Insight Author
Garrett Sheridan
Principal UX and Product Designer

How to quickly generate ideas and make group decisions

Avoid lengthy debates with the “note and vote” technique.

March 8, 2018
Marino Insights Cover Image

Meetings can be a pain. Endless debate, conversations going around in circles, indecision and time wasting. Reserved people shy away from speaking while confident members dominate. Groupthink is difficult to avoid. We often end up choosing the first acceptable idea without exploring the many options that may lay hidden in our collective minds or not making any decision at all.

One of the most useful things we learned from Jake Knapp during our Design Sprint training with him was the “note and vote” technique. It’s part of the Design Sprint process and also powerful as a standalone technique helping teams to make better decisions, quicker.

At Marino Software this simple hack has saved us hours of debate and helped us to make decisions quickly.

What you’ll need

  • A problem to solve or a question to answer
  • A sheet of paper for each participant
  • A stack of post-it notes
  • A sharpie or other heavy black writing tool (one for each participant)
  • Some dot stickers
  • A decider (optional)
  • A timer

Method

Generate ideas

With your problem or question in mind, take a blank sheet of paper and write down as many ideas as possible. This piece of paper isn’t shared with anyone so don’t self-sensor. If it pops into your head, write it down. Spend about five or ten minutes doing this.

Next, choose the top ideas from your page. One or two should be enough. Write your chosen ideas on post it notes, one idea per note with a Sharpie or a thick black pen. There’s no discussion needed here. Do it alone and in silence. This should take about 2 minutes.

Share ideas

Once everyone has written down their suggestions it’s time to share. Take turns to stick the post-it notes on a board, wall or window where everyone can read them. As you place each note, read it out loud to the group. Don’t go into any more detail. What’s on the note should be enough to get the idea across. No selling needed here.

Vote!

Each person gets a dot sticker. They then choose which suggestion they think is most appropriate. They make their choice by placing their dot on the post-it note of their choice. You can also vote for your own idea. Again, do this without discussion or deliberation.

Decide

By now you should have a good idea of which options are most appropriate according to the group. You may choose to give a few more stickers to a key decision maker to give a bit more weight to their opinion.

That’s it! You’ve done it. 

Why this works

Divergence and convergence

This exercise makes use of divergent and convergent modes of operation, creating choices (divergence) to make choices (convergence). This allows us to generate lots of ideas and then filter down to suitable options.

Wisdom of Crowds

Groups can be incredibly intelligent. When working together effectively they are often smarter than the smartest people in the group.

This video explains the idea pretty well.

According to James Surowiecki, author of “The Wisdom of Crowds”, there are four elements required to form a wise crowd.

Diversity

Different perspectives on a problem are valuable. More group diversity will increase the chances of members having “private information”. This will increase the richness of ideas generated in the note and vote process as well as the quality of decision making. Keep this in mind when choosing your team.

Independence

Too much communication can make the group as a whole less intelligent. It’s important that our group’s opinions aren’t overly influenced by those around them. This is why we work alone to generate ideas.

Decentralisation

Local knowledge and specialisations can be leveraged to generate better options.

Aggregation

A mechanism must exist to turn internal thoughts into a collective decision. The note and vote technique is great for this.

Things to watch out for

It can sometimes feel like magic but this process is not without its limitations.

Garbage in, garbage out

Your solution will only be as good as the options you generate as well as the judgment of your participants.

Groupthink

The note and vote technique is great for reducing groupthink but can’t stop it completely.

When voting it’s not unusual for popular options to become even more popular. We have all witnessed sheep-like mentality and we’ve all been guilty of this without even realising it. It’s important to keep this in mind when voting. Are you doing it because you think it’s a good idea or are you doing it because it seems popular?

If you think groupthink might be an issue for your team you can tweak this process slightly. Instead of using the dot stickers to vote, each participant can take a post-it note and write their chosen option(s) privately. You can then stick them up on the board and tally up which ones are most popular.

If you’d like to find out more about the design sprint process and how it can help you should talk to us. Go forth and make great decisions… quickly!

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