Revisiting the removal of the Delphi technique

by Sylvie Edwards

With the sixth edition of PMI’s body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) came some needed changes in terms of knowledge areas and processes as well as some surprises. One of the surprises was the loss of one of the key project management tools that I use all the time on projects and consulting assignments. What tool? Well if you had not noticed, the Delphi technique has disappeared. With this article, I hope to educate those who did not know about it and to start a movement to resurrect this great tool into the next PMBOK® Guide edition. 

Over my years as a project manager, consultant, and teacher, I have tried to experiment with as many project management tools as I can in the hopes that I could find several to use and simplify my work. I also encourage my students through our classes and various assignments to try techniques and tools in order to have several in their toolboxes when they get in the job market. In doing so, I discovered early on that even though brainstorming is easy to use, convenient, well-known, and simple yet it rarely is done well and ends up often not generating a set of data that I felt truly confident with. This in recent years, became very true, especially around larger risk identification engagements.

If you are like me, we tend to rely on the same faithful project management tools and techniques repeatedly. If we are to build ourselves an effective toolbox, it is important to find a set of tools that gives you good results or at least results that you can build upon and depend on.

I experimented with the different permutations of brainstorming (there are over 250 variations documented, so go explore the web for new examples for you to try) with mixed results. I have some favorite variations that I use regularly, and I also keep some more obscure techniques alive through class discussions and experimentation. Around that time, being a bit frustrated, I gave the Delphi technique a second look. I had read about it in the previous versions of the PMBOK® Guide without truly investigating it before, but now it was time. That is when I discovered a tool that really, to this day, has remained with me and does the job.

For those of you who have not used the Delphi technique, it is simple to use and will provide you with greater confidence in your collected data. So, let’s discuss it some more.

The Delphi method was developed by Project RAND during the 1950s-1960s (1959) by Olaf Helmer, Norman Dalkey, and Nicholas Rescher. Since its original use in forecasting, it has been used in various situations to refine data coming from a group of individuals with the understanding that groups do come up with better results but that they can be swayed by others’ opinions. 

Delphi use is similar to that of a question and answer exercise or survey. To set up a Delphi process, you prepare a questionnaire that is then sent anonymously to a pre-determined group of individuals with expertise in the area that you are trying to come up with data on. A good Delphi process assumes that you can identify a select group of subject matter experts and that you can use them to come up with options to a set of questions dealing with a decision to be made. You might need to run more than one questionnaire once you have acquired some data in order to narrow that data field.

The Delphi technique requires some work to set up and a good follow-up with your subject matter experts. It will yield a way better set of data than any face-to-face brainstorming session could.

By using a defined set of individuals with targeted skills or knowledge, who do not know about each other’s involvement in the process (anonymity), you take away the biases generated from the face to face interaction that the same individuals would potentially have if they were together in the same room working on the same questions.

It does sound easy and trust me, it is.

So, the next time that you want to try out a new technique why not give the old Delphi a try. It is perfectly suited for a number of things in project management, such as requirements eliciting, gathering, and I find it invaluable when running risk identification sessions. Whatever the case, if you need to get solid data from stakeholders who have the data, then Delphi might just do the trick.


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