"Vote Now"​: 18 Analogue and Digital methods to sample participant opinion - guaranteed to bring your meeting to life

Vote Now

When was the last time you were in a meeting when something was put to the vote? On some Boards and in local to national government there can be a lot of formal voting. Even, in a ‘workshop’ or facilitated meeting voting has a particular usefulness – and can be enjoyable too.

Helping a group of confidently explore the range of opinion in a group is a core facilitation skill. Voting methods help us understand what is on other peoples minds. Whilst sometimes voting is used for decision making, polling methods are of most use for the life and energy they bring to a meeting – both in terms of highlighting certain ideas plus 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. For example, is it a sign of agreement, difference or even just a pause for reflection?

The three essential elements for good group voting

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.

Leg One: Making a powerful question to go to the vote

Good questions come from:

  1. The right Orientation – drawing on the work of Heron, are you supporting, challenging, opening up? Also, have you got the scale and subject right? Are you drilling down to a specific proposal or looking at at bigger issue of principle? Are you sticking with the subject in play - or moving the goalposts a bit? If you want to know more about crafting the right orientation in a good question have a look here.
  2. 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.
  3. The set up - sometimes the best first word in a question is not one of the Kipling six but something like ‘given’ or ‘in light of’ or 'in your view' etc. For example, “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, where 10 is high)?”
  4. What 'power' words open up the mind and get the creative juices going: 'critical', 'simplest', 'significant', 'challenging', 'relevant'…any other adjectives can be used. "Hands up if your reaction when you read the word 'blog' is for it to make your 'heart sink' - or let your 'heart soar'?"

Leg Three: Using votes for stimulating discussion and making progress

Before coming to the second leg of the stool, let's consider the third support of the ‘stool’ - the discussion of the results. This is really 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 due to time pressures or avoidance.. Alternatively the discussion can go on too long. Voting can really help bring long plenary sessions to life, especially when groups are reporting back - to avoid 'Death by Feedback'.

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 'wisdom of the crowd'. The purpose here is to inform subsequent thinking and discussion. The opinions that are seen more clearly in a vote give members a chance to re-calibrate their opinion.

So, voting in meetings is most helpful in exploring, not deciding. It might even be useful on ‘process’ issues as well as the core content of meeting. For example, you can test the acceptance of any change to the meeting agenda. For example, using SPOG (summarise, propose, output, gather) you might use a vote to check if some vocal members of the group wanting a new agenda item or approach are representative of the whole.

The Second Leg: voting tools and techniques...'the big 18'

Now we come to, the second leg (or part) of good voting, and the main focus of this article: choosing the right voting method. Your preference and choice of these will be determined by your personal style and the character and needs of the meeting. Some facilitators (and groups) will hate one, but love another.

There is a whole canvass of options, conveniently summed up in an illustrative two by two matrix:

Voting Matrix

The analogue...

Expanding a bit, there are a number of low-tech methods to sample opinion. These 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 (red.amber.green) to supporting wonky tables : )

This is 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).

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.

...and the digital

As well as these low tech 'analogue' methods, there are some electronic 'digital' options too:

  1. 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).
  2. The xls: getting people to fill in a pre-questionnaire (often an assessment of some sort).
  3. 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, rubbish…”) with engaging, plain English categories (“I have absolutely no idea” or “I have lost the will to live”).
  4. Tweet: counting tweets to specific hash tags – or text numbers
  5. The Apps: the more fashionable end of e-voting, with a fast growing market and with products at a range of different price points and complexity. Some voting systems are integrated into conference apps that also host agendas and participant bios. Some are simple and work on a browser, which I tend to favour and enjoy using in ways that make the most of my independence and ability for people to contribute anonymously.

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, the late Hans Rosling, went a bit analogue with his plastic boxes, having made his name with fancy graphics. 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’ in interesting, lively and even fun ways.

Finally...which ideas did you find most useful here..."vote now".


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