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Let’s Take a Drive to Delphi!

Mention Delphi method to anyone who has passed their PMP certification exam and you will likely be told that it’s an information gathering technique used to gain consensus from a group of experts. Press for more information and you’ll hear that it involves anonymous submission of initial feedback. All true, but that is like saying that a rose is just a flowering plant!

Delphi is one of the few tools which can be used on almost every project and at multiple points over its lifetime. However, because most foundational project management courses rarely provide sufficient explanation of how to apply it, many project managers lack the comfort to use it effectively.

So what are some conditions which should prompt you to consider using Delphi?

  • Differing points of view. When preparing to gather input, Delphi can reduce the likelihood of a philosophical war breaking out if you are already seeing evidence that there is likely to be a difference of opinion. By using Delphi, while there still could be debate, but the focus will be on the problem and not the people.
  • Subject matter experts include a mix of extroverts and introverts. While the level of expertise may be similar, if one team member is more outspoken they might have the tendency to stifle feedback from their quieter peers. A good facilitator can certainly direct questions to the latter group, but they might still lack confidence or desire to challenge their more vocal colleagues. Delphi levels the playing field by ensuring that everyone’s voice gets heard.
  • Significant uncertainty. If there is objective evidence to support a decision, Delphi adds little value. However, when there is a great deal of uncertainty, assumptions are likely to proliferate and Delphi provides a good way to expose and challenge these assumptions.
  • Impact of bias. If everyone is likely to have the same assessment of the scenario, there’s no point in using Delphi. However, if individual bias is likely to affect people’s perceptions, Delphi can reduce the impacts of bias on the final decision.
    Based on these criteria, the following situations could all be opportunities to use Delphi.
  • Qualitative risk assessment. It might be assessing the overall risk profile for a project or trying to define the impact, probability, likelihood of detection or severity of a specific risk event. In the absence of a significant volume of historical data to draw upon, these assessments are subject to individual bias and differences of opinion.
  • A sudden, urgent decision. While clearly defined decision-making criteria or quantitative methods such as expected monetary value or decision trees can help to reduce subjectivity, there are still likely to be some decisions which have to be made by the team on-the-fly. Open voting can be one way to make these decisions, but what will you do if you have a split or close-to-split vote?
  • Effort, cost or duration estimation where there is little historical data and sufficient uncertainty to skew opinions.

So how does one go about using Delphi?

The initial round of input can be gathered in advance of the meeting by sending the question via e-mail and requesting subject matter experts to reply providing their response & rationale via e-mail to the project manager only. The project manager will then consolidate the responses (without including people’s names) and bring that to a meeting where the responses will be shared with the group. Then, the project manager can ask the team to re-vote using some type of ballot box approach. This process can continue till a consensus is reached.

An alternative approach is to use a variant on planning poker. If the scenario is qualitative risk assessment, the project manager could give everyone three cards with the words Low, Medium, and High written on them. As each risk is presented, team members are asked to hold up the card which best represents their assessment of one of the risk event’s dimensions. Until a consensus is reached, the project manager can call on individuals who voted low as well as those who voted high to state why they did so, and a fresh round of voting can be held. This misses out on the anonymous benefits of true Delphi, but can still help overcome the impacts of individual team members monopolizing a conversation.

While it might require some preparation in advance, when working with remote or virtual teams a project manager can still apply Delphi by using anonymous polling capabilities which are often available in online conferencing services.
So the next time your team is faced with coming to a consensus, consider taking them on a detour to Delphi!

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