Polling: How to Narrow a Brainstorm List

Rick Bohan

In my last post, I went over a few basic guidelines to brainstorming.  In this post we’ll address that important question: “What the heck do we do with all this stuff we just came up with?”

It’s true that “figuring out what to do with all that stuff” is something of an issue.  Do you now start talking about each and every one of those 32 ideas the team just brainstormed?  Do you try to weed some ideas out?  Do you take a vote on which ideas the team likes best?

Polling the list at this state works well, in my experience.  Polling is a method that visually indicates which of the ideas the team has the most interest in.  It looks like “voting”…but it isn’t.  It acts as an informal prioritization method  that doesn’t so much narrow the list as it does uncover which items the team is most interested in pursuing.

Here’s how it works:  Everybody gets three tallies to indicate which items on the brainstormed list are the most important, most interesting, best ideas, most likely to succeeed, whatever.  By “tallies” I mean that each team member gets three check marks to put next to the items they’re most interested in discussing.  All the team members get out of their seats, read all the items on the flip chart sheets (You did write all the ideas on flip chart seats, didn’t you?  Or, at least, a dry erase board?) and mark their tallies

There’s an important twist though: Team members can distribute their tallies any way they like.  In other words, they can put one tally next to each of three items, or all three tallies next to one item if they wish.  The idea is that if someone feels very strongly about an idea, she can indicate that by putting more than one tally next to it.

But isn’t that “gaming the system”?   It would be…if there was a system  to game.  All you’re doing is seeing what items the team is interested in discussing.  If someone is so interested in a topic that she is willing to put all three of her tallies next to it, should the team give that idea some consideration?

Once everyone has completed the task, I usually point out (and, maybe, circle) the items with lots of tallies.  I also acknowledge the items with just one or two tallies.  You might be able to combine some of the items with several tallies to further narrow the list.  In any case, the team likely has a manageable list of items to discuss. I’ve often seen teams decide that the tallied items make a good set of ideas that work together and don’t need to be further narrowed down.

One last thing:  I sometimes will give more than three tallies.  If the list is a long one or if I don’t want to do too much “list narrowing”, I’ll tell each member they can have five or even more tallies.

You’ll find that brainstorming, followed by polling is an efficient way of getting lots of ideas out on the table and working through them.


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