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Lamm and Trommsdorff Review
Lamm and Trommsdorff (1972) reviewed a number of brainstorming studies. Their findings are not encouraging. In one part of their review, Lamm and Trommsdorff looked at 12 experiments. In 9 of the 12, nominal groups performing silent generation produced more nonduplicative ideas than actual brainstorming groups. The remaining 3 found no difference between aggregates and brainstorming groups. Lamm and Trommsdorff also reviewed 8 studies that looked at the quality of ideas generated. Six of these found that nominal groups generated ideas that were, overall, superior to those of brainstorming groups.


Philipsen, Mulac, and Dietrich Study
Why do brainstorming groups produce less and poorer ideas than nominal groups? Is it because brainstorming somehow decreases people's individual abilities to come up with ideas? A study by Philipsen, Mulac, and Dietrich (1979) provides evidence against this possibility. Participants performed two brainstorming tasks, which were each separated into two stages. In the preliminary stage of the first task, group members worked together for 12 minutes and made verbal proposals for solving a problem. During the second stage of this task, the members separated. They then silently generated ideas in response to the same problem for 12 minutes.

For the second task, participants worked alone the entire time. During the first stage of this task, participants took 12 minutes to make individual verbal proposals for solving a problem. In the second stage, just as in the first task, they silently generated ideas for the same problem for 12 minutes.

The researchers looked at the first stage of each task and compared the participants' performance. They found, as expected, that nominal groups verbalized more nonduplicative proposals than brainstorming groups during this stage. The aggregates averaged 41 ideas; the brainstorming groups averaged only 23.

The experimenters then compared the second stage of each task. Members of nominal and brainstorming groups wrote down the same number of proposals, an average of 35. The researchers also judged that the quality of the ideas was similar. These findings suggest that members of brainstorming groups may have the potential to generate as many, and as good, ideas as people in nominal groups.

Thus, brainstorming does not harm people's individual decision-making capacities. Therefore, there is something else going on during brainstorming sessions that harms idea generation. Several possible reasons for these findings have been suggested:

1. Members may continue to fear criticism and, therefore, withhold proposals, even though the conditions of brainstorming forbid criticism.


2. Brainstorming groups may spend too much time in task-irrelevant talk.
3. People in the groups may become overaroused, causing them not to be at their psychological best for creative work.
4. Dominant and talkative participants might monopolize the brainstorming discussion, preventing other members from making their suggestions.
5. As they do with additive tasks, members of brainstorming groups may engage in "social loafing" (see Chapter 2).

Although all five of these proposals are probably correct from time to time, research by Diehl and Stroebe (1987) suggests that the most important reason may be a sixth. In a group brainstorming session, there is often a delay between the time when a group member thinks of an idea and the time the member can contribute the idea to the group. This is because other members are usually speaking. During that time, members are prone to either forget their idea or, contrary to the rules of brainstorming, suppress it. Further, when group members listen to one another's proposals, they are often distracted from thinking of ideas themselves. In short, brainstorming leads to production blocking, or the inability to concentrate on idea generation and verbalization. This problem does not occur in silent idea generation, in which people can concentrate on ideas and write them down as soon as they think of them.

It follows from the concept of production blocking that increasing the size of a brainstorming group will not increase the number of ideas generated, despite the extra people. More members means more difficulty getting the floor and more other people to listen ti, thus increase production blocking. This implication was supported in research by Bouchard and Hare (1970). The number of ideas generated by brainstorming groups with 5, 7, and 9 members was compared with the number of ideas generated by nominal groups of 5, 7, and 9 individuals brainstorming alone. The individuals in the 5-person nominal groups generated more than 100 ideas on average, and this number increased to about 140 for the 7-person nominal groups and 175 for the 9-person. The real brainstorming groups, no matter their size, only generated about 60.


General Conclusions

Thus the advantages of silent idea generation over brainstorming are real. Nominal groups doing silent idea generation tend to produce ideas higher in quality and quantity than brainstorming groups. This does not necessarily imply that people should always generate proposals when they are alone instead of when they are in groups. For example, brainstorming is fun. The maintenance advantages it provides groups may outweigh the loss of quality and quantity of ideas. Another consideration is that the experience of brainstorming may improve the ability of group members to work together during the subsequent stages of decision making (Philipsen et al., 1979). Thus, the group experience of generating ideas together still may be worthwhile, despite the experimental findings.

Further, it is important to note that brainstorming groups produce more ideas than groups with that have no procedure for generating proposals. Kramer, Kuo, and Dailey (1997) explored this notion in their research. Five member groups were asked to develop a two-hour orientation program for high school students visiting their university. Groups generated ideas either through either silent generation, brainstorming, or free discussion. Once again, silent generation led to the most proposals, but brainstorming also led to more ideas than free discussion. Further, brainstorming groups were equally satisfied with their decision process and their communication as silent generation groups and more satisfied than free discussion groups. Therefore, if group members are going to generate ideas together, brainstorming may be a good method for doing it.


THE NOMINAL GROUP TECHNIQUE

In this section we will describe the procedure called the Nominal Group Technique, or NGT, proposed by Delbecq, Van de Ven, and Gustafson (1975). This procedure is a complete method for decision making, moving from idea generation to the final decision. It also provides a procedure for generating ideas, which has both advantages and disadvantages in comparison with the brainstorming technique.




Description

So far in this book, we have used the term "nominal groups" to denote groups that do not actually meet. Instead, several individuals work alone to create the products of nominal groups. NGT maintains that members of a nominal group do meet. The technique, however, discourages interaction among group participants. Members interact directly with an assigned group leader instead of with one another. Thus, the model attempts to establish a wheel network. We should not overemphasize the analogy between NGT and the wheel structure, however. Members in a group using NGT do see one another and hear one another's messages. Hence, the group structure is not exactly a wheel.



NGT consists of the following six-step procedure:

Step I--Silent Generation of Ideas. The leader first presents the group with the issue that it needs to resolve. For example, the leader of the Diner's Club might ask, "What should we cook for dinner?" Next, the leader and the other group members work individually, silently writing a list of alternative courses of action. They have a predetermined amount of time in which to do this. For instance, the leader of the Diner's Club could give the group five minutes to write ideas. If someone disrupts this silent, independent activity, the leader should speak to the group as a whole rather than to the guilty person. For instance, the leader might say to the group, "Please, we should be working alone right now.''


Step 2--Round-Robin Recording of Ideas. Under direction of the leader, the members take turns speaking. One at a time, the leader and all members each present one proposal to the group. The leader writes down the ideas, in the form of short phrases, on a sheet of paper, chalkboard, or similar medium and places the list so that it is clearly within each member's sight. The leader should try to phrase a member's proposal in the same wording that the member used. Alternatively, the leader can ask for the member's approval if any paraphrasing of the idea is necessary. Participants continue taking turns and offering one proposal at a time until no new ideas are forthcoming. Members should not restrict themselves by saying only the alternatives that they have written on their personal lists. They should voice any further ideas that come into their minds during this period. As in brainstorming, the participants should piggyback on the ideas of one another. If a person has no new proposals when his or her turn comes around, the person should say "Pass" and give the floor to the next member. People who pass may reenter when their turn comes again if they think of new ideas. If all members pass on any round, the leader should declare that Step 2 is over.


Step 3--Serial Discussion for Clarification. Starting at the top of the list, the leader covers each proposal in turn. He or she leads a group discussion to ensure a common understanding of each alternative. As the leader comes to each new item on the list, the member responsible for the idea can take the major role in the discussion. The group should, however, encourage all members to express their thoughts about the meanings and implications of all ideas. The rules for this discussion include keeping evaluation to a minimum and not allowing arguments about the ideas. The leader is responsible for enforcing these rules. Again, if someone breaks a rule, the leader should criticize the group as a whole rather than the guilty person.


Step 4--Preliminary Vote on Item Importance. The intention of this step is to shorten the list of alternatives. The group does this by eliminating proposals that have little support among group members. To do so, participants work silently. They rate each idea and write down their ratings on a piece of paper. The members use a predetermined method to rank each alternative. One method is for each person to choose five favorite ideas and rank-order them with number one being the favorite. Ideas that do not fall into these top five do not receive a ranking. If the Diner's Club used this method of ranking, the members' lists might look like Table 13.1.

After members complete their rankings, they hand in their sheets of paper to the leader. The leader should shuffle the papers to maintain member anonymity. He or she then tallies the rankings for each proposal on the chalkboard, large paper, or whatever else he or she is using to display the proposals. The group then looks at the rankings and eliminates the alternatives that most group members do not support. The members attempt to retain five to ten ideas that they can discuss further. In our example, the Diner's Club might retain the alternative that three members approve, such as steak, spaghetti and meat sauce, chow mein, and tacos. The group might further add salad because it was one member's favorite choice.




Table 13.1

Group Members

Proposal

A

B

C

D

Steak

1

3




4

Spaghetti and meat sauce

3

1




2

Salad







1




Chow mein




4

2

3

Hamburgers

2







5

Tacos




2

5

1

Hot dogs

5










Sandwiches




5

4




Pork chops

4




3




An alternative ranking method is to have members rate each proposal on a scale from "0" to "10." "Zero" would indicate a terrible idea, and "10" would represent a great proposal. The members could then eliminate the proposals that most members feel are poor ideas.


Step 5--Discussion of the Preliminary Vote. The intention of this step is to allow members to study the remaining proposals further in preparation for a final vote. Again, the group looks at each alternative in turn. Members should raise any additional questions that they might have about the meanings and implications of the proposals. Evaluation of the ideas is again discouraged.


Step 6--Final Vote. Members once again individually evaluate the remaining proposals and write their judgments on paper. The leader again anonymously tabulates the ratings, or rankings, and writes them on the paper or chalkboard in front of the group. The idea that the group members evaluate most highly becomes the group choice.


Advantages

Looking over the steps of the model, we can see that Delbecq et al. designed the NGT to restrict the flow of communication among group members. In addition, the rules of the technique make it difficult for the group as a whole to evaluate the proposals or argue about them. Members cannot easily become aware of one another's feelings concerning the proposals. Thus, when a leader fears that free group discussion will lead to undesired conflict among members, NGT is a good technique for the group to use. In addition, the method is effective in situations in which members are strangers and may feel uncomfortable disclosing their preferences. The procedure is also effective if participants wish to keep their opinions secret.

In short, NGT depersonalizes group decision making. The method is a good defense against the effects of overly talkative or dominant members. It ensures that all participants have an equal opportunity to propose courses of action. Through the use of a paper-and-pencil rating, it also guarantees that all will have equal input for choosing the best proposal.

Further, we can best characterize NGT as compromise between optimizing and satisficing procedures. The technique is not really a satisficing method, in that it is likely to lead to an optimal decision. Unlike a truly optimizing model, however, NGT does not maintain that people are capable of doing many calculations at once. It does not claim that members can deal with all the information necessary for making the optimal choice at the same time. Instead, the technique has the group narrow the number of proposals to a rather manageable number in Step 4. The group then has only a few ideas left to consider during the final study stage of Step 5.




Disadvantages

The use of NGT also has several disadvantages. For one thing, it is time-consuming. For another, it is relatively boring for a group to go through the NGT stages. The technique may also suppress "off-the-wall" ideas because, unlike brainstorming, idea generation and expression are different steps in the procedure. The time between the two allows members to think about their proposals and perhaps choose not to say the most free-wheeling of them aloud. The person might feel uncomfortable letting the group inspect a somewhat strange idea.

To circumvent this potential problem, a leader may choose to omit the silent writing of ideas described in Step 1 and replace this step with a brainstorming session. This substitution can work as long as the leader feels that the members are sufficiently comfortable with one another and that none of the participants will become overly dominant.

Thus, NGT has advantages and disadvantages. Since its creation, groups have found it useful for certain situations.

Table 13.2 summarizes the steps in the Nominal Group Technique.

TABLE 13.2 Summary of steps in Nominal Group Technique.


Step 1 - Silent generation of ideas

Step 2 - Round-robin recording of ideas

Step 3 - Serial discussion for clarification

Step 4 - Preliminary vote on item importance

Step 5 - Discussion of the preliminary vote

Step 6 - Final vote

Now we shall move on to another procedure that groups have been using for several decades.




REFLECTIVE THINKING

The Reflective Thinking procedure is an attempt to provide groups with an optimizing decision-making method. It is based on the work of the philosopher John Dewey (1910). Dewey proposed that people generally follow a series of steps when they think "reflectively." He believed that people make "active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends" (p. 6).




Dewey's Hypothesis

In Dewey's view, a reflective thinker goes through the following stages when considering a problem:


1. The person feels that a ''difficulty'' or problem exists in the present situation or course of action. This problem exists due to any of the following causes:


a. The situation and a desired goal are different. For example, the person wishes to reach a town but is lost.


b. An inconsistency exists among known facts and/or beliefs. For instance, the person reaches a town that he or she thought was the destination, but the town has a different name than the person thought it would.


c. An inconsistency exists between events as they have occurred and the expectation of how they should occur. These expectations are based on rules or laws. The person thought that walking westward would lead him or her to the town, for instance, but instead the person became lost.


2. The person locates and defines the difficulty as precisely as possible and looks for the causes of the problem. This step requires that the reflective thinker use "suspended judgment." This means making an active attempt not to accept the most available cause or explanation for the difficulty without additional reflection. In more modern terminology, the person must make an effort not to use a simplified heuristic when making a judgment. For instance, why does the town have a different name than the person expected? The most available explanation might be that the person is lost. He or she should not simply accept this, however. Is it perhaps the same town with a different name? Is the town the person wants simply very close by? Further questions can follow.


3. The person forms an image of the ideal solution to the difficulty. This image includes the characteristics of the ideal solution and what the ideal solution would accomplish. In our example, the ideal solution would succeed in getting her or him to the town being sought.


4. The reflective thinker proposes a set of theories, hypotheses, or solutions that may solve the problem. For example, the person is in the right town, or the person needs to take a different road.


5. The person evaluates the proposals. Using the results from the third step, the person knows the requirements for an optimal solution. He or she compares the proposals with these requirements and chooses the most reasonable solution. For instance, if the person decides that he or she is lost, he or she then decides, based on evaluation, that the optimal solution to this dilemma is to take another road.


6. The reflective thinker finally makes further observations and tests to see if the choice is correct. The person asks directions and further discovers where he or she should be heading.




Description

In Chapter 12, we discussed research that suggests that people may not normally make decisions in an orderly process, such as the one that Dewey envisioned above. Nevertheless, scientists have used Dewey's proposal as the basis for a decision-making model. The model uses Dewey's ideas to suggest how people and groups should make decisions. As we have stated, the resulting model is the Reflective Thinking procedure. It is an optimizing method that uses a comcon communication network. As long as all group members know how to use the procedure, an assigned leader is unnecessary. If this is not the case, an assigned leader who is familiar with the technique should lead the group.

The Reflective Thinking method uses the following steps, each with its own set of questions:


Step I--Awareness of the Difficulty

a. "What is a precise definition of the difficulty?" To answer this question, the group states the problem. For example, the Diner's Club might ask, "What should we cook for dinner?" The group then must come to an agreement about the meanings of the important terms in this statement. For instance, does the term "dinner" mean only a meal that people eat late in the day? Does it also imply that the meal is large?

b. "What are the symptoms of the difficulty? How has the problem manifested itself? Whom does it hurt, and how does it hurt them? Under what conditions does it harm them?" In the case of the Diner's Club, the symptom is hunger. It affects the members of the group by making them uncomfortable.

c. "How big is the problem? Is it getting worse?" For the members of the Diner's Club, it is late in the day, and the symptom of hunger is getting worse.

d. "What are the implications of the difficulty in the future?" The members might answer, "If we do not eat, we will eventually become weak and irritable."

e. "What is being done at present to meet the problem? In what ways are these efforts ineffective?" In the case of the Diner's Club, nothing is being done. No one is making dinner.




Step 2--Analysis of the Problem

a. "What causes led to the present difficulty? What conditions exist in the situation that allow the causes to act as they do?" For the Diner's Club, the problem is that they have nothing planned for dinner. This difficulty occurred because they did not think about it earlier. Conditions kept them from thinking about dinner. They were working hard on an important project of planning a group trip to a gourmet festival, and they were not yet hungry. Hence, when they got together to plan their club's dinner, it was already late. A fundamental cause for the members' difficulty is that people must eat to live, and the club is now together in order to eat.

b. "Which causes are major and which are secondary?" The major reason for the difficulty is that the club members failed to think about it. Their not being hungry earlier should not have kept them from thinking about it, and thus this cause is actually minor. Indeed, the members are now hungry; so the cause has become irrelevant to the present situation.

c. "What direction should our approach take?" The group must make a decision concerning which aspect of the problem the best course of action should address. Should it deal directly with the fundamental cause? Should it instead focus on the less important causes or on the symptoms? Ideally, people wish to deal with the fundamental cause of a difficulty, which is often impractical. In the case of the Diner's Club, members must accept that people must eat to live. They can then deal with the problem of deciding what to eat.

d. "Which requirements must a satisfactory solution meet?" This is perhaps the most difficult part of the Reflective Thinking procedure; yet it is an extremely important step if the group wants to perform the procedure well. Here, the group generates a list of criteria that an optimal proposal must meet. Scientists who advocate the Reflective Thinking procedure have not taken a stand regarding how the group should generate this list of solutions. Perhaps an abbreviated NGT procedure would suffice. Members could follow steps 1 through 4 of NGT, for example. In general, some criteria that would concern the group would be the extent to which the proposal would eliminate the difficulty and its symptoms and the extent to which the course of action is feasible in terms of time, person-power, expense, and material. In the case of the Diner's Club, the group decides that tonight's dinner must meet the criteria of (1) taking less than an hour to cook, (2) being relatively easy to prepare, (3) requiring foods that are on hand in a condition that the members can use (for example, the food cannot be frozen), and (4) being plentiful enough to feed the entire group.

e. "Must a course of action observe any 'boundaries'?" By "boundaries," we mean capability and feasibility values. The existence of boundaries might suggest the need for additional criteria for an optimal proposal. For example, cooking a steak might be sufficient for solving the difficulty, and it is feasible as well. If the group includes some vegetarians, however, a steak would present a problem. It would go beyond the boundaries that a course of action should observe for the group. For our purposes, however, let us assume that the Diner's Club would like its dinner to meet a certain aesthetic level. This would become the group's fifth criterion.




Step 3--Suggestions of Possible Solutions

As with question "d" above, the Reflective Thinking procedure does not provide a method for listing possible solutions. A group may choose its own technique. For instance, members could choose to brainstorm proposals. Another technique would be to perform steps 1 and 2 of the NGT procedure. Let us assume that in this step the Diner's Club comes up with the same list of proposed foods that it generated in the example of NGT.




Step 4--Evaluation of Solutions

This step includes the major aspect of Step 3 in the NGT model. Both steps emphasize that this is the time when members should come to understand the meanings and implications of each proposed course of action. The evaluation of solutions in Reflective Thinking, however, goes far beyond Step 3 of NGT. Groups using Reflective Thinking take each idea in turn and evaluate it. Evaluation is performed by judging the proposals in terms of the extent to which they met the criteria and boundaries that the group set in Step 2. In our example of the Diner's Club, the group makes the judgments shown in Table 13.3.




Table 13.3







Criteria







Food

Quick

Easy

Available

Plentiful

Aesthetic

Steak

Yes

Yes

No

No

Yes

Spaghetti and meat sauce

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Salad

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Chow mein

Yes

Yes

No

No

Yes

Hamburgers

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

No

Tacos

Yes

Yes

No

No

Yes

Hot dogs

Yes

Yes

No

No

No

Sandwiches

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Pork chops

Yes

Yes

No

No

Yes

As you can see, the group judged that all of the suggestions were sufficiently quick and easy. It appears, however, that the group members do not have steak, hot dogs, pork chops, Chinese or Mexican foods available. They do have enough ground beef for meat sauce, but they do not have enough for hamburgers. Sandwiches do not meet the aesthetic standards of the group. This means that the members are left with only two alternatives that meet both the criteria and boundaries that they have set for their dinner. These choices are spaghetti and meat sauce and salad. Rather than trying to decide between them, the group opts to make them both.




Step 5--Implementation of Chosen Solution
Reflective Thinking does not include a special process for this step. As with NGT, a group needs to repeat all the steps in order to plan how it will implement its decisions. This time the new difficulty will be "How will we prepare the spaghetti and salad?" The steps will start all over again with this new question.

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