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Predicting the future: The Delphi Method

Becky Wilson
Innovation - 04 Sep 2017
Becky Wilson
Predicting the future: The Delphi Method

There was once a priestess of Delphi in ancient Greece, whose prophetic ability inspired a method first used in the 1950's to forecast the impact of the atomic bomb on warfare…

The Delphi method, as it’s now known, is an iterative research technique that collects independent feedback to gradually bring about a consensus from a diverse range of opinions. It is especially useful where little is known about a specific or specialist topic, making it well suited to developing forecasts. Aside from warfare, it can be applied in policy, change management, consumer or B2B research – and it’s particularly helpful for helping stakeholders navigate the early stages of innovation.

Consensus is usually reached over 3+ ‘rounds’ of research:

  • Round 1: a panel of respondents answers open or loosely structured questions to identify the range of relevant issues or ideas.
  • Round 2: responses from round 1 inform a focused questionnaire on emerging themes, which is then completed by the panel.
  • Round 3: The responses from round 2 are aggregated into an average score which is then shared with all members of the panel. Panellists can adjust their answers to the questions in the next round of feedback, after having reflected on the group response. The process for round 3 can then be repeated, with the ultimate aim being to shift individual responses towards a consensus.

After achieving expert consensus, consumers can also be brought into the process to validate the expert view or feed back into an innovation loop. Subsequent rounds can be used to refine and test ideas.

From quality of output to respondent engagement, the Delphi method has a number of broad advantages:

  • It offers a clear solution to researching unknown and complex topics – When predicting future trends, identifying white space for new products, or tackling complex and sector specific issues, this method can help break new ground by harnessing knowledge from a wide range of experts such as academics, bloggers, suppliers, trend commentators and industry experts / specialists in a certain field.
  • It is both in-depth and robust - From initial open-ended feedback to robust quantitative data in subsequent rounds, the method provides a more complete answer to complex questions.
  • It helps avoid ‘group think’ and encourages creative thinking – What is unique about the Delphi approach is that it includes all opinions in the final outcome by incorporating diverse views into the solution, rather than ignoring the minority. Because participation is anonymous and indirect, there is less pressure to adhere to social norms or any organisational culture. This helps push past current paradigms to inspire truly original thinking.
  • The method is engaging for panellists – as well as all panellists feeling their opinion is valid, participants are usually experts in their field and therefore have a vested interest in the outcome. The approach also allows them time to complete their responses in their own time, providing an additional incentive for time-poor participants to take part.

Not only is it great for innovation research but the iterative feedback method is very well suited to the community panel approach.

One of the drawbacks of the Delphi method is that numerous rounds can be time consuming, but using it online in a ‘test and learn’ scenario means the process can be as agile as is required from the research. The Delphi method can be utilised through either an existing continuous panel of businesses or consumers, a custom ‘pop up’ community of experts on a particular topic, or a group of internal stakeholders within an organisation. Because the method works best with the same panel of people over time, a community provides an easy opportunity to go back to the same respondents at a later point in time; the level of anonymity can also be easily customised for each round, making community panels the ideal environment for the research.

The essence of the Delphi method has wide application in research, from more traditional approaches that rely solely on the opinion of experts, to more agile and comprehensive approaches that bring stakeholders, experts and consumers into the innovation process. By consolidating the most up-to-date thinking in your sector the Delphi method can also provide new, robust and actionable insight. In light of trends towards more collaborative (and faster) innovation processes, the Delphi method is the perfect tool to kick-start and crowdsource innovation.

This helps push past current paradigms to inspire truly original thinking.