Dot voting tips

An easy and quick way to calculate how many dots to use for best results.


Brainstorming sessions, such as those used in strategic planning, usually come up with many options/ideas/issues that must be prioritized. One technique that is commonly used by strategic planning practitioners, including myself and several Michigan State University Extension colleagues, is called sticky-dot voting. The name is pretty descriptive; participants use self-adhesive colored dots to “vote” for the items they feel are most important to take action on.

One question that comes up often is how many dots each participant should have. Over my years doing this type of work, I have developed a formula to quickly, in my head, calculate how many are needed for each participant.

I start with the assumption that the ideal would be to have an even distribution of votes across the whole group of issues to get a clear picture of priorities. Obviously, that never happens as some are more popular and others get almost no votes. That assumption does give us an effective starting point, however.

So, let’s say there are 16 options. Even distribution would range from 1 vote for the least popular to 16 for the highest. The average, then, would be about 8 (dividing the number of topics by 2 to get this number is the first mental calculation). To accomplish this, you would need enough dots for each of the 16 issues to have 8 dots, 8X16=128 (this is the second quick mental calculation), making 128 the optimum total number of dots. I also believe that fewer will contribute to gaps in the distribution, while more is likely to enhance the picture of preferences, creating more votes for the higher end as a group, or more votes for a larger group in the middle if there is less enthusiasm for the higher and lower end of the spectrum, etc. I personally would rather have more information, but not so much that the number of dots is so large the process becomes unwieldy, or all things appear equally important.

I then divide the total number of dots needed, 128, by the number of participants, we’ll say 20 in this example, which gives us about 6.5 dots per person (this is the third quick mental calculation). I usually always round up (since I’d rather have a few too many than not enough), making 7 in this example, but may round down if my dots are already in strips of 3, making 6 a much easier number to distribute.

A simple mathematic formula works better for some people than the story problem we just walked through. So, in simple formula form:

T=number of issues or topics, P=number of participants and N=number of dots needed for each person.

The formula is: N=[(T/2)xT]/P

I generally suggest that participants vote for their top “however many dots they have” number of issues, but will occasionally allow some duplicate dot voting to express strong preferences. With a totally trustworthy group, this should work fine. I have been criticized, for one incident in particular, for this being taken advantage of by several participants in a large group who waited and watched, then loaded all their dots on one or two issues so that those would “win”. The result was a couple of expensive, but much needed, infrastructure projects. At least one person thought other things were more important. The lesson learned from that experience is to ask participants to limit the number of dots they place on any one option to 2, and watch carefully to be sure things don’t get out of hand.

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