The Best Workshop Exercises For Decision-Making

These 9 simple and effective exercises will help you make your decision-making process faster, less overwhelming, and more effective!

Team decision-making is one of the hardest skills to master.

A typical decision-making session scenario includes team members talking over each other, more introverted participants being overpowered by the loudest people in the room, andteam politics impeding real progress...Just talking about this makes our heads hurt! The worst thing about meetings like that is not they are a drag to be in, but that they don't achieve their main goal: that is, defining clear next steps, and aligning the team on a common goal and strategy.

But Working-style differences, politics , and asymmetrical knowledge are just parts of the overall problem. The underlying issue, however, is that conventional collaboration scenarios don’t address that!

So should you just accept that decision-making in teams won't be effective and enjoyable? Not on our watch! These exercises will help you come to a decision faster, with less overwhelm, and sans circular discussions!

Before we dive in, here's a little heads-up: arriving to a common decision with your team is just the tip of the iceberg. For your decision-making sessions to be truly effective, you need to make sure that you're trying to make headway on the right initiative to start with (by defining just the right angle to tackle!), and that the ideas you bring to the table are worthwhile.

It's also a good idea to check that your decision-making process is not disjointed from the rest of the problem-solving cycle and plugs right in to the next steps.

1. Dot Voting

Dot Voting is a great way to narrow down the amount of ideas and possible solutions without digressing into circular discussions. You can weave it into all of the phases of your problem-solving session, whenever you need to quickly prioritize ideas. 

We recommend you go through the list of all exercises before your session and make note of how many dot voting sessions you’ll need. 

Dot Voting is super easy to run: you just set the timer to approximately 5 minutes, and let your team place their votes on ideas they think are the best.

Dot Voting exercise

Some important things to take into account here are:

  • Like most of the workshop exercises, Dot Voting is run in together alone mode, so no discussions or opinion sharing are taking place!
  • You’ll need to estimate the right amount of dots to distribute to each participant to make sure the voting sessions narrow down your choices. Estimating that number is more an art than a science. Generally speaking, the more sticky notes or ideas you have, the more dots you’ll need. For example, if you’re running a Dot Voting Session after a ow Might We exercise, where participants are encouraged to write as many notes as they can think of, you’ll end up with a mass of notes (especially of your team is around 6-8 people), so you’d want to give them 3-5 dots. On the other hand, if you’re running an exercise where there’s not so much output, you might want to keep the number of dots to 1-2.
  • Do not worry too much about getting this exactly right. The idea is to give participants enough dots to get overlapping votes on a few ideas while not giving them too many that you end up with votes on almost every idea. The point of Dot Voting, after all, is to quickly narrow down the sticky notes to the top-voted ones.
  • You’ll need to explain the importance of narrowing ideas down to your group. It  might be hard for some people to discard ideas and that might stall your entire session! To avoid that, tell your workshop participants that discarding some ideas–even the ones they might want to save for later–will help the whole team to focus on the highest priority ones. Dot Voting helps structure the decision making process and allows the group to choose quickly between multiple options without having to go into discussion. Explain that each person will get only a few dots and they have to be selective. This helps focus participants' attention on selecting the highest priority items. 
  • Lastly, make sure to mention that it’s okay for participants to vote on their own ideas. Depending on your workshop, you may choose to allow participants to vote with multiple dots on the same sticky note if they feel strongly about it.

Pro tip: After the Dot Voting is done, you can visualize the priority of your top-voted items by rearranging them in order of decrease with the most number of votes on top, and fewer votes underneath.

Prioritizing top-voted sticky notes

Having the sticky notes tree helps consolidate the top-voted sticky notes in one area in which the participants can look at them and process them visually as one whole.

2. Heat Map

The Heat Map exercise is best used when you need each participant to make one vote on a big idea among many, and each idea has a lot of details (for example, if you need them to make a decision on a detailed concept!).

So rather than asking participants to make a difficult decision and try to hold all the information in their heads while they evaluate the different options, a Heat Map will serve as a great visual summary of where the best parts of each big idea are.

The Heat Map exercise is super easy to run:

  1. Set the timer to 15-20 minutes and tell your participants to go through every concept or big idea and use the voting dots to call out good parts that stuck out to them.
  2. Participants can use as many dots as they want in this exercise. Make sure to explain that this is a non-binding voting exercise and encourage them to spend all of their dots, and even use multiple dots in places that sparked their interest to create some heat.
Heat Map exercise

3. Affinity Diagrams

This exercise is great if you need to structurize and organize loads of information and ideas after an ideation session. Affinity diagram structures ideas according to their relationships and correlations, helping the team make mental connections and arrive to decisions faster and with more ease. 

The core of the exercise is simple: you just need to group the ideas based on their affinity, or similarity! 

  1. Set the timer to 10 minutes and start sorting out the ideas according to their similarities or relationship. All team members should be sorting the notes simultaneously in together alone mode, so with no talking involved! It’s ok to have sticky notes and ideas that don’t seem to fit any category at this point. Make sure to tell your participants to not group the notes in any specific order just yet. 
  2. After you’ve completed the initial grouping, start defining and naming  categories for your idea clusters. Now’s the time to discuss with your group: you can talk over the reasons for moving the ideas to a specific category, and the relationship between the categories.
Affinity Diagrams exercise

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4. Storyboarding

This exercise from the Design Sprint method is perfect if your solution is complex and involves several steps, as it allows to map out each step of your solutions and clarifies which part of your solution you need to concentrate on or test later. 

Here’s a video detailing how to run this exercise:

  1. Start by drawing 8 grids on your (digital) whiteboard. They will represent the steps in the process that you need to map out. While you could change the number of the grids, after running hundreds of Storyboarding sessions, we found that 8 is the magic number. Why? Because going down to 6 makes the storyboard feel a little bit too high-level, while expanding to 10 and above makes it too granular, often keeping teams stuck with discussing non-relevant details. 
  2. It’s useful to have the artefacts from the ideation session handy so that you can incorporate bits and pieces of what you’ve already came up with directly into your storyboard. Having these artefacts will also help keep your team focussed, instead of venturing out in the terrain of ideating new ideas. 
  3. Narrow in on the 8 key steps that will help illustrate the solution you’re trying to create and note them down as headings for the cell. Don’t try to come up with a sketch for every single use case–this will reduce the efficiency of the session! Focus on the aspects you need to sketch out to create a viable solution and accurate user feedback. 
  4. Ask the participants to take 5 minutes to look out for solution material from previous exercises that can be used, and put it on the whiteboard in the corresponding cell. Your storyboard will end up looking somewhat like this:
Storyboarding exercise
  1. Now it’s time to fill in the rest of the cells. The easiest way to do that is to fill in the first cell and the last cell first. Define with the whole group which elements the cells should contain. Because this is an open-discussion format, watch out for circular discussions or unrelated topics sparking up (here are our best tips on how to nip them in the bud!)
  2. Fill in the missing pieces by drawing the rest of the cells. If the participants lose focus after a while and don’t follow the process any more, delegate small tasks (e.g. creating copy) and ask questions that will help with the storyboarding. It should look like this:
Filled out storyboard
  1. Once you’re done with drawing, one person will do a final run-through and narrate the whole storyboard out to the group. If you spot any big gaps or problems, write them down on a sticky note and take 5-10 minutes after the run-through to fill the gaps.

Pro tip: One thing that happens often during storyboarding is that the group gets so enthusiastic about discussing details of the first three screens that time is focused on the beginning portion and the last sections are rushed. It’s a good idea to timebox for each cell and try to not extend the timeboxes for too long.

Continuously remind the group that this is not the final version, but a prototype aimed at helping you answer a few questions.

5. Breadboarding

Don’t have the time to sketch out your entire solution step-by-step? Breadboarding is the next best thing! This exercise will still allow you to commit to a course of action without your solution, but without sketching out the whole thing. 

It’s important you set expectations for this exercise and explain that this process might feel frustrating for people who want to get started drawing details, but that this method will create strong outcomes in a short amount of time. 

  1. Start by drawing 8 grids on your (digital) whiteboard. Just like in the storyboarding exercise, 8 tends to be the sweet spot between going too high-level and too granular, but feel free to experiment and see what suits your challenge best. 
  2. Pull up the artefacts from the ideation session so that you can incorporate bits and pieces of what you’ve already came up with directly into the exercise. 
  3. Start by naming each grid according to the step it represents in your solution.
  4. After you’ve defined the steps, ask your team to look through the artefacts from your ideation session, and place them in the groids they correspond to. Your breadboard will look something like this:
Breadboarding exercise matrix
  1. Now facilitate an open-discussion with your team and fill in the rest of the cells. It’s usually easier to start with the first cell, then move on to the last, and start filling in the rest only after you’ve defined those two. Fill the screens with places that users go to, the affordances they find to take actions and the sequence of actions they take - in words only. You can use arrows to visualize the flow and interactions between elements. For example, here’s how your breadboard could look like if you were working on increasing user base for a banking app:
Breadboarding exercise example

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6. Effort/Impact Scale

The Impact-Effort Matrix is a simple yet powerful tool. It really allows to put all of the solutions in perspective and gauge them based..well, on the impact and effort they will have. It’s super easy to run and can be mastered even by novice facilitators. It’s especially useful if you’re trying to narrow down your choices and focus on a few impactful strategies rather than spreading yourself too thin!

To run an Effort/Impact Scale exercise, simply follow these steps: 

  1. Start by drawing an Effort/ Impact Scale on the whiteboard, and separating the graph into four quadrants by drawing dotted lines from the mid-point of each scale. Have all the ideas you want to prioritize nearby. For ease of running this exercise, all the ideas should be written out on separate sticky notes (1 idea per sticky note) 
  2. Take the first solution sticky note and read it out to the group. Then move over to the scale and hold the sticky note in the middle of the four quadrants, where the two dotted lines cross each other. 
  3. Start with the effort scale and ask the group directly: “Would you rate the effort of this idea as higher or lower?”. Encourage the group to start giving you feedback by saying “higher” or “lower”. Depending on the voice of the group, move the sticky note left and right along the effort scale and stop at a point where the group seems to agree. 
  4. Stay at this horizontal level of the scale and now ask the group how they would rate the impact of this idea. Move the sticky note up or down. When the group agrees on the impact, stick the note to the whiteboard at that spot and leave it there.
  5. Repeat the process until you’ve places all of your potential solutions on the board. Your Effort/Impact Scale will look something like this:
Effort Impact scale with sticky notes
  1. Now it’s time to prioritize the ideas, based on where they landed on the scale:
Effort Impact scale with rioritization quadrants

The ideas in the top left quadrant are the ones with a big impact and low effort - implement these ideas first and prioritise them over others.

The ideas in the top right quadrant have a big impact and a high effort -  Use these as the foundation of a project. 

The ideas in the bottom left quadrant have a low impact and a low effort - These are good ideas to base small tasks on. 

The ideas on the bottom right quadrant have a low impact and a high effort - Set these at the bottom of your priority list. 

And just like that, you have now prioritized your potential solutions and have a clear action plan for every idea. Expect this exercise to get loud as it’s susceptible to high energy from the team. This can lead to more opinion based discussions to evolve such as “I personally think…” instead of a structured assignment process (“more left”, “more right”). Try to stick to the steps described above, always start out in the middle of the quadrants and keep the rating process of the both scales separate to make progress.

7. Roadmap

While there’s definitely no lack of good project management software out there, what these tools don’t offer is a quick and effective way to create realistic timeframes and assign responsibilities in a way that involves your team in the planning process (thereby making them more engaged and switched on for the project!) The Roadmap exercise is your perfect companion for planing out your project in a way that involves the team, increases the alignment, and the buy-in.

Here’s how this exercise is run:

  1. Start by gathering all your solutions, concepts, and ideas that you have already generated. 
  2. Ask your team to pull up their calendars so they can be realistic about their available time to deliver the actions and projects.
  3. You can either use a large whiteboard, digital whiteboard, or share a screen in the project management tool you’re using. Either way is fine, so pick whatever works best for you and your team. 
  4. Depending on the scope of your solution, determine an appropriate time frame. This could be week-by-week, month-by-month or quarter-by-quarter and draw this up along the top of the paper, working left to right. (Pro tip: put these times on sticky-notes so you can move them around)
Roadmap exercise matrix
  1. Line the actions / projects / concepts down the left side. It helps if you have prioritised these in an earlier exercise as you will be able to organize them better.
  2. Present the first idea to the group and ask - “Who is best placed to take responsibility for delivering this action?” Once you have agreed upon who it is, decide an end date for the project deadline and any significant milestones.
  3. Once you have agreed upon the key tasks and a deadline, you can work back to determine a start date. Ask the responsible person to have their diary available so they can be realistic about their desired start date.
  4. Place the action on the start date - with reference to the timeline you have already created on the wall. From the right of the action, draw an arrow to the end date and make a note of this on a sticky note.
  5. Write the initials of the person responsible for this activity on a sticky note and stick it next to the activity.
  6. Repeat this activity for all of the actions.

And just like that, you have planned out your project and got your team on-board with the course of action. This exercise can work very well if you have the right people in the room because everyone is highly likely to be responsible for an activity.

Beware of trying to complete the action or project in the room. Find the right level of detail to go into in order to set specific times and deadlines but do not be tempted into tangents. Don’t set vague or unrealistic timescales - have a diary or calendar around, and make sure you are working in the real world, taking holidays and busy operational times into account.

8. Turn Ideas into Actions

This exercise is all about reframing the(vague)  ideas that you’ve gathered into tangible actions. It’s great if you’ve already prioritized the generated ideas but are struggling to make them tangible to the team, or define how they should be executed. 

  1. Start by gathering all of your ideas in the same place, and read out the first one. 
  2. Remind the group how the idea got prioritized (as a quick experiment, or a longer-term project)
  3. Write down the name of the idea as a headline on the rectangular sticky note. With input from the group, add three bullet points with tangible actions that need to be taken in order to implement this idea.
  4. Add a separate sticky note and - again with the input from the group - define success criteria. 
Ideas into Actions exercise example
  1. Repeat this with all of the ideas.

9. Action Board Workshop

If you’re looking for a plug-and-play workshop that will allow you to quickly prioritize ideas and turn them into action, the Action Board is just what you need! It combines several exercises from this section and is a lightning fast way to make headway on projects. 

Read on for step-by-step instructions on how to run the Action Board workshop here.

Anastasia Ushakova

Brand Strategist, Digital Marketer, and a Workshopper.