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 individuals 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.
A community advisory group or task force might consider using a nominal group process technique under these circumstances:
- - To determine what community problems are of immediate concern.
- - To decide on a needs assessment strategy for dealing with the identified problems
- - To design improved community services or programs.
- - At a community forum or town meeting where broad citizen input is needed on a proposed plan for land use, transportation, public services, or school expansion.
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 persons 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.
- 1. Individuals are given writing paper; they silently write down their ideas in a few words.
- 2. Using a round-robin approach, each group member presents, but does not discuss, the first idea on his or her list. The recorder writes all the ideas on a flip chart or chalk board. The facilitator then asks each person for their second idea, and so on, until all ideas are recorded. All ideas are recorded as presented.
- 3. The facilitator reads each idea and asks if there are questions, interpretations, or explanations. Its a good idea at this point to number the ideas.
- 4. The facilitator asks each person to write down, in a few minutes, the ideas that seem especially important. Some people may feel only a few items are important; others may feel all items are important. The facilitator then goes down the list and records the number of people who consider each item a priority.
- 5. Finally, Participants rate each item from no importance (0) to top priority (10). A person may have several top priority items (all 10s), or only one top priority. The leader then collects and calculates the ratings and records the cumulative rating for each item.
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 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:
- 1. Keep members on the topic.
- - Let them know the discussion had drifted; usually they will quickly return to the topic.
- - Periodically repeat the topic under discussion-- "Isn't this what we were discussing?"
- 2. Summarize what members have said.
- - IN particular, summarize what the less active members said.
- - Relate what one person says to another's ideas-- "It sounds like you're adding to what Jackie said..."
- - Accept parts of ideas and asks if the person could develop the idea more.
- - Let people know when someone has been cut off, and then allow them to finish what they were saying.
- 3. Let people know that feelings are OK.
- - Summarize feelings as well as content-- "Joe, you seem to be disturbed about something..."
- 4. State the problem in a constructive way so people can work on it.
- - State the problem as a problem, without implying that someone is at fault.
- - Present the group with problems and questions, not answers.
- 5. Suggest ways to reach conclusions.
- - Clarify the decision the group needs to reach so people don't waste their time on other things.
- - Let members know when it may be time to move on to the next problem or agenda item.
- - Try to break big problems up into workable pieces and deal with each part separately.
- 6. Periodically summarize what has happened and what has been decided.
- - Be sure to restate a decision after it has been made by the group.
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:
- - Criticizing the ideas or values of others.
- - Using the facilitator role to force ideas on the group. (When you must add your own ideas, let people know you are doing as a member and not as facilitator. It may be best to ask someone else to temporarily take over facilitator role while you join in the fray.)
- - Making decisions for the other members without asking them for agreement.
- - Saying a lot or getting too involved. (This can distract facilitators from their role, and might get the whole group off track.)
Nominal group process for community needs assessment has certain advantages and disadvantages:
- - If well organized in advance, a heterogeneous group can move toward definite group conclusions.
- - Can be used to expand the data obtained from surveys or existing documents, or can be used to generate a more specific survey.
- - Motivates all participants to get involved because they sense they are personally affected.
- - Generates many ideas in a short period of time; allows for a full range of individual thoughts and concerns.
- - Permits input from people of different backgrounds and experiences.
- - Gives all participants an equal opportunity to express opinions and ideas in a non-threatening setting.
- - Allows individual generation of ideas without suppression by any dominant group member.
- - Stimulates creative thinking and effective dialogue.
- - Allows for clarification of ideas.
- - Requires a skilled leader.
- - May be extremely difficult to implement with larger audiences; group facilitators must be trained in advance and participants should be divided into groups of 6 to 10 members.
- - Process may appear rigid if group leader does not show flexibility, encourage agenda building, and show respect for all ideas and concerns.
- - May be some overlap of ideas due to unclear wording or inadequate group discussion.
- - "Knowledgeable" individuals selected to participate may not represent all community subgroups.
- - Assertive personalities may dominate unless leadership skills are exercised.
- - May not be a sufficient source of data in itself; may require follow-up survey, observations, or documentary analysis.
- - Inappropriate technique for routine meetings, bargaining, negotiation, or coordination.
Therre are many possible applications for brainstorming, some are:
- - When you want to come up with ideas for solutions to a problem:
- - How can we publicize our coming Community Fair? What can be done about rising rent and deteriorating housing in our neighborhood?
- - When you want to come up with ideas about how the group should spend its time:
- - Which training needs should we address at the next workshop? Which community problems should we try to deal with during the next year?
- - When you want to identify people or organizations that could be helpful to your group:
- - Who could we call on to support our campaign for a community health clinic?
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 groups 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 wont 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.
- - No judgments-- no idea or suggestion, no matter how wild is to be shot down or edited. (There will be time to evaluate the ideas later.)
- - Anything goes-- offbeat, unusual, humorous, and bizarre ideas are encouraged.
- - Go for quantity-- the more ideas, the better the chance of coming out with a winner.
- - Its fine to build on other peoples ideas.
The facilitator of the brainstorm session can help keep things moving, if necessary, by:
- - Setting a time limit-- commonly 3 to 10 minutes, depending on the topic and the size of the group-- so people will know they cant afford to sit on an idea.
- - Giving a few examples to start things off.
- - Praising and/or coaxing (gently).
- - Asking for different sorts of examples if the group starts to develop a one-track mind.
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.
- - Everyone gets to vote for the three ideas they believe are most viable; the three items that score highest will be used for discussion.
- - Members try to rate the ides from 1 to 10-- 10 is high and 1 is low; the three ideas with the highest combined score will be discussed further.
- - If it appears that certain ideas are most popular, the facilitator might say There seems to be interest in pursuing the second idea and the fifth. Are there others that we should continue to explore as well?
- - See if any ideas can be combined or if any are redundant.
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:
- 1. Instruct each group member to brainstorm individually on the topic, writing down ideas on a small piece of paper. Then share the ideas by reading off the lists (or compiling the lists later.)
- 2. Divide the group into two or more teams, each to brainstorm on the same topic. This parallel groups approach has some of the advantages of the first variation, plus the sense of group cooperation, which is an important side effect of brainstorming.
- 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.
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Reviewed on 12/02/96