The future can be both exciting and frightening. Technological advancements, rapid globalization, socio-economic changes, disruptions, and rising competition are making it harder for people, businesses, and organizations to predict what will happen next. Picture yourself as a project manager. You hold responsibility not only for the communication aspect and assurance of a successful project delivery but also for the risk management and monitoring of the project. The most important question to ask is how can you forecast the future with a degree of certainty? How are you going to prepare and plan for things?
The Delphi method has long been used by various sectors and organizations as their “go-to” method in forecasting situations. It’s a method created by nonprofit global policy institution RAND Corporation which is utilized extensively in the USA. The principle of Delphi is quite simple. It supports the integration of the opinions and thoughts of independent experts. It supports consensus decision-making and is based on the intuitions and insights of experts. The Delphi Method is a prospective/foresight method that allows experts to be surveyed in a repetitive way.
Identifying Future Probabilities
A lot of businesses and government offices utilize the Delphi method to stay ahead of the curve. Bell Canada, inarguably Canada’s largest telecom company, was one of the first businesses to apply the Delphi techniques in their studies. Bell Canada used the Delphi method to determine the future of technology and its function in various life aspects. India’s largest heavy electrical equipment firm BHEL also utilized the Delphi technique. The studies yielded positive results and identified the probability of the development of 19 new energy sources. Results derived from the Delphi method can be used by businesses and government institutions for long-range forecasting of the organization’s future. Results can also function as a highly valuable tool to fuel innovation since companies or groups can furnish the information to specialists in their organization.
In 1964, an experiment regarding the probability of nuclear war across the globe was conducted. Using the Delphi method, majority of the experts who were asked said that a nuclear war was highly improbable. Five more rounds of workshops were conducted thereafter, asking the experts the same question. After a long debate, all experts agreed and reached to a conclusion that the probability of a nuclear war was imminent. As we can see through the six workshops, the experts progressively aligned their thoughts towards the same conclusion that nuclear war was inevitable.
Back in 1964, the possibility of an international nuclear war was what prospective specialists called a “signal”. A signal is a piece of information, an idea in the air we could bring on the table and analyze as a future possible. The idea of an international nuclear war was a possibility in the mind only of an extreme minority. This signal could have been neglected to the benefits of other signals. But in this case, the signal was utilized as the subject for the experiment, driving the conclusion that prospective is highly political.
Why? When the prospective specialist chooses to analyze a signal and bring it to the table for debate, he takes the risk of seeing this signal becoming a generality for the group of attendees and the general public by contamination. In other words, a simple idea about the future becomes a generally agreed upon concept for the society. The Delphi method illustrates the tendency of human behavior to align their point of view regarding the future possible around a single “correct” answer.
Consensus vs. Visioning
The Delphi method also has its fair share of misuses and disadvantages. The misuse of the results from the Delphi method can have damaging effects to a company. Information leakage can happen because there’s a tendency for some public relations officers to immediately release the results of the study, believing that the information they have are necessary to their company’s present situation. Some organizations also treat the results as the backbone of a company policy when in fact it’s supposed to simply aid a company in their forecasting or problem-solving process. Some detractors of the Delphi method say that the Delphi technique is more about building consensus rather than visioning. Consensus leads people to believe that their inputs have been taken into consideration but that they need to support a decision that is in the best interest of the whole. Visioning, on the other hand, involves envisioning a picture of a project’s success in the future. Stakeholders develop a shared vision of the future. Indeed the Delphi method is a means to achieve consensus among experts, but it does not disregard the ideas and visions of stakeholders as well. And this is evident in the studies conducted by BHEL where they developed an open-ended questionnaire to gather as much data as possible on possible breakthroughs that can be developed in the future.
Asking is Essential
In the recent time, politics from around the globe built consensus around concepts like the shared economy, crowd sourcing, global warning, women empowerment, and trans-humanism. Are these concepts vision-derived or consensus-derived serving the interest of political and economic leaders?
When we see the outcome of prospective exercises, we must learn how to ask questions. Is this future desirable? For whom is it desirable? Who would benefit from it? Is there another future possible? Are we speaking about vision or consensus? Do we really want to give people the choice to decide about the future?
Whether we personally consider the Delphi method a bane or a boon, what holds true for this method is that it will remain a viable technique for a long time in long-range forecasting.
Patrick Roupin is an expert in innovation, design, strategy & entrepreneurship.
Ashrefunisa Shaik is an expert in organizational transformation & sustainability.