Dot Voting – How PMs Can Avoid Wasting Time on Ideas Everyone Hates

24 Jan

You’re leading a brainstorming and prioritization session, and there are a dozen or more ideas on the white board. You could ask someone to pitch each idea, you could encourage debate of each idea’s merits, or you could quickly eliminate most of the ideas with a single step, and focus the discussion: ask people to vote on their top 3 favorite ideas.

Dot Voting helps me focus everyone’s time on the ideas that have the most promise, by simply forcing people to narrow in on the ideas they’re most passionate about. Also sometimes called Dotmocracy or Multi-voting, dot voting is a technique I learned from Intuit’s founder Scott Cook while I was a PM leader at TurboTax. It’s been around since at least the 2000s, and is fairly well documented as a meeting facilitation technique.

Dot Voting at Couchsurfing.jpg

As a Product Manager these are the reasons I’ve come to love dot voting:

Helps get buy-in on priority. When you give an idea in a brainstorm and you never hear about it again afterwards, it can be kind of frustrating. Was your idea ignored? It can be especially maddening if, later, your great idea turns out to be extra great because the situation has changed. If, however, you collect Dot Votes at the end of a meeting, and you see that one of your ideas didn’t get a single vote (especially if you didn’t use a precious vote on it), you can understand why it doesn’t get picked.

Saves time. In prioritization sessions, it sometimes feels like you need to really speak up for your favorite ideas and defend them in front of the group. As the meeting facilitator, you can save a lot of time by pre-empting these monologues with a vote.

Focuses energy on a small set of ideas. Allows you to focus any further discussion with the group around the ideas that have the consensus of the group, and allows you to focus your follow-up research on a smaller set of ideas.

Dot voting isn’t, of course, the perfect tool for every situation. If the ideas you’re considering are new or are difficult to understand on the surface, or if the participants lack context on the problem or customer, it might be the right time to use it.

As a facilitator, there are a few things to watch out for: you can speak up during the meeting to make sure newer ideas are understood, you can use your own votes to help make sure some ideas are considered, and you can make sure the team knows which ideas have customer insights or data to back them. It’s also important to remember that businesses aren’t democracies – sometimes leaders will need to pursue a different direction than the team would favor. Even in these cases, however, it’s helpful to know if you’re fighting an uphill battle or if the team already has your back.

Taking Dot Voting Further: I’ve experimented with using a live Google Spreadsheet to take the Dot Voting concept further, and with each person giving a rank vote for their favorite few ideas (e.g. 1 is best, 5 is worst) in a single session. The collaborative nature of Google Sheets, and easy tabulation and rank-ordering of ideas at the end are appealing. Within a few minutes of starting, you have the beginnings of a priority-ranked set of initiatives.

A few things I like less about it however: everyone’s focused on their laptops instead of their colleagues or the board, it’s very tempting to make live edits to your votes to try and influence the final scores (“oh, idea X isn’t doing well, I’ll bump up my vote on that one because idea Y looks to be solidly in the lead”), and the rank order can give an overly scientific feeling to the outcome.

Do you have experience with Dot Voting? Any tips to share? What other techniques have you tried?

One Response to “Dot Voting – How PMs Can Avoid Wasting Time on Ideas Everyone Hates”

  1. Markus May 10, 2017 at 10:53 pm #

    Hi Mitch,
    I have developed with a friend a tool (PollUnit) for simple prioritizations. First, we only wanted to create an app to allow surveys where the participants can create their own options.
    Since we are both software engineers, we have to plan the retrospectives and filter topics, and have therefore expanded our survey tool. It is possible to create dot votings and star ratings.
    We also use the tool in the team. On a large screen, the survey can be seen and each team member can vote on his laptop or tablet (even users connected via a telephone conference). Each voice is immediately synchronized to all users and the large screen.
    I would imagine that PollUnit is an interesting tool for you. Have a look at

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