Are your votes going to waste?

It’s common among Agile teams to use some form of voting to make decisions, and that’s especially true for retrospectives where the team as a whole decides what to fix next.


Over the years I have facilitated many retrospectives and had the opportunity to vote for many things, over that time some patterns emerged.


  • The Early Settler – gets to the board first and stakes their claim
  • The Swing Voter – waits until the end to try and influence the system (I usually suggest that the last person to vote tidies the room at the end)
  • The Mid-Table Fatalist – votes with the masses even when they don’t want to, as their real choice has too few votes to make the cut


The one pattern that really worries me is the “Fatalist”. Having to go with the masses because you can’t get enough votes triggers my “bump of trouble”, essentially something that you feel strongly about is getting missed and ignored by the “process” and voting is the only “tool” you have.


This problem is further compounded when there are a large number of participants.


I recently tried to break this cycle using a hidden voting system, it worked well, there was a more even spread of votes and the minority got an equal voice.


Here’s how we did it.


  1. Assign a number to each item the team will be voting on, e.g. 5 items are numbered 1 – 5.
  2. Decide how many votes each participant will have, e.g. 10 votes to distribute between the 5 items. Give each participant the right amount of blank ‘votes’, e.g. I like to use sticky dots (with the backing paper still attached!), so I’d give them 10 blank sticky dots.
  3. Instruct each participant to write a number on each sticky dot, e.g. a participant with 10 dot ‘votes’ to distribute between 5 items may choose to assign three votes to item 2, six votes to item 4, and 1 vote to item 5.
  4. Making sure that you have one number per voting slip.
  5. When you are done put your votes in a cup, it’s important to wait until all the voting is complete to prevent any voting bias for the slower voters.
  6. Count the votes for each item, as we used sticky dots we just stuck the dot next to the corresponding number and counted up.
  7. Apply whatever your usual methods are for the number of items you want to select and who owns them.


It’s not complex, but it does deliver great results, each time I have done this method I invariably hear, “I never thought that would have been the team’s top choice!” from more than just one person in the room.


So if you want to break out from your current voting method then give the hidden ballot at go.


Mike Lowery