Ranking Exercises: A Powerful Facilitation Tool
Ranked voting exercises can help facilitate better discussions and decisions and promote more equitable and inclusive input.
Approximate reading time: four minutes.
Reaching a decision often is easier if everyone involved agrees on and applies the same criteria for evaluating options. But individuals can still differ in how much weight they might assign each criterion or other ratings or assessments they might make.
Ranked voting or prioritization exercises can help surface these different perspectives in a productive and nonthreatening manner. More robust input and discussion generally increases the quality of the decisions made and/or the ownership those involved feel for the final decision.
What is a ranked voting exercise?
A typical ranked voting exercise first asks individuals to complete their own ranking or assessment form a list of options provided. Individual responses are shared (informally or formally) and discussion follows in order to achieve a group ranking that reflects the consensus of all involved.
Remember, consensus does not mean everyone shares the same level of enthusiasm for a decision. It means people can live with it. Consensus is not the best standard for decisions which will require greater enthusiasm and commitment.
“How about we start by having everyone share what they rated as #1.”
“Let’s determine the average rating for each criterion by having people share how they rated it.”
When might you use a ranking or prioritization activity?
I generally use a ranking or prioritization exercise for strategic questions for which a clear, objective, and decisive right answer does not exist. The format helps group members share their subjective perspectives and generate a group answer that is sufficiently “right” for their efforts and needs.
A committee has been formed to develop the rating criteria for a new award. Each committee member is asked to submit two possible criteria. The aggregated list is distributed and each committee member is asked to review the complete list, identify the top ten they think should be used to evaluate award nominees, and to rank those ten in order of importance. Sharing of individual perspectives and group discussion follows until the group achieves a consensus for the final award criteria
What are the key benefits of this format?
Ranked voting or prioritization exercises have many benefits, including:
Fostering greater equity and inclusion through use of individual ratings before a group decision is reached;
Increasing the likelihood that outlier or minority perspectives are considered;
Making it easier for decisions to be made by introducing minimal structure to a somewhat open-ended question;
Minimizing the odds that the personal persuasion capabilities of one or more individuals can easily dominate or overpower the group; and
Introducing a quantitative element to a qualitative decision-making process.
Ranking exercises can divide nicely into two stages: (1) asynchronous completion of individual rankings and (2) synchronous discussion and to determine group consensus. If desired, individual rankings could be submitted in advance of the second stage with a compilation of those ratings distributed as pre-work for the synchronous discussion.
What is the facilitator’s role?
It can vary. If the primary outcome is to reach a consensus decision, opt for normal facilitator involvement in managing the conversational process.
But if an additional outcome is to strengthen self-management and/or teamwork among the group, I often let the group facilitate its own process to reach a group consensus, simply giving them the instructions and the timeframe to complete their task.
Once they are done, I assume a more active facilitation role, inviting them to individually reflect on the experience and what lessons can be learned from their collaborative conversations. I then facilitate open discussion of their self-assessment and help them hone in on what worked well and should be leveraged and what they might need or want to do differently.
What are other ways to use rankings or prioritization exercises?
The format is incredibly multi-purpose and adaptable, but like any tool or exercise, should only be used when it will make it easier for desired outcomes to be achieved. I often use it when trying to help a group:
Hone in on the most relevant trends that should inform their strategic planning efforts.
Select the most desirable partners or collaborators for an initiative.
Determine objectives or activities to prioritize from a lengthy list of desirable options.
Identify how to invest limited resources among an array of programmatic possibilities.
Create the list of required criteria for positions in the organization, be they volunteer or compensated.
Facilitators need a variety of tools, techniques, and formats to help groups efficiently surface and honor individual perspectives, as well as effectively generate decisions. Ranked voting or prioritization exercises are one easy way to do so.
Additional recommended reading
For Better Decisions, Use Decision-Making Rules
Help Surface the Unacknowledged or Unexpressed
How do I handle different belief systems among meeting participants?
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Smiled as I read. Thanks, Jeffrey. I think that my experiences have been such that clients have wanted to 'direct' priorities - that is, even if we do ranking, there is a directive to noodge them into what the client's expectations/needs are. So perhaps the additional advice: clarify before taking on facilitation the outcomes and methods!