The Delphi Technique, Why It’s Important and When to Use It

By: Dan Creinin

I had the opportunity to spend some time with Jim Stanton (one of his claims to fame is working on the Apollo lunar landing module.  Yes that one).  He shared a story about how the team overcame some of the challenges about gaining consensus on some project’s complex issues.  The term that he used was “The Delphi Technique”.  Being curious, I went to the source of all truth to find out what it was.

What Is It?

In looking at the various definitions (and there were many), the one that seems to best describe it is found in Wikipedia:

“The Delphi method is a structured communication technique or method, originally developed as a systematic, interactive forecasting method which relies on a panel of experts.”

The Delphi Technique’s (aka the Delphi Methodology) application centers around anonymously gathering information at an organization’s ground level.  There are many survey organizations that enable organizations this. I have personally used a number of these applications in an attempt to anonymously gather and report both broad and specific cultural issues.  They have yielded some great results, in that these tools highlighted cultural oversights that were easily addressed.

Why It’s Important

Looking beyond culture, this technique has use for a given project or initiative.  By appropriately structuring the survey, the Delphi Technique answers the following questions:

  1. Is everything going well on a given project or process (and why/why not)
  2. What are other issues that we don’t know about that we need to address

In a typical organization, when executives want to understand the status of a given project, they may speak with their direct reports.  These conversations will yield a small subset of issues that need to be addressed, and, may mask some of the larger issues that directly affect the project’s success.

Anonymously gathering information through anonymous surveys across a larger population provides a more accurate and meaningful response.  This ultimately accomplishes the two objectives above much more efficiently versus interviews with a small group of direct reports.

When To Use It

There are three basic times when the Delphi Technique can be effectively applied:

  1. Sideways – When a project is going sideways, it is critical to find out why. Doing so anonymously enables open and honest conversations.  The key element is making sure that management is not interested in WHO is providing the information, but, using the information to make appropriate decisions.
  2. Beginning – Gathering information before a given initiative takes place can yield some good results. Finding the gaps between the intended goals and some potentially unintended consequences is best determined anonymously.
  3. Ongoing – It is important to not only know what isn’t working, but, to also know what is working well so that you can replicate it throughout the organization.

Conclusion

Upon wrapping up my conversation with Jim, I asked him about how NASA got to getting a man on the moon and bringing him home.  His answer was quite simple.  He loved his job, felt part of a much larger purpose, and felt that if he was not there, that he was letting someone else down by not delivering what he committed to.  While not every organization is tasked with historic objectives like a moon landing, I think that most people would like to feel that kind of passion about the teams they are on, their co-workers and the projects they are asked to complete, and to guarantee their project’s success.  The Delphi Technique is one way to help organizations achieve those goals.

Next Steps

MVC Consulting implements this technique with our Project Healthcheck service.  This service provides the following deliverables using a modified Delphi Technique:

  1. Understands the stated goals of a project, whether in flight or proposed, and creates a survey to anonymously gather information about the project.
  2. Sends the survey out to the targeted stakeholders and teams implementing the project.
  3. Provides results analysis, and potential additional information to be gathered.

To learn more about this service, please contact us through our home page, http://mvcconsulting.com/contact-us/

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