To vote or not to vote…or, at least, HOW to vote: Heads, shoulders, knees and toes (well thumbs, fingers, movement and technology)

Measurement, Meetings No Comments

When was the last time you were in a meeting when something was put to the vote? If you work in Government you probably see a lot of voting. Or you might work somewhere where the leader ‘senses’ the group view. Maybe you lead a team where you decide, so don’t really look for a majority view. I have written about voting in a musical context even! In a ‘workshop’ or facilitated meeting voting has a particular usefulness – and can be fun too.

Helping explore the range of opinion in a group is a core facilitation skill. Voting methods help achieve an understanding of where other people are on a particular issue. And, importantly, only rarely is voting used for decision making. However, polling methods can be popular for the life they bring to a meeting – both in terms of the highlighting of certain ideas and the kinaesthetic action that most votes involve (you have to move something for all of them).

Voting is a useful tool to learn how to deploy – and is suitable for groups of any size, though especially for larger groups where the issue of helping individual ‘voice’ is particularly important and where the meaning of silence can’t be assumed (as assent, difference, reflection time etc).

There are three parts to good voting. You might imagine these as a 3 legged stool, that would topple over without all three parts:
1. The crafting of good questions,
2. The choice of an appropriate voting method and
3. Knowing how to get a useful discussion of the results.

This blog is focused mainly on the repertoire of methods (the second part). However, the first part ‘stool’ is important – posing a good questions requires incisive listening to get the topic right and clear communication so what you are checking is understood. Sometimes a group can get lost trying to agree the question to vote on. This might indicate something of the complexity and contentiousness of the issues – or the failure of the facilitator to ‘make it easy’ for the group!

[If you want to know more about crafting a good question have a look here.

The Opportunity of a good questions comes from
a. The right Orientation – as in Heron, are you supporting, challenging, opening up…
b. A clear Purpose – The famous Kipling poem gives some options for how to start a question from why to where, what to who, when to how, (as in ‘how do you do?’). However, sometimes the best first word in a question is ‘given’ or ‘in light of’ etc…such as “Thinking of the ideas presented so far in this blog, what do you rate as your degree of engagement in what you are reading (___/10).”
c. What Power words open up the mind and get the creative juices going: critical, simplest, significant, challenging, relevant…and any other adjectives can be used.
And remember to think through the response format: how far will any question be a few categories (eg in response to a proposal, such as “This day is going well – yes, no, bit of both, no idea”) or pick up a numeric score (“out of 10, 10 being high”).]

The third leg of the ‘stool’ remains important. Even if the question is powerful and useful, and the voting method is engaging and illuminating too, there might be a failure to sufficiently discuss the insights from the results. Alternatively the discussion can go on too long.

So, back to the second leg (or part) of good voting: choosing the right voting method…

Voting is often assumed to be useful in helping a group decide – but most organisations and events are not democracies. Some people’s views matter more than others when it comes to agreeing action (the far right of the decision making diamond). However, in a group session voting can help ‘divine’ the group view. The purpose here is to inform subsequent thinking and discussion. A bit like the Delphi Method, the opinions that are seen more clearly in a vote give members a chance to re-calibrate their opinion.

Voting helps in the exploring. It can be used on ‘process’ issues as well as the content of meeting – eg to test acceptance of any agenda change. For example, using SPOG  you might use a vote to check if some vocal members of the group are representative of the whole.

Voting is useful in helping keep plenary sessions lively, see this.

A number of low-tech methods include:

1. The Traditional: arm up and down (with the possible twist of using two hands or stretching if you REALLY agree).
2. The Bobbing: people standing up and down in response to the question.
3. The Caesar: thumbs up and down – or wavering in the middle.
4. The Goldilocks test: eg too warm, too cold, just right.
5. Giving the finger(s) – showing your score to a question (out of ten, five) with your fingers.
6. The Sticky Strip: dots, thumbs up stickers, arrows, gold stars (NB – you can allocate a fixed number of stickies per person, or allow colleagues to ‘use all they need’) .
7. The Anonymous: hand in a piece of paper on arrival or on the way to the break (to summarise and feedback later on). Other ways to collect these bits of can involve throwing in a screwed up ball to be caught in a bin – or making them into paper planes to come to the front.
8. Balls in buckets: place a ball (or other object, like a rolled up piece of paper or cork) in a receptacle labelled to indicate a particular view.
9. The Poster: getting a sub group to agree their score to a vote on poster – before feeding it back to the whole group.
10. The Human Likert Scale: standing on a line (eg from 1-10 or low to high or Fear to Hope etc).
11. The Run-around (or the Human Histogram) – With places for those giving a particular number to stand (see p24 here).  A version of this is to explore the number of ‘Ayes’ ‘Noes’ and ‘Abstentions’ as per the political division process.
12. The Clap-o-meter: based on the loudest clap (to explore degrees of support from ‘pitiful’ to ‘massively enthusiastic’)
13. The Voting Card: which can be used in a variety of formats and ways. Please let me know if you want some of the idenk cards  f.o.c, or want to know the sorts of ways they can be used – from RAG ( to supporting wonky tables : )

This is probably not a definitive list of lower tech options. I’d be interested in the methods you use and can imagine (such as sitting in certain sections of a room, depending on your opinion; signalling your view with your body language). Some methods favour certain sorts of questions (eg hands up and down for those questions with a few fixed categories, to scales from 1-10 when using fingers or standing on a line).
It is worth noting that most of these are not anonymous. In groups where trust is low, then the insight might be questionable. Also, and more importantly, any method that allows colleagues to see what others think before they declare their result runs the risks of contagion (or groupthink). Asking people to all vote at the same time (when using hands) – or think hard to clarify their thoughts before moving to stick dots or walking standing in a particular place – can help.

Some of the methods require no props, others require some investment and packing in advance (eg voting cards, pre-prepared voting sheets). All voting requires some attention to the necessary ‘kit’ to capture the results and insights – from a camera to pre-prepared slides and spreadsheets to swiftly bring up the results for discussion during the meeting – or to feed back in the record. Even a pen and paper summary of a vote can be interesting when photographed and projected up.

As well as these low tech methods, there are some electronic options too:
14. The e-survey: getting a vote in advance (or on arrival or by going online in breaks). Note it is possible to then repeat these scores in low tech votes (or repeat and capture on review cards too).
15. The xls: getting people to fill in a pre-questionnaire (often an assessment of some sort).
16. Electronic voting: the is a very common method, but regularly used very poorly – with unimaginative questions and insufficient discussion: hence, the stool falls over! Try coming up with provocative questions (such as word association: “I say leadership, you think dictator, where, brilliant, pants…”) with engaging, plain English categories (“I have absolutely no idea” or “I have lost the will to live”).
17. Tweet: counting tweets to specific hash tags – or text numbers
18. The Apps: the more fashionable end of e-voting, such as Poll Daddy.

Beware: these electronic ones can seem attractive (and regularly appeal to leaders who commission events), but tend to cost more and are harder to use ‘in the moment’. They are best used when they can pass the Heineken Test: achieving something no other method can (such as handing complexity, cross tabulation etc).

And note, the GrandDaddy of digital insight Hans Rosling has gone a bit analogue recently, with his plastic boxes. Don’t be afraid to keep it simple with methods that are easier to amend and busk.

So, overall, voting provides a way of engaging head, heart and hands – and doing it in a way that helps a group to move through the ‘Decision Diamond’.

And…which ideas did you find most useful here…vote now…



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