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The Delphi Technique: Will It Help You Get Back on the Right Track?

written by: Donna Cosmato • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 7/26/2013

The Delphi method is a unique way of obtaining an expert consensus opinion through a process of thesis, antithesis and eventual synthesis. Find out more about the Delphi technique and how to use it in project management.

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    Old Method, New Applications

    Businessman using computer 

    The term Delphi has its origin in the Oracle of Delphi, and this method is based on the belief that group judgments are mature, well-considered and more valid than individual judgments.

    It is said that the technique was originally thought of as a way to obtain the thoughts and opinions of experts and professionals by letting them interact face to face to come to a joint conclusion. Therefore, the technique may be defined as a unique method for arriving at a well thought-out consensus among experts.

    Murat H. Gunaydin, in his paper "The Delphi Method," sums up the key advantages of this technique: "According to Fowles (1978) anonymity, controlled feedback, and statistical response characterize Delphi."1

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    The Benefits

    Shaking hands 

    It is common that when more three or more experts meet, there will be three or more sharply divergent opinions particularly if a lot of subjective elements are involved. Arguments can quickly become acrimonious, and at times, even personal and bitter, which has the effect of clouding the main issue.

    Sometimes the eccentric views of some eloquent speakers will receive undue appreciation, while the more informed views of less gifted speakers may be brushed aside. This is where a technique like the Delphi will help to reach a properly thought-out consensus opinion among experts because all comments are made anonymously.

    Because there is no need for a physical meeting of the participants, this method lends itself well to those that work with virtual teams or teams that are spread out geographically. Participants can take part in the panel via e-mail, instant messaging or text messaging depending on which method best suits the desires of the facilitator.

    The benefits for project managers are it eliminates the controversy that can happen when a team member refuses to budge from a pet theory or belief, it streamlines the project flow and it facilitates better communication with all team members.

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    How Does It Work?

    The technique is believed to be based on the principle advocated by Hegel that "Oneness of Mind" can be achieved through a three step process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Through thesis and antithesis, all experts will present their opinions on a given subject, which will bring forth diametrically divergent views. Through the synthesis method, opposites will be reconciled to deliver a new thesis. All participants will then be required to concur with the new thesis and support it.

    The procedure followed is that the experts are required to provide replies in a questionnaire format. There is a panel director, more commonly referred to as facilitator, who coordinates the discussion by collecting and processing the information and eliminating irrelevant content. This enables the panel to concentrate on the issue at hand and not be distracted by any group dynamics.

    Experts are usually expected to comment on their own remarks as well as to comment on the views of others and on the overall opinion of the whole panel. Experts are also provided with an opportunity to revise their earlier opinions.

    An interesting aspect is the names of participating experts are never disclosed, even after the report is finalized. Knowing that one's comments and assertions are being made anonymously ensures that the participants feel free to express their true thoughts and opinions without the fear of group pressure to change or conform to another's point of view.

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    Pivotal Role of the Facilitator

    It is the facilitator's responsibility to distribute the questionnaires, collect the responses and then study the individual reports to ascertain the areas of commonality and the areas of divergence. Wherever consensus is missing, the facilitator initiates a repeat of the process of thesis and antithesis, as explained earlier and strives to create a synthesis for final acceptance by all. It is important that the facilitator avoids interjecting any personal bias, belief or principle of his or her own into the process as this would taint the results.

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    Application of the Technique

    Initially, the Delphi method was used in the field of science and technology for forecasting. Currently, the technique has been widely practiced for forecasting in business circles and is said to be more effective and precise than other known forecasting approaches. This particular method is now being considered a tool in several areas including health, education, and project management, and it is used to forecast economic trends.

    There are critics of this technique who claim that in many cases this method proved either false or ineffective. However, the protagonists of the technique attribute this to faulty or bad application of the process and contend there is no weakness in the method.

    It is also said that in areas such as science and technology, forecasting cannot always be accurate and a margin of error is inevitable. Notwithstanding these conflicting opinions, the Delphi method is today widely accepted as a forecasting and decision-making tool and has been used successfully in many areas.

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    References

    1 - Gunaydin, Murat H., Ph.D, "The Delphi Method," Izmir Yusek Teknoloji Enstitusu, http://web.iyte.edu.tr/~muratgunaydin/delphi.htm

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    Image Credits

    SXC: Stock photo: Businessman in the office 1 (Image ID: 1287061) under royalty free license

    SXC: Stock photo: Shaking hands (Image ID: 1097209) under royalty free license