build on each other's suggestions, and start to group similar ideas. This is where the real magic happens – ideas cross-pollinate and evolve in unexpected ways.

Finally, it's voting time. Each participant gets a set number of votes (we like dot stickers for this) and anonymously votes for their favourite ideas. The ideas with the most votes rise to the top, representing the collective wisdom of the group.

Of course, NGT is no panacea. It works best with groups of 5-15 people – any larger and it gets unwieldy. And like any tool, it can be misused – we've seen facilitators try to steer the discussion towards their preferred outcome, or groups get bogged down in endless clarification discussions. But used judiciously, NGT can be a powerful arrow in the quiver of any facilitator or decision-maker.

One of our favourite variations on NGT is the "reverse brainstorm" – instead of generating ideas for solutions, the group brainstorms all the ways a project could fail. This may sound like a downer, but it's a great way to identify potential pitfalls and risks early on. We used this technique with a client who was launching a new software product, and it helped them anticipate and mitigate issues that might have derailed the launch.

Another variation is the "nominal-interacting group" technique – instead of pure silence during the brainstorming phase, participants are allowed to quietly discuss ideas with their neighbours. This can help stimulate creative thinking and build on each other's ideas.

But perhaps the greatest strength of NGT is its adaptability to different contexts and cultures. We've used it with everyone from buttoned-up bankers to freewheeling creatives, from Silicon Valley startups to multinational corporations. With a little cultural sensitivity and flexibility, NGT can be a valuable tool in any facilitator's belt.

So there you have it – a whirlwind tour of Nominal Group Techniques and how they can supercharge your group decision-making. Whether you're a seasoned facilitator or a newbie looking to up your game, give NGT a try and see the difference it can make. And if you need a little help along the way, well, you know who to call – the intrepid strategists at LGP, always ready to lend a helping hand (and a well-placed dot sticker). Happy brainstorming!

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