Deciding what is most important can be difficult. Deciding what is most important as a group is usually difficult and frustrating. However, the same prioritization techniques you use as an individual can be used to gain quick and easy agreement among a group. Good, transparent prioritization underpins good communication.
Forced Ranking Is Straightforward
The first prioritization approach is forced ranking. This is what we do when deciding what to eat for lunch. Whether it is chicken, a hamburger, or pizza, we can normally rank our preferences quickly in 1–2–3 order.
Individuals prioritize their choices by ranking them or by evaluating features.
Multiple Criteria Adds Complexity
The second approach is by establishing multiple criteria. The criteria for each item could include “fewer calories,” “less wait time,” or “something different than I ate yesterday.” Evaluating alternatives using multiple criteria is a form of problem disaggregation, a common problem-solving technique that has been around for centuries.
Both Approaches Are Viable
We often forget that these two approaches equally apply to problem solving in groups — whether the group is a business group, a family group, or a group of friends. The major difference is that decision making in groups requires some form of consensus, whereas decision making as an individual requires a simple choice. Getting to a consensus in a group requires more structure and more formality.
Picking and Communicating All-Stars
Two examples from Little League baseball come to mind. The first is on picking the all-star team. Little League International requires that all players vote on the individuals to fill the team. This is a ranking approach using ballots and where the players with the most votes are selected for the team. From multiple years of experience, the approach works well for picking the first eight of the twelve players on the team.
The same ranking approach can apply to everything from what a group of friends wants for lunch to which projects the business unit wants to do first and to which car a family wishes to purchase. The approach does not tell us the "why" or the "how much" one alternative is preferred to another, but it is straightforward, good for confirming the most preferred choices, and preferred when there is not a lot of data.
Making Communications Fair
The second example from Little League baseball comes from player evaluations used to draft teams at the beginning of the season. In our local league, our established process is to have each team rank each player from 1 to 5 in four categories — throwing, hitting, fielding, and running. A copy of each team's rating for each player is provided to the league secretary, who compiles the results. The goal is to provide the best opportunity for balanced teams. Providing an overall rating and a category rating for each player provides every coach with a form of consensus information. It works extremely well.
Differences in the Approaches
The same multiple-criteria approach applies to a full range of groups in a similar way as a ranking approach. The biggest differences are the amount of information that must be collected and the time it takes to collect it. For more mature groups, it allows for effective consensus-building by driving discussion around the “why” and “how much” represented by each category.
The multiple criteria approach is a common consensus-building tool for groups.
Context Should Dictate the Approach
So which approach is better? The simple answer is that they are equally good because each day I use both in my life to prioritize what to do next. The more complicated answer is that it depends on many things, and I do not always know why I use one over the other. My solution is to use both when prioritizing complex or complicated decisions.
Better Prioritization Underpins Good Communication
Which approach to prioritization is better? It depends on the decision-making context. The bottom line is that either a forced rank approach or a multiple criteria approach provides defensible, transparent logic. Either method underpins good communication.