Consensus-Building in the “New Normal” – One Powerful Approach for Collective Decision Making
by Joanne Lee, Zack Henderson, and Bethanie Thomas
Collaborative working sessions. Open debate. Face-to-face sharing of expertise, experiences, and opinions. Hard-won alignment on a path forward.
With COVID-19 disrupting workplaces around the globe, many impact-oriented organizations which rely on stakeholder input, consensus-building, and partnerships have found their decision-making processes paralyzed, hamstrung by distance and the complexity posed by teleworking.
The pandemic has forced us to identify new ways to align stakeholders and build coalitions that don’t rely on the time-honored practice of bringing stakeholders together in the same room. In this environment, we have found the Delphi approach to be an especially powerful tool for consensus-building.
The Delphi approach uses multiple rounds of anonymized feedback and reflection to bring panels of stakeholders to consensus on complex issues in a remote working environment. In fact, its very nature as a remote consensus-building tool brings added benefits in terms of improved participation by dispersed stakeholders, reduced influences of biases, and increased efficiency over in-person convenings.
The Delphi approach has been used on a range of topics, from aligning experts around needs for global health technology development to creating shared public health roadmaps. At Camber Collective, we have used a modified Delphi approach to successfully facilitate groups toward consensus on topics ranging from scientific parameters for new health interventions to strategy development for emergent coalitions.
How it works
Usually requiring three stages of participant engagement, the Delphi approach uses a transparent, iterative process of feedback and response:
By making anonymized comments visible to all parties and focusing the group on points of misalignment, participants naturally gravitate towards agreement while ensuring all voices are heard.
In implementing this approach, Camber Collective has found several critical benefits that may make this approach appealing not just in the near-term of the COVID outbreak response, but in the longer-term as a decision-making asset for remote teams:
1. Remote consensus-building on complex issues
The Delphi process provides a systematic methodology for iterative input provided anonymously by remote, expert participants. The model ensures that even the most complex or technical topics are reviewed comprehensively and that a wide range of voices and areas of expertise inform a collaborative final product by:
- Establishing clear and transparent decision-making threshold criteria at the outset
- Providing an online platform for structured content review in multiple rounds
- Sharing back anonymized comment integration in each round for participant consideration.
The iterative, multi-round review structure of the Delphi also provides advantages over in-person discussion, particularly in early development stages of a new concept:
- Process is scalable to larger group of stakeholders where many points of view can be collected and documented. Very early stage, rough draft prototypes can be reviewed without a high number of unknowns distracting or limiting conversation.
- Collected feedback can be systematically evaluated to highlight where agreement exists – driving the process forward – and naturally focuses participants’ reviews on areas of misalignment.
Successfully achieving these benefits during an in-person meeting challenges even the most skilled facilitator. In contrast, Camber Collective has successfully carried out a Delphi process including +20 expert participants across global geographies to publish a new global standard best practice for technical health assessment.
2. Improved equity in decision-making
The Delphi process allows distributed groups of stakeholders to build toward consensus despite geographic boundaries – in fact, it often outperforms virtual meetings or even in-person meetings in this regard. From our experience in the global health context, this means that it is possible to effectively engage international stakeholders or voices on-the-ground. It can also accommodate different engagement styles, mitigating any outsized influence that might otherwise be given to the loudest voices in the room.
This method is uniquely equitable as well, capitalizing on the benefits of being a partially blinded process – by offering anonymity in responses as well as equal opportunities for response, it creates a democratized process that can elevate diverse or underrepresented voices. Properly deployed, the process ensures equity by removing biases such as race, accent, gender, or even seniority.
In Camber’s experiences both before and after the COVID-19 outbreak, the Delphi approach has yielded large enough sample sizes to be considered representative. Global health and development organizations in particular have seen the benefit of gathering in-depth feedback from stakeholders located in key geographies in the global south who might otherwise have connectivity, travel, or time zone challenges for joining even a virtual meeting.
3. Light-lift, high-reward
For an organization supported by an experienced Delphi facilitator, the investment in resources and time is low in comparison with in-person working groups or convenings. The Delphi’s replicable, adaptable, and scalable model for gathering input means that an experienced facilitator can easily and effectively apply this methodology towards a wide range of content and stakeholder groups.
Remote input from participants vastly reduces time, financial, and operational cost of implementation compared to in-person working group convenings. With an experienced facilitator, a 2-3 round Delphi process can typically be carried out over 2-3 months – an impressively rapid development process to go from early ideation stages to broad-based consensus on anything from detailed guidelines to a high-level theory of change.
Beyond facilitator time to establish the methodology, engage stakeholders, and carry out analysis, the Delphi process itself has few incremental costs. Aside from the small cost of a subscription to a simple survey platform, we often recommended conducting a final virtual convening to offer closure to the process and provide an opportunity for dynamic, live conversation to close out any final points of complex disagreement.
Despite the challenge of the current moment, our team believes that novel approaches like the Delphi process pose an opportunity to solve complex problems with greater efficiency – not just now, but also as organizations continue to find effective working models in the “New Normal”. Let us know if you have found other innovative solutions to stakeholder engagement, or if you would like to discuss how a Delphi process could help drive consensus for your organization.