Is Delphi unethical?

What? The Delphi technique unethical? How could that be? I first learned about this technique when studying project management. I understood it to be a method of brainstorming that encourages unbiased input from all participants. That sounds like a very ethical way to operate. The PMI (Project Management Institute), which is fundamentally founded on a code of ethics considers it to be a valid approach to creative problem solving and consensus generation.

Brainstorming may sound like a great idea to the project manager who is looking for creative solutions to perplexing problems, but they don’t always sound like a lot of fun to the participants. Although most of these sessions operate under the rules of “no value judgments” all it takes to shut someone down is to hear laughter at their quite serious suggestions. These meetings can also be encumbered by subject matter experts (read know-it-alls) who are condescending and sarcastic.

Enter the Delphi technique…named for the Oracle at Delphi who foresaw the future and was consulted before major events such as colonizing or starting wars. Very powerful indeed, she was the human voice of the god Apollo. The creators of the Delphi technique actually disliked the name because there is no magic or mystery in the technique itself. It is simply based on the assertion that group judgments are more valid than individual judgments.

The technique works by using a survey or questionnaire repeatedly and drawing all input anonymously. It can be used when face-to-face meetings are difficult or impossible to arrange, and it can be used to eliminate the potential bullying that can occur in a badly run brainstorming meeting. The purpose of repeating the questions is to remove bias, assuming that the first responses will contain the strongest biases. When the participants are exposed to the responses of the group and the process is repeated, the biases tend to be eliminated, thus resulting in consensus of the group.

So, what about the question of ethics? According to Carl Pritchard in his book ‘Risk Management, Concepts and Guidance’: “The cycle of question, response, and reiteration is repeated several times to ensure that the highest quality of information possible is extracted from the experts.” Trying to ensure that the quality of information is of the highest quality possible sounds to me like the opposite of unethical behavior.

So who considers it to be unethical and why? I came across the question of the ethics of the technique while studying for a SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) certification. What?!? A certification not from PMI? Yes folks…there is a whole world out there, but that is fodder for another day. Why does SHRM consider it to be unethical? There are many related articles available on the internet…just google ‘unethical delphi’ and you get about 50,000 hits.(1)

The gist of it is that the technique is used to reach a predetermined conclusion. In other words, to manipulate the group. It has evidently become popular within politics to give the impression that public input is actually having an impact on decisions when in reality, the decision has been made already, and the group is being guided, unknowingly, toward that end.
That does sound unethical, and to be sure maybe we should look at the definition of ‘ethical’. I think we all know and understand what is and isn’t ethical behavior. It’s doing the right thing for the right reasons. However, the actual definition of the word places it in the context of the standards of the profession.

There is an old axiom that the only difference between motivation and manipulation is intent, and I think that is the issue here. In our world of project management, we strive to act in the most ethical manner possible at all times. There are ethical ways to employ the Delphi technique and there are unethical ways to use it to manipulate data and people. Therefore, the technique itself is neither ethical nor unethical. Techniques and tools do not differentiate between right and wrong, people do!