Over the past year or so, something pretty remarkable, weird even, has gone on in a LinkedIn group I happen to be a member of.
Note: The group name is CPA Sole Practitioners and CPA Small Firms, by the way.
The remarkable, weird thing that’s been going in? This linked-in group, which consists of more than three thousand CPA firm owners, has used a powerful problem solving technique called the Delphi method to solve a series of tricky problems and to answer a long list of complicated questions.
Because this process has been so cool and beneficial to the CPAs who participate, I want to talk about what the Delphi method is and why it works. Then I want to hypothesize just a little bit about why this particular online forum can perform Delphi method problem solving when most online forums can’t. And then, to close, I want to make a suggestion to you.
Why the Delphi Method Works
So what is the Delphi method? In a nutshell, you gather together a group of experts and get them to collaboratively solve a problem or answer a question.
For example, say you’ve got a really tricky problem or terribly complicated question. What you do is find a handful of true experts. And then you ask them to independently solve the problem or answer the question. (Initially, then, you want some variety and freedom and unconstrained creativity in the process.)
But here’s the next part. After you get the initial solutions or answers, you go back to the experts and have them assess each other’s suggestions and also to frankly reassess their own initial solution or answer in light of what other people have come up with. So, the Delphi method process includes cross-pollination that works iteratively.
What’s neat here is that the process, when it works, tends to converge on a solution or an answer that reflects the combined, and often synergistic, expertise and experience of a bunch smart, thoughtful people.
And this is what I’ve seen happen repeatedly in the small CPA firm owners LinkedIn group.
Over the last year, for example, the group has provided thoughtful answers to questions about starting a CPA firm, about branding and strategy, about the appropriate software and technology tools for specific situations, and so forth.
Note: If you’re interested in a longer discussion of the Delphi method, you should peek at this free ebook available from the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Why a LinkedIn Group Can Do Delphi Method
Okay, so be bluntly honest for a minute. Have you ever before participated in an online forum that provides naturally the sort of expert problem-solving that underlies the Delphi method?
I will guess the answer is “No.” (I haven’t.)
More commonly, if your experience resembles mine, you find yourself in online forums where the signal to noise ratio is very, very low.
The LinkedIn group described here represents a happy exception to the usual nonsense. And I suspect three or four factors explain the exceptionalism.
- The solo CPA practitioner and single owner CPA firms LinkedIn group requires members to possess both a technical professional credential (a CPA professional license) and relevant work experience to join. (In comparison, in most online forums, you only need an email account to participate and then begin offering up opinions and advice.)
- Member identities and credentials including college and graduate degrees and truly relevant work experience can easily be verified and checked using member LinkedIn profiles. (In comparison, with many online forums, you often don’t know for sure who is posting comments, what their agenda is, or what their competencies are. Furthermore, in some popular forums, trolls hijack discussions for ulterior motives.)
- The LinkedIn group’s homogeneity naturally focuses discussions to a very narrow range of topics and about which dozens (maybe hundreds?) of members are truly expert. (In many online forums, in contrast, you commonly see inexpert gadflys superficially discuss a very wide range of topics.)
- Armando Balbin and Denise Swanson, the two CPAs who administer the group, deftly keep discussions professional and collegial. That professionalism and collegiality usually keep the discussions solution-focused and constructive and allow for participants to engage in spirited discussions that can converge on solutions and answers. (Getting the atmosphere right is tricky, which is why formal Delphi method processes often go to great lengths to make each expert willing to contribute and critique ideas and to reassess their own ideas and criticisms.)
The Big Takeaway
I don’t know what business you own or operate. But I leave you with these parting thoughts.
First, the Delphi method provides a really powerful way to deal with the toughest problems and questions you and I face as business owners. Panels of experts can in many situations provide you—provide me—with great practical, actionable insights.
Second, while online forums usually can’t effectively use a Delphi Method approach, some well-constructed, niche-y groups like the one run by Armando Balbin and Denise Swanson do. See if you can find one of these groups for your situation. And if you can find one, you ought to join—and count your lucky stars.
Third, can I say one last thing? If you can’t find a great existing online forum to participate in, maybe you should start one.
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