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Collective intelligence, the underlying concept of the Delphi technique, is knowledge born from a group. It’s often accepted as outperforming knowledge derived from a single person. But this is with the condition that members are of about-equal intelligence.

This swarm intelligence phenomenon is observable in the natural and artificial world. Honeybees use swarm intelligence to locate nest-sites in a self-organizing, fair voting system. Working together as a type of superorganism, they find the optimal location for a new colony.

The Delphi method has a similar core principle.  It’s become a popular method of reaching consensus in many fields, including project management, research, and health care. This useful technique has a rich and interesting history — let’s look at what the Delphi process is and how it works.

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What is the Delphi technique?

The Delphi technique is a method of group decision-making and iterative forecasting that involves consulting a panel of experts and implementing systematic feedback rounds.

Based on the principle that collective wisdom is greater than individual knowledge, the process involves a panel of experts who anonymously provide their predictions in three rounds. After each round, a facilitator compiles responses and shares them with the panelists. They then revise their predictions in light of the new information. This process continues until there’s consensus among the group of experts. It’s an effective way of generating ideas and making accurate predictions about future events and trends.

A brief history of the Delphi technique

Invented as a Cold War strategy, it’s named after the Ancient Greek Oracle of Delphi. Olaf Helmer and Norman Dalkey of Rand Corporation developed it at the beginning of the Cold War after General Henry Arnold ordered a report on future technologies that could be useful in future military endeavors.

The project team first tried traditional forecasting methods and quantitative methods of data analysis, but it soon became obvious that these methods were redundant in areas that lacked established scientific theories. The Delphi protocol turned out to be effective for overcoming these obstacles. By consulting experts’ views as a method of data collection, it was possible to arrive at accurate predictions about possible enemy attacks.

In 2015, BMJ published a detailed protocol for using the Delphi method in research. In 2021, a study carried out by Beiderbeck et al. published specific methods for conducting Delphi surveys in psychology.

Important characteristics of the Delphi technique

There are four features that distinguish the Delphi technique from other group decision strategies: anonymity, iterative feedback, group response, and consulting experts’ opinions. Let’s walk through these characteristics in a little more detail.

  • Anonymity: The benefit of anonymity is that it encourages group members to express their opinions freely. It prevents the collection of dishonest thoughts by removing the potential effects of peer pressure.
  • Iterative feedback: This is achieved by implementing controlled feedback rounds so members can get a bird’s-eye view of what the rest of the panel members are thinking. This gives them insight into how they might adapt their response.
  • Group response: This gives participants the opportunity to adapt and build upon the information in the feedback round. It’s done multiple times until the experts reach a consensus.
  • Using experts: Rather than extracting participants from a random sample, inventors of the Delphi technique advocate consulting experts in the field in which the prediction is being made.

Steps in the Delphi process

To forecast the outcome of future trends and events, you can use the Delphi technique by following these steps:

  1. Choose a facilitator: You can choose to take on this role yourself or select a neutral person who’s knowledgeable about the Delphi protocol. It also helps if the facilitator has some experience in data collection.
  2. Identify experts: First, you’ll need to identify the specific field of interest. Once you’ve done this, find multiple experts in that field to ensure quality of results.
  3. Define the research question: Try to narrow down the problem to exact terms. This will help you obtain more accurate results and make it easier for the experts to formulate their thoughts and answers.
  4. Carry out three response and feedback rounds: Start by asking for anonymous answers to a specific question. Then, present the information to the experts and allow them to adapt the response in light of the new information. Do this three times.
  5. Act on your findings: After the third round, take your results and act on them. What you essentially have in your hands is distilled expert knowledge, so it should be accurate.

The Delphi technique in project development and management

In project management, the technique is often used for scope and risk management. It’s useful for scope management since it can aid stakeholders in settling on the project’s scope. This can remove major causes of project failure, including unclear requirements and poor planning.

It can also help project teams with risk management by predicting potential hazards and better preparing for them. That’s why the approach was developed in the first place: to aid in future forecasting and head off any problems.

Benefits and drawbacks of the Delphi technique

With the help of the Delphi approach, you can compile expert opinions and essentially distill expert knowledge. Without individual panelists worrying about consequences and peer pressure, they’re free to express their opinions openly. The approach has proven to be relatively accurate in many cases, and it leverages the beneficial phenomenon of collective intelligence.

While the advantages of the Delphi technique seem enough to start using it immediately, there are also some drawbacks. One major disadvantage is that conducting Delphi studies can be extremely time-consuming. This makes it an inappropriate method for daily or weekly decisions, so the method is reserved only for the most consequential situations.

Another drawback is that while using experts might sound like a foolproof method, it’s possible for experts to have utterly opposing views. In cases like this, the accuracy of results is compromised and a great deal of time wasted.

Practical examples of the Delphi technique

Here are examples of how the Delphi method works in real life:

Example 1

The U.S. government wanted to learn how many adolescent pregnancies there were in a certain town. The government hired a project facilitator to gather the data. It then chose a team of specialists who were familiar with the city. The professionals did a great job of interacting with the locals.

After conducting research, the facilitator created a poll that made it apparent to the experts what the issue was. The first round of the questionnaire was completed by the experts, and the facilitator then reviewed the responses to come up with a summary report, which he then presented to the experts.

Example 2

A pharmaceutical company wanted to figure out whether a particular drug it was developing would be effective and safe for use. Having no existing data on this, it consulted a team of medical experts who were familiar with the chemical compounds used in the drug. Each of the experts read research papers and systematic reviews on topics surrounding the potential drug.

A facilitator then created a poll asking the experts to indicate an estimate for the safety of the drug on a scale from 1 to 100. They repeated this for three rounds and then included the results in a summary report about the drug’s potential development.

Get started features to support the Delphi technique is a cloud-based project management tool that offers users a variety of features to help them plan and track their work. One of the most useful features of is the Vote column. It’s a great way to give an anonymous platform for voting on creative project matters. It may not be a full-blown Delphi technique, but it allows your team to capitalize on the benefits of collective intelligence.

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Frequently asked questions

What is a Delphi technique example?

An example of the Delphi technique would be when a team of medical experts is hired to advise on whether a drug would be effective to treat a particular class of diseases. They’re each asked to anonymously give their opinion about it and then get to see what the others said. Based on the new information, they update their responses. This process repeats three times until they reach a conclusion.

What is the Delphi technique in risk management?

The Delphi technique in risk management is the process of consulting field experts to predict how risky a certain action would be. Between a panel of experts and several rounds of feedback and response modification, a conclusion is reached by the panel.

Collective intelligence: The core of the Delphi technique

Collective intelligence can be defined as a form of intelligence that emerges from the collective efforts of a group of individuals. It’s often used in business contexts to refer to the collective wisdom of a team or organization. There are many ways collective intelligence can be useful in business, such as enhancing decision-making, promoting creativity, and facilitating knowledge sharing. The Vote column allows users to vote on topics, making use of collective knowledge. It’s a great option to use for making a risk register for smaller decisions where a full Delphi technique would be too costly.