Make decisions easier with this prioritizing tool

Paired Comparisons is an easy systematic way to compare multiple choices that can lead to surprising results!

It is helpful to know there are simple and easy tools to make the decision-making process work better. The paired comparisons tool is an objective and easy method to set priorities, determine the value of one idea over another, and include quieter group members in the decision-making process. It can be used when priorities are unclear and ideas are competing for importance.

The Law of Comparative Judgment, or paired comparisons, was first introduced by L.L. Thurstone in 1927. At the time, Thurstone’s emphasis was on comparing components of psychometrics and psychophysics. Today this tool has been expanded to help people make more informed decisions around a variety of goals, issues, objectives or strategies.

When using paired comparisons, it is best to utilize a worksheet or diagram, which will provide participants a template to compare one item against each of the other items on a list. To add further dimensions, items may also be weighted.

The paired comparisons tool may be applied to individuals who are trying to sort through a list of options or used in group settings. For example, a family might want to prioritize a location for their next vacation. In accordance with their budget and timeline, they have brainstormed five locations: Maui, Big Sur, Paris, Disneyworld and Beaver Island. Each family member individually compares one locale against every other.

For example, one family member’s worksheet could look like this:

Paired Comparisons Example

Total number of A’s – 2; B’s – 1; C’s – 0; D’s – 4; E’s – 3

Now, each family member adds together all of their A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and E’s to determine how many times each letter was circled. The letters circled the most times are the top priorities. This is different than just ranking because it compares each option against every other option. Sometimes the results are surprising!

Several examples of paired comparison worksheets can be found online. There’s a very good illustration of a worksheet, as well as weighted comparisons on a video by the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State University of New York. Susan Keller-Mathers facilitates the prioritization of an individual’s career goals, within a group discussion, through a paired comparison process and analysis.

Finally, a key to completing the paired comparison process is debriefing the results. The following questions provide an opportunity to review the results and determine action steps:

  • How do you feel about these priorities?
  • Which one of these should carry forward and why?
  • Which of these are you willing to work on?
  • Is there anything you feel strongly about that is NOT a high priority (this is an especially important question when working in a group context)?
  • Where do you (we) go from here?

The paired comparison tool is one of the many facilitation tools, techniques and skills that are taught in the Michigan State University Extension Facilitative Leadership Workshop

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