Using the Nominal Group Technique to Make Brainstorming Actually Work

November 21, 2017 3:00 PM | Lovina Akowuah (Administrator)

Written by SEWI-ATD Guest Blogger, Andy Marris, Learning & Development Manager at MRA, and SEWI-ATD President

Brainstorming imageWhen someone uses the word “brainstorm,” what comes to mind? The Google Dictionary gives an idealistic definition… “a spontaneous group discussion to produce ideas and ways of solving problems.” If one truly considers the reality of how this “group discussion,” typically plays itself out, however, one is much more likely to have the perception that brainstorming is a well-intentioned ideation session that instead degenerates into one of dominance, condescension, and ironically, very few good ideas. Once again, the age-old axiom is proven true… “The road to hell is paved by good intentions.”

Comments such as, “That will never work,” “That’s a stupid idea,” or “We tried that already,” are commonplace in brainstorming sessions. Comments like these unfortunately lead to some of the best ideas remaining between the ears of previously scolded participants. Moreover, introverted contributors may have wonderful ideas, but are often overshadowed and even dominated by the most boisterous participants in the room, as well. These issues end up leading to a few, rapidly-offered ideas, that were not necessarily well-thought through, and the group ends up going with a mediocre idea because it was the best one of a bad lot. Sound familiar? There is a better way!

The Nominal Group Technique (NGL) is not new, but it is astonishing how many business professionals are unaware of the concept. In MRA’s Supervision Fundamentals series, NGL is repackaged as the “Circle Six” technique (the number doesn’t actually matter—MRA Minnesota classrooms have six chair tables, and when read aloud, it sounds like an alliteration, hence, “Circle Six”). It is the best way to capture a large about of terrific ideas, and as the famous scientist, Linus Pauling once said, “The best way to get a great idea, is to have lots of ideas.” Here are the simple (yet profound), steps…

1. Leader appoints someone in the group to capture the ideas on a notepad, flipchart, or marker board (the scribe)

2. Leader posts the question to be solved (such as “How can we generate more revenue in 2018?”)

3. Leader gives all participants 2 minutes to ponder the question and write down all ideas that come to mind – with a few rules…

a. No talking; Just thinking and writing as the ideas come

b. No self-deprecation; Write all ideas no matter how silly they may seem

c. Take the full 120 seconds; sometimes the best ideas come when there is no pressure to perform (think Archimedes in his bathtub… Eureka!)

4. Once time is up, the leader asks each participant to simply read the top line item on his/her page, thanks them, and moves to the next participant – with a few more rules…

a. No commenting in any way (positive or negative) or face removal from the group – Even a positive “Good idea,” comment tells other participants who didn’t hear such praise that their idea was not as good-which defeats the purpose of the exercise.

b. Leader only thanks participant for his/her contribution, being careful not to comment, either

c. Leader contributes last each time around the circle, so as to not encourage “group think”

5. Scribe captures all ideas in writing

6. Leader goes around the circle until everyone is out of ideas on their lists and all “pass”

7. Leader reads scribe’s list to group, so it hears the ideas a second time

8. Leader gives group 2 more minutes to think and write down any additional ideas that were triggered by the list – Sometimes the best ideas come as a piggy-back to another one (even one that would have been labeled a “stupid idea” on its face)

9. Leader and scribe repeat steps 4-7, continuing the moratorium on comments

10. Group then multi-votes on what they think the best ideas are, giving a 5 to the best idea, a 3 to the second best, and finally a 1 to the third best idea

11. When the votes are tallied, great ideas rise like cream to the top, and often the participants are excited and engage on how many great ideas were generated

There are several reasons NGT works so well. First, it truly values everyone’s ideas and contributions. It also eliminates the killer phrases that shut down well-intentioned brainstorming sessions. People that need time to process, have it, and those with a quick answer are still allowed to do so, writing the idea instead of blurting it out. Giving the process a second round usually produces less total answers than the first round, but it often produces some of the best ideas the group is able to generate. At a recent training filled with analytical engineers, the group went from one mediocre idea to 47 outstanding ones, just by implementing the NGT technique.

Famous comedians often get the request from a well-meaning fan to “say something funny.” Without a prepared response, they often fail at the request. Seasoned comedians have a comment ready when the request invariably comes again. In a similar way, the NGT allows people to have the time and the freedom to come up with great ideas, without the risk of being put on the spot or insulted. Try it at your next “brainstorm,” and you’ll be amazed at what the team uncovers.

About the Author

Photo of Andy MarrisWith more than 15 years of business management, marketing, and leadership experience in the sports broadcasting, financial services, health care, information technology, and human resources industries, Andy Marris draws on his knowledge and experiences to help managers sharpen their leadership skills and business acumen. As a former graduate- and undergraduate-level business and marketing instructor, Andy discovered his passion for adult learning through fun, interactive, “real world” education. Andy's love of leadership development led him to his current role as a full-time talent development instructor in MRA—The Management Association's Institute of Management. Whether he is working with first-time supervisors, or seasoned leaders seeking continuous skill-set improvement, Andy makes the learning experience one that is measurable, memorable, and motivational.         

Andy holds a masters in business administration and a bachelors in organizational communication.

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