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The Nominal Group Technique Will Instantly Fix Your Team Dynamics, Brainstorming, and Candor

Have you ever been in one of those team meetings, virtual or face-to-face, where a few big personalities just dominate the space? The introverted participant is hesitant to share their big idea because those louder extroverts dominate the conversation?

Decision making is incredibly difficult when you don't hear the thoughts and ideas from every team member. In fact, can you even say you've made a group decision when only a few dominant personalities participated in the discussion?

The nominal group technique is designed to give an equal opportunity to all team members. It’s an intelligent approach to encouraging the quiet people (introverts) to speak out while subtly pressuring the loudest group member(s) to tone it down a bit. All the nominal group technique requires is you as the leader of the team exert a bit more control over the group, which, after all, is just doing your job. 

Here's how to start the nominal group technique. Let’s say the team has a decision to make, for example, "The purpose of this meeting is to debate and decide upon the proposal price for the new project we’re pitching ACME Corp."

Imagine that you invited seven team members to the meeting and each of them brings a unique and valuable perspective to this group decision making. You need to hear what each of them has to say. 

What you want to do is as soon as everyone settles down, pass around some sheets of paper, or if it’s a virtual meeting, use a web meeting tool that allows people to write in responses. Then give these directions: 

“We’re going to take five minutes here and what I want is to get your individual ideas about how you think we should price this proposal. I want the number but I also want to hear why you think that’s the right number, so back it up with some pros and cons, the whys and the why not’s, etc. You’ve got five minutes to write it down then we’re gonna pass the papers forward to me to be discussed.” 

The nominal group technique quickly and easily accomplishes three big things. One, it forces everyone to take a step back and actually do some thinking. This applies especially to those loud voices who often just shout out the first idea that pops into their mind, thereby commandeering the meeting. Instead, the nominal group technique makes every group member think and contribute their idea. 

Two, it gives every group participant an equal chance to get heard. 

Three, once each idea and thought is written down and passed over to you; you now have the opportunity to control the discussion that takes place in this meeting. 

Fourth, using the nominal group technique, you are far more likely to hear fewer similar ideas. Because each of your team members has to think independently, you avoid groupthink and artificial consensus. (Note: If you're running a focus group instead of an organizational team meeting, gathering divergent opinions is especially critical). 

In group decision making, you (as the facilitator) want to surface truly diverse ideas before you start narrowing your options. This is the goal of traditional brainstorming, of course, but even the most well-intentioned brainstorming exercises are subject to groupthink (especially in a small group).

One way you can the nominal group technique is to go through those pieces of paper one at a time and say something like, “Let me talk about this first idea. This person feels the contract should be priced at $12.5 million, which is $2.5 million higher than we usually charge for this job, but they support this higher number based on the tight timeline we’re facing on this job, which is going to mean more manpower focused away from other work, etc.” 

Then you move on to the second piece of paper and say, “ This person feels $8.5 million is the right pricing the job, which they acknowledge sounds pretty low ball until you factor in the following numbers that outline the additional business this new client will likely bring our way.” And so on until you hit on everyone’s ideas. 

If you need clarification on any of the ideas, you can always get that as you're reading the responses. And you have the opportunity to ascribe relative importance to the ideas depending on your goals as a facilitator. 

Another approach to the nominal group technique is, instead of having each group participant write down and pass their ideas to you, is you could start the meeting by saying “I’m going to give every person here three minutes, with no interruptions from anyone, to share with the team your thoughts on how you think we should price this proposal and why.” 

And again, in doing this, you immediately make everybody on the team more thoughtful. The people who might be inclined to shout out with knee-jerk responses are forced to tone it down, and the folks who may be inclined to passively hang back are forced to stand up and say “here is what I’m thinking.” 

Whichever of these two approaches you take to the nominal group technique, you’ll have equalized the voices in the meeting and exerted more control over the group, which contributes strongly to how people perceive you as a leader. 

Great leaders who run mediocre meetings tend to have worse reputations than lousy leaders who run great meetings. But perhaps most importantly, you made sure you got the best thinking from everyone in the group so you can make the best decision.

QUESTIONS TO PROMPT NOMINAL GROUP DISCUSSIONS

If you want to try the nominal group technique but you're stuck for what questions you should pose to team members, use this starter list of idea generation questions. Chances are that every participant will give you a new idea (because they'll have developed these ideas independently).

  • <To each member> How would you answer someone who asked about the other ideas we considered but didn't choose?
  • <To each member> Are there any circumstances under which our current decision won't work?
  • <To each member> If you could create a solution from scratch, would this be it? And why or why not?
  • <To each member> Who would have concerns about what we just decided?
  • <To each member> How would our biggest/smallest customer feel about what we just decided?
  • <To each member> Which of our customers/stakeholders would be concerned about what we just decided?
  • <To each member> Which of our customers/stakeholders would be thrilled about what we just decided?
  • <To each member> If everything we've created thus far was destroyed, which parts would you rebuild?
  • <To each member> What pieces have we already decided that you wish you could undo or redo?
  • <To each member> If you were ten times bolder, what big idea would you recommend? What first step would you take to get started?

CONSENSUS

When we ask leaders to describe the best decision making process for teams, we almost always hear “consensus.” From the Latin consentire (which means to act together or share in the feeling), consensus in a team context basically means that everyone agrees. 

And it is true that, compared to other decision-making processes like majority rule or bargaining, consensus generally offers the greatest amount of buy-in, emotional commitment and thoroughness. But while that’s a general rule, there are people and cultures where consensus is a very poor choice.

Consensus is typically a much slower decision-making process than other methods, like taking a vote. And some people really dislike the lack of clearly defined processes involved in achieving consensus; it often requires a messy and sometimes chaotic interpersonal back-and-forth to get everyone truly in agreement.

Consensus typically involves the team leader saying, “Bob, I don’t feel like you’re fully bought in, would you share your feelings with the rest of us?” Then, after Bob shares his hesitancy, the leader asks, “Who else feels the same hesitancy as Bob?” And this continues until all reservations have been resolved or everyone’s too tired to care. For people who like a defined group process, clear rules and order, this is an amazingly frustrating and fuzzy decision making process.

And the problem with forcing a consensus in a larger group where team members struggle with ambiguity is that a consensus-driven group process creates a level of stress and responsibility that employees don’t want. 

Here’s the bottom line for every facilitator: Ask your stakeholders how they would like your team to make decisions. Do they truly want consensus? Would they like to put everything to a vote? Or do they want the boss to decide? There’s no a priori right or wrong answer, but if you want your teams to run more smoothly, you should probably listen to what your team wants.

Getting Your Project Team To solve Problems With Better Ideas

As every organizational behavior expert knows, problem solving is very much about loosening up your brain and getting more open to different ideas. So to generate more useful ideas, we need to do a different kind of solution generation and we're going to call it brainstorming in reverse. 

Step one, describe the problem you're trying to solve. Now step two, reverse the problem and ask yourself, "How can I possibly cause this problem?"

Then brainstorm ideas about how you could cause the problem and then reverse those causes into solution ideas for the original problem. 

Let's look at an example. Imagine that the problem I'm trying to solve is ultimately how do we make our customers more delighted? Let's say we've gotten some data back, and our customers are not delighted right now. Rather than trying to attack this directly, let me reverse the question: "How could we make our customers less delighted?" 

Well, what could we do to really irritate our customers? What could we do to make our customers less happy? We could cancel their orders without telling them. We could not notify them about shipping changes. We could not answer the phones when they call about problems with their order. We could send them four plus emails a day, right? All of those things would probably go a long way to making our customers less delighted, more irritated, et cetera.

Now that I have brainstormed some ways that I could make our customers angrier, reverse that around again and now I'm going to see some solutions start to emerge. Number one, we could create notifications about any canceled orders and we could get better in stock info. Number two, maybe we could improve our shipping charge accuracy. Three, we could put backup phone coverage in place. We could send fewer than four emails a day. 

The cool thing about brainstorming in reverse is that it unclogs the brain and forces us to look at the problem from a completely different angle. And for a group participant, it provides a fun an unusual way to solve problems while still giving a structured method.

One of the reasons why most problem solving doesn't work that well, and why people still get frustrated with problems they face is that they keep looking at the problem through the same lens. If we keep trying to solve problems by looking at those problems the same exact way, no wonder we're not going to be able to solve these problems. 

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