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The NIATx Files: A brief history of the Nominal Group Technique

Authored By: 
Maureen Fitzgerald - Great Lakes ATTC, MHTTC, and PTTC Communications Manager

The Nominal Group Technique (NGT) is one of the essential tools that NIATx change teams use to implement successful change projects. The NGT brings a team together to brainstorm ideas and reach consensus on which one to test first. It provides a way for everyone to share ideas, and all ideas are given equal weight. Maybe you’ve also used the NGT in other work or community settings. The NGT might just be the world’s most widely used group brainstorming technique.

But did you know that the NGT got its start in the late 1960’s with three intrepid UW-Madison researchers, Andre Delbecq, Andy Van de Ven, and Dave Gustafson (founder and director of NIATx)?

A group of people looking at sticky notes on a glass wall.

Why don’t people talk in meetings?

Delbecq was working with a community action program in Dane County, Wisconsin, as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. The federal Office of Economic Opportunity had issued an edict that, to continue receiving federal funds, all community action programs had to demonstrate they were meeting the needs of low-income people.

Delbecq suggested conducting a series of neighborhood block meetings to identify the needs of low-income residents. At the first meeting, the room went completely silent after introductions. Delbecq then instructed his grad student assistant Van de Ven to “go to the library and find out why people don’t talk in meetings.”

Silent idea generation, round robin, and voting

Van de Ven found one study indicating that that people working alone produce more ideas than when they work in a group setting. In response, Delbecq suggested beginning the neighborhood meetings by not talking, but generating ideas silently in response to a question.

Why the silent writing of ideas? In the NGT, this activity provides focus and uninterrupted creative thinking. It also prevents conformity and competition among participants, and keeps the group from jumping to conclusions.

That led to the next step—a recorded round robin procedure that allowed each person to share ideas one at a time, with one person assigned to record all the ideas on a flip chart. During this step, no one talks out of turn.  

“With this process, we were able to generate 30 ideas from a group of 7 or 8 people, and that in turn led to the following steps: preliminary voting, discussion, and final voting of ideas,” said Van de Ven.

In each of the voting sessions, the leader tabulates votes on a flip chart. (The voting process is based on Dave Gustafson’s research.)   

“We found that not only was the NGT extremely good in generating ideas, but it was also a very democratic procedure,” said Van de Ven.

The neighborhood block meetings were much more productive using this technique, and Del Becq and Van de Ven went on to use it with the state’s American Indian and regional health care associations. 

And Dave Gustafson went on to apply the NGT in many projects—NIATx among them.

For Van de Ven, developing the NGT showed the value of field testing ideas. “Social scientific discoveries really do begin in the real world,” he said.

Tips for a successful NGT

  • Allow enough time for the process: one to 2.5. hours is ideal.  
  • Ideal size: 7–9 participants; maximum 12. (Though it can work with any number.)
  • Facilitate, don’t force ideas. “The NGT doesn’t work if the leader tries to force ideas on the group,” says Gustafson.
  • Use the NGT for fact-finding, getting ideas, defining problems, setting goals.
  • Don’t use the NGT for routine business, bargaining, or to allocate resources.
  • Focus on a clear single question. The more specific and concrete, the better! For example, if you are trying to understand the needs of low-income people, a question like “What difficulties are you experiencing raising your family in this community?” is likely to lead to concrete answers that describe the experiences people are having in their specific contexts.

The three researchers went on to write a book about the NGT:

Delbecq, A. L., Van de Ven, A. H., & Gustafson, D. H. (1975). Group techniques for program planning: A guide to nominal group and Delphi processes. Scott Foresman.

You can also find out more about how to conduct an NGT by visiting the NIATx website: Nominal Group Technique Or attend the next virtual NIATx Change Leader Academy, coming up in May 2024!

Published:
04/02/2024
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