Making Group Decisions

A Guide To Selected Methods

Research in group dynamics indicates that more ideas are expressed by individuals working alone--but in a group environment-- than by individuals in a formal group discussion. The nominal group process is a structured problem-solving or idea-generating strategy in which individual’s ideas are gathered and combined in a face-to-face, non-threatening group situation. It is an effective way of gathering a lot of ideas from a group, and it guarantees input from all group members.

Another method, brainstorming, is a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group. It is a popular way for groups to identify known solutions and invent new ones; brainstorming is used when groups are seeking creative solutions.

When to use Nominal Group Process

A community advisory group or task force might consider using a nominal group process technique under these circumstances:

Nominal group process

Nominal group process is used in health, social service, and education fields, as well as industry and government, to maximize participation in group problem solving. It assures a balanced input from all participants and takes advantage of each person’s knowledge and experience. In a needs assessment, it is useful for generating and clarifying ideas, reaching consensus, establishing priorities, and making decisions on proposed alternative actions. It has advantages over the usual committee approach to identify ideas: group consensus can be reached faster and everyone has equal opportunity to present ideas.

How it Works

The goal is to reach a group decision on a specific problem or issue. The audience is seated around a table in groups of no more than 12. Two people serve as group leaders, one working as a facilitator and the other as a recorder.

The group facilitator asks participants to introduce themselves in a sentence or two, and then reviews the five-step procedure for nominal group process.

Starting with the issue receiving the highest ranking, you may search for solutions to the issue using the same method. Action steps may then be identified and evaluated.

For Large Groups

If the group is larger than 12 people, it should be divided into two or more working “sub-groups.” Each sub-group goes through the steps above. When a sub-group has voted its outcome, it shares its top five ideas with the total group. Based on the new level of information, each person in the group privately, and in writing, ranks priority items numerically. The overall group decision of the top five ideas will be based on the pooled outcome of all individual votes.

The Facilitator’s Role

The role of the facilitator is different from that of the typical leader or chairperson who sets agendas, decides what and how things will be done, tells people they are out of order, etc. The facilitator's job is to ask questions, make suggestions, keep track of the main agenda, and determine if and when people are ready to make a decision. Generally the facilitator is there to see that all members have a say and that all ideas are listened to and considered. A facilitator tries to remain neutral and provide just enough structure so that personal interaction doesn't interfere with the topic at hand.

The Job of a Facilitator is to:

The Facilitator Should Avoid:

Facilitators lose effectiveness when they stop being neutral, or when they stop looking out for the group and its decision-making process. Specifically, the facilitator should avoid:

Pro’s and Con’s

Nominal group process for community needs assessment has certain advantages and disadvantages:



When to Use Brainstorming

Therre are many possible applications for brainstorming, some are:


While it is perhaps one of the most widely used strategies for problem solving, it is probably also the most abused. Following are some guidelines for brainstorming and some suggestions for its successful implementation.

Brainstorming is one method that can help a group of people get involved together in the process of generating creative ideas. Because the key ingredient in a brainstorm is creativity, the facilitator can help by setting an optimistic and energetic tone. A group that has used brainstorming successfully and has found some new solutions or directions as a result, comes away with greater confidence in its ability to cope with challenging situations.

How to use it

Brainstorming is often most productive if it has been preceded by an analysis of some sort-- a discussion or exercise that allows people to share their interpretations of the problem, its root causes, the barriers to change, the specifics of the present situation, a vision of the ideal situation, the parts of the problem, and perhaps an inventory of the resources available to help solve the problem.

Once the problem or issue is clear, brainstorming usually starts as an inventory or listing of old, familiar ideas. It is at its best when the group starts adapting or combining old solutions into creative new ones. The facilitator can encourage the group to do that.

To begin, the facilitator writes the topic or question to be brainstormed on a flip chart or chalk board, then asks the group to call out their ideas in short phrases that can be written down quickly. To set a creative, high-energy tone, the group should understand the following guidelines from the onset:

The conventional approach is to have one person record the group’s ideas on a flip chart or chalk board, so that all can see. Sometimes two recorders work as a team, writing alternate items so the group won’t have to wait for the recorders to catch up. A variation that is especially useful if you have several topics to brainstorm is to write each topic on individual sheets of newsprint or on separate parts of the board, and ask each participant to go up to the lists and record items “graffiti style.”

There may need to be discussion of the practicality and desirability of the different ideas first, but as soon as possible the group will need to make some choices from among the ideas identified during brainstorming. Here are some possible ways to do that:

Despite its limitations, brainstorming remains a popular technique. For many groups, it has provided a first clear picture of their potential to think creatively together and to move off in new directions. It also lets everyone know where the ideas have come from, thus setting the stage for consensus and action.

Since brainstorming is an expansive, divergent thinking approach that generates lots of ideas, it needs to be followed by a narrowing, focusing activity that extracts a reasonable number of promising ideas for the group to work with.

Some Alternative Approaches

Recent research indicates that brainstorming is not necessarily the best technique to generate lots of creative ideas. The problem seems to be that a group of people can go off on one tangent without exploring the full range of possibilities. This suggests several variations of the brainstorming process:

If a group has never used brainstorming, you could start with one of the following fictitious situations as an introduction. These may be used to acquaint group members with the process of brainstorming; the topics may be amusing to stimulate a playful and a creative orientation:

  • - Things you could do with a crate of empty shampoo bottles if you were stranded on a small desert island.
  • - Features of a high school or elementary school of the future.
  • - Program ideas for a town officer education program.

    Comments to: Reviewed on 12/02/96