When Dot Voting is Unfair and Ineffective – What to Do Instead


I think everyone I know who has heard about facilitation or practices it, also knows about dot voting. It may be one of the most popular yet misused tools I’ve ever encountered in the field. I feel so strongly about it’s misuse that I’ve probably only used it twice in my entire career. Those two times were not very effective.

I’ll be brief. 

Dot voting is not effective because it usually doesn’t allow for all voices and perspectives to be heard in the room. It has the effect of letting the dominant group get their way. That’s a serious misuse of power in the room.

So when could you use it? And what should you do instead since it’s generally thought to be a great way to help group prioritize a lot of different options open to them?

The way most people do dot voting is to take a number of items which haven’t been thoroughly discussed or clarified, and give people a few color dots. Then they ask everyone to come up and put their dots on their preferred options. And then the facilitator pronounces the winning vote. Please don’t ever do that. This video will help you a bit with some better ways. It may make you laugh. 

If You Use Dot Voting, Do These 4 Things…


When Could You Use Dot Voting?

I would only use dot voting when:

  • It is NOT a final and important decision to be made.
  • There is no power imbalance in the room which is almost never the case.
  • When you just want to use it as a warm-up discussion to see if any items can be taken off the table. 

An Alternative to Dot Voting

One alternative is the following I learned from One Smart World founder, Bob Wiele. 

He calls it the traffic light 🚦 tool. 

  • Discuss every option. Clarify exactly what each is. Make sure everyone in the room knows what they are prioritizing or voting on.
  • For every option that is on the screen or flipchart, have people raise a green, yellow, or red piece of paper. Green can mean yes, keep this option on the table. Yellow might mean I’m not sure, I probably need more data. Red means I’m OK with taking this option off the table, in other words this idea is not worth discussing today.

If everyone holds up the red card, that’s probably a good sign that this option is not worth spending any further discussion time on. The group is deciding to discard it. Any options with yellow signs might just need some further data to decide whether to have more discussion on it. The green options are ones that they are likely going to have higher priorities. Then I would hold a thorough discussion of each of these in small groups. Let the group slowly come to a conclusion, especially when the decision or priority choices are going to have a long-term impact.

What have you discovered (plus and minus) about dot voting?

Resources For More Prioritizing Tools

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.


  1. Mary Forst on May 15, 2019 at 12:04 am

    On Barbara’s advice, I didn’t use the dot voting I’d planned for my group. Instead, I had them discuss the list of issues in pairs – first with someone from their own organization (for safety), and had them answer 3 questions:
    1. Which of these issues, if it could be resolved, would be most beneficial for you personally?
    2. Which would be most beneficial for your organization?
    3. Which do you think the other organization would see as most beneficial?

    I then had them pair up with a pair from the other organization, and share their answers. None of them got #3 right! That was very intriguing to them, and the discussion was very animated. When we shared in the large group, there was almost unanimity on the top issue – which we might have gotten from dot voting – but the atmosphere in the room had changed dramatically, and discussion became much more vulnerable and productive. In the meeting evaluation, this exercise was named as the turning point.

    Thank you Barbara!

    • Barbara MacKay on May 21, 2019 at 7:12 pm

      Thanks a lot, Mary. This is wonderful to hear how you figured out something differently.

  2. […] create some kind of misrepresentation of what people actually want. Dot voting is popular but as this blog from North Star Facilitators outlines, it might not always be the best. One prioritisation method I […]

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