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Nominal Group Collaboration

Nominal groups are a method of group decision-making in which members work independently to generate ideas and then come together to share and combine their ideas. The goal of using nominal groups is to increase participation and generate a larger number of ideas than would occur through brainstorming alone.

Working in nominal groups is one of the most impactful changes a group can make to their decision making process for how relatively simple it is to implement.

Though powerful, the effectiveness of this technique is dependent on how questions/decisions are framed and the facilitation of conversations.

“Majority decisions tend to be made without engaging the systematic thought and critical thinking skills of the individuals in the group. Given the force of the group's normative power to shape the opinions of the followers who conform without thinking things through, they are often taken at face value. The persistent minority forces the others to process the relevant information more mindfully. Research shows that the deciscions of a group as a whole are more thoughtful and creative when there is minority dissent than when it is absent.” - Philip G. Zimbardo

Why use nominal groups?

Behavioral scientists tend to agree that sharing in groups is ineffective. This is due to, among other things, the detrimental effects of anchoring bias, information cascades, and social loafing.

But groups bring more information, more perspectives, and can foster dissenting opinions much better than individuals, so we need effective ways to collaborate in groups that combat the effects of groupthink

Research suggests this is actually a superpower for async collaboration by taking the best aspects of individual and group decision making. This method helps elevate the viewpoints of all collaborators regardless of their group communication skills.

How to collaborate in nominal groups

Collaborating in nominal groups can be achieved either fully async or with a live group of contributors in-person.

For fully async collaboration, it’s beneficial to use collaborative docs and/or survey tools to request information and collaborate as a group on the outcome. For in-person groups, contributors can either write or type separately before sharing with the group.

In both scenarios, a facilitator is needed to manage the process, consolidate feedback, and drive dialog in a productive way.

Below are the steps for collaborating in a nominal group

  1. Frame the decision: This step is often facilitated by the decision driver who aims to understand the scope of the decision. Framing the decision, surfacing the nuance, and asking the right questions is no trivial task. Take time to frame the decision in an objective, thought provoking way.
  2. Have contributors formulate arguments on their own: Use surveys or collaborative docs to share the framed decision and collect their arguments. You can find templates here. This may be done at the decision level or repeated for each option defined in the decision.
  3. Consolidate the feedback and surface where the group disagrees: An overlooked advantage to this process is the ability to focus on what’s important. This technique quickly surfaces where the dissenting opinions are and helps the groups focus on that aspect of the decision.
  4. Bring the group together to discuss: Have contributors advocate for their disagreements without directly challenging the opposing point of view. The goal is not to persuade people to agree or reach consensus - the goal is to clearly articulate the arguments for the decision maker and make sure all arguments are heard.
  5. Allow the contributors to update their points of view: Allow contributors to highlight where their viewpoints changed based on the arguments/information surfaced by others.
  6. Summarize the outcome: Document the options, perspectives, and objections from the discussion. Sometimes this culminates in a clear proposal, sometimes the group remains divided. This should be summarized for the decision maker to advise in making the final decision.

Nominal groups should never end in a vote. This results in false consensus and does not take into account many confounding factors that determine merit among contributors.

Through this process, even without a skilled facilitator, groups can better account for the ideas and information across the entire group and challenge viewpoints that often go unchallenged. This process typically looks like meeting after meeting of repeated arguments and filibustering.

There's no need to belabor the points we already agree on, yet we tend to spend an unnecessary amount of time on them. This allows the group to move faster, even on spicier decisions.

Lastly, allowing arguments and opinions to develop on their own before sharing them with the group keeps biases like the halo effect, anchoring bias, authority bias, and the bandwagon effect at bay.