Vote Early And Often – Getting Value From Brainstorming

voting machine

Brainstorming can be a simultaneously fun and effective technique for identifying software features or requirements. We’ve written previously about how to facilitate a brainstorming session and how to leverage the results. Timothy Johnson shares another way to use brainstorming results effectively. His way is more fun, and may be just as effective.

A Simple Formula

Here’s the idea, graphically.

brainstorming economics

Brainstorming yields ideas.

Ideas, combined with voting yields value.

The voting piece yields value, because it helps to focus our efforts on the best ideas.

Means of Voting

We previously proposed a way to gather everyone’s inputs, by having them value each idea. Our method included the following:

Count the requirements. We’re going to create three evenly sized priority buckets and place the requirements in the buckets (1,2,3). Each person will rate every requirement as a 1,2 or 3 (1 being most important). Give each person a stack of post it notes and a marker, and have them make out a fixed number of 1,2, and 3 post-its (evenly divided, with the remainder as 2s). It’s important that people be forced to divide the scoring evenly so that they don’t make every requirement a 1.

Everyone prioritizes the requirements. Have everyone physically get up, mill about, and stick their post-it-note priorities on all of the requirements. The scoring is somewhat subjective and individual. Provide a guidance about how ideas should be rated (value, feasibility, alignment with strategy), but ultimately each person will make a judgement call, and that’s ok.

from Five Steps to Picking the Best Requirements

Timothy proposes a simpler, easier, more fun way to get everyone’s inputs, including the following:

  • Count up the number of items on the list and divide by three. This is how many dots (or votes) each person receives. For example, if you brainstormed 60 items, then there will be 20 voting dots given to each participant.
  • If possible, assign a color to each person. Some facilitators like to give everyone the same color to keep things anonymous. I prefer accountability over anonymity any day.
  • Each person spends their votes like currency. They may place all their dots on a single item if they truly believe it is important. The bottom line is that it makes people intersect their priorities and their passions.

from See Spot. See Spot Vote


These two approaches seem to have the same general effect, in applying the “wisdom of crowds” to weed out the bad ideas and center attention on the good ideas. Since brainstorming tends to create a very broad range of ideas, the approaches tend to be very effective at weeding out the impractical and valueless ideas. There are a couple interesting additional factors at play in the two approaches.

The first approach, which we proposed in January of 2006, has the positive benefit of forcing each person to think about every idea in a relative sense. Because each person has to vote on every idea, they have a limited number of “bad idea” chits and “good idea” chits to spend. This will force a number of independent “X is better than Y” analyses.

The second approach, where each vote is treated as currency is much more fun. People are going on a shopping spree. This approach allows someone who believes passionately in an idea to “spend” all of their votes on that idea. This has the positive result of allowing someone who wants to champion an idea to have a dramatic impact on that idea’s results. This also introduces the risk of a passionate person from forcing a “good idea” to the top of the list. There is also the risk that people who can’t make good decisions will dillute their inputs across too many ideas.

The first approach takes the totals and uses those numerical values in a form of idea-triage, to drive future investment (in the investigation of the ideas). The second approach includes a discussion of ideas and voting afterwords.

Both approaches capture an assessment of the group’s perspective on all of the ideas, and barring extreme behavior by any of the voters, will result in reasonable results. Timothy’s approach is definitely more fun, and allows people to express their desire to champion one or two ideas with disproportionate voting. Our previous approach feels a little more like work, and forces people to apply a valuation framework to the ideas.

Best of Both Worlds

The elements that are most important in the two approaches are

  • Capturing passion
  • Using a valuation framework to compare ideas
  • Having fun

Proposed Combined Approach

We would propose that using the “rate every idea” approach is important, while having the ability to express passion is important. We suggest keeping the {1,2,3} rating approach, but also giving every person in the session a “5 spot” that they can “spend” on any idea. They don’t have to spend it, but should if they really believe in something. This will help capture the passion that Timothy’s approach uses so effectively.

3 thoughts on “Vote Early And Often – Getting Value From Brainstorming

  1. Thanks, Scott. You analyzed a great comparison between the techniques and further advanced the idea that “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.” Personally, the approach I covered is a favorite because it tends to appeal to all three learning styles: audio (who get to hear the discussion and vocalize their ideas during brainstorming), visual (who see the results of the brainstorming and the voting), and kinesthetic (who get to stand up and physically touch their votes). Too often we forget that we have different types of people in our rooms, each of whom need to buy into ideas. Wonderful post!

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