How to use post-it notes to gain meeting consensus

While brainstorming story themes recently with a client, I employed a brainstorming technique I had used numerous times before.   It makes use of Post-it notes to gain consensus in meetings where you have three or more participants.  It can also be effective in meetings with strong personalities; those with passionate agendas.

Though I used it recently in a meeting related to an eLearning / video project (which is why I'm sharing it here), you'll see that it can effectively be used in many other business scenarios.  In fact, I wrote about this technique a couple of years ago in a similar article for BusinessCasualBlog.com.  It continues to gain a high number of hits on that blog, which tells me it's an oft-searched for topic.  So, I figure I'll share it here with you, as well.

Beyond Brainstorming

decision-making mindmap

If you've ever participated in a brainstorming session, then you know how quickly a group of folks can fill up a series of flipcharts or the white space on a white board.  Like you, I've participated in meetings where we successfully whittled the brainstormed list down to a prioritized short list.  Then, yet further to actionable tasks. That's the ideal result.

That said, I've also been in meetings (too many) where, at the end of it all, we concluded with nothing more than a lot of great ideas on a bunch of flip charts.

It's for this latter set of managers that I'm sharing this post.

What follows is an eight-step consensus-building process I've used successfully in meetings to get down to a short list of prioritized and actionable ideas after having begun with a long list of brainstormed ideas.

Now, I can't take credit for this. It's something I learned from others, and I doubt any of us know who started the whole thing. But, it's worth sharing. If for nothing else, then maybe I won't have to waste my time sitting in on too many more fruitless brainstorming meetings in the future.

So, if you learn something new here, then pay it forward. Pass this information along.

The tools

What you'll need: Post-it notes, markers, flip charts (or white board), pens.

In anchoring a starting point, let me begin by assuming you've already generated a long list of brainstormed ideas.  Then, with list in hand (or strewn on flipcharts across multiple walls), do the following:

1. Group and categorize the list of ideas. This is an iterative process where the facilitator goes down the list of ideas in succession. With each list item, the group is asked if there is anything in the list above it that might make for combining or grouping. Some things to keep in mind:

  • To facilitate a smoother round, each idea should be given a letter label. ("A," "B,", "C,"... and so on.)
  • Avoid using numbers.  A numbered list often conveys a sense of implied rank ordering or prioritization.
  • When you combine ideas, cross out the letter (not the idea) of the list item being combined. Then, write it's letter next to the line item to which it is being combined.

Sample Brainstorm List2. Clean up the list. Usually, the brainstorming session itself, and Step 1 above, will have taken a bit of time. The flip chart will be messy, the group will have felt like they've really worked hard. (Which is why some unskilled facilitators allow the meeting to adjourn immediately after brainstorming or after the grouping step. Fight this temptation.)

Instead, put everybody on a break while you (or a co-facilitator) clean up the list by re-writing the resulting grouped line items onto a clean set of flip charts.

After you've created a clean list, give each line item a new set of alphabetic labels. (Again, "A," "B," "C,"... etc.)

Conduct a weighted talley using Post-it notes.

And herein lies the crux of this process.

3. Count the number of items in the list and divide by three (3). Let's assume, for argument's sake, we have a list of eight items, as the image above shows.

Dividing by three (and then rounding), we end up with the number 3. (Well, 2.67..., but practically speaking, let's round up.)

By dividing the number of line items by the number three, you're defining the number of "votes" each member will get in the next step. (Note: Don't get hung up on why we're dividing by three. I've heard this referred to as the "N/3 Method." It's largely arbitrary, but generally it gives a result that reasonably assigns an "appropriate" number of votes for each participant.)

4. Distribute Post-It notes. The number of Post-Its you give out to each participant should equal the result in Step 3. So, in our example, (after rounding up) you would give three (3) Post-it notes to each participant.

5. "Pick what you like." Instruct each member to write one letter, from the list, on each Post-it note. Each letter represents a unique line item from the list. And, no duplication of letters is allowed. In other words, no fair stacking your votes. (Unless, for some reason, the group agrees that's okay... remember, the key thing here is to get the group to agree to the process. If they agree with that, they'll go along with the results.)

Sample rank order during brainstorming6. Rank order. Once each participant has had an opportunity to write a letter on each of the Post-it notes they've been given (three in this example), instruct them now to focus on the letters on the Post-it notes, and the idea that each letter represents.

Challenge them to rank order each Post-it note by placing a number next to each letter. (1 = Lowest in their set. And, in our example, 3 = the highest. Clearly, if the result of Step 3 above dictated 5 Post-its for each participant, then 5 would then be the highest rank.)

Sample brainstorm list result using post-it notes7. Reveal their weighted tallies. After each member has had an opportunity to complete their rank ordering exercise, instruct them to all come up to the white board at the same time (or, if it's a large meeting, then in smaller groups of 6 to 10). Have them place their respective Post-It notes next to its corresponding line item on the flip chart.

Note: This is a powerful step. It psychologically reinforces the "wisdom of the crowd." Each participant is less likely to challenge the resulting tally since, by their participation, they've agreed to the process that is currently at work. And, therefore, the results.

8. Sum and prioritize. Once all participants have had an opportunity to place their Post-it note on the flip chart, you or your co-facilitator should then tally the numbers (on the Post-it notes) associated with each line item. Write the sum boldly in the margin next to the idea to which it corresponds.

The result is a prioritized list: those ideas with the highest sums (e.g., D, E and A, in our example) are assigned the highest priority.

But wait, what if there's a tie?

Look at items B, C, and F in our example. Notice the Post-its associated with each of them add up to 3 on their respective lines. That's not a problem. You can either follow the same steps as above or modify the steps slightly using a simple tally with a simple show of hands while focusing on only those line items that require tie breakers.

Of course, this may be moot if the goal was to prioritize and, say, identify the top 3 items from which to develop action steps and assignment of responsibilities.

Summary

What I showed you here is a basic technique that many trained facilitators may be familiar with. (While not all may do it exactly this way, each has a similar process for achieving group consensus.)

But, if this is new for you, and it helps you at your next meeting, then remember to pay it forward. Pass the information along to a friend. By doing so, you and I may be saving each other from another dreadful "go nowhere" brainstorming meeting sometime in the future.


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About Mel

Mel is the online training architect and screencasting wizard at Kareo, one of Forbes' 2013 list of 100 Most Promising Companies in America. He's also the creator of Digital-Know-How, a training website devoted to developing learners' skills for screencasting and web video course development. Mel is also the chief blogger of ScreencastingWizard.com; Mel's personal blog. The comments and opinions you read here are Mel's and not associated with any other company.
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