The problems with a dotmocracy

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —August 31, 2005
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

Dotmocracy-webHave you ever used the technique we call a ‘dotmocracy’ to get a group to prioritise a set of ideas/initiatives/actions? Each person is given five sticky dots (red ones usually—the ones you find placed next to paintings in a gallery to denote they’ve been sold). Each dot-carrier is then invited to place any number of their dots next to the things that they think are most important. You can use all your dots on one thing or spread them judiciously. The things with the most number of dots is voted by the group as the most important.

Many people have used a dotmocracy before or quickly work out how it works. Consequently there seems to be always a handful of people who hold onto their votes with the hope that their late placement might swing the priority result in their favour.

I’ve observed another interesting dotmocracy pattern. When a cluster of dots form on an issue it seems to attract more dots. I believe economists call this an information cascade where the actions of some influence others creating a domino effect. It’s how fads and market bubbles form. I’m sure I’ve seen dotmocracy fads.

It’s true that a group of people can make a better decision than any single expert—this is the persuasive argument developed by James Surowiecki in his book, Wisdom of Crowds. But group-based decision quality is based on preconditions being satisfied: the group must be diverse; decisions must be made independently; and decision making information is decentralised. These conditions can be satisfied in a workshop prioritisation activity by simply conducting a secret vote.

One thing I like about the dotmocracy approach is the mayhem and excitement is creates with everyone milling about one another. I wonder if the secret vote approach would kill that dynamic?

Do you know of other ways to aggregate a group decision in a workshop environment?

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Here:
    This is a somewhat technical description of a method Michael Herman and I use in Open Space in which we forgo dots for convergence and action planning in the heart of people who want to do the work.
    This answers the biggest problem with dots for me, which is that it absolves folks of the responsibility of actually doing what needs to be done. A list of priorities is not a problem solved. It is only when passion and responsibility come together that stuff happens.

  2. Thanks for the link Chris. Actually last week I did an Open Space course with Brian Bainbridge and Viv McWaters. Excellent two days. In fact I was talking to Andrew Rixon yesterday and he mentioned this idea of reopening the space for prioritisation. Your so right about the issue of responsibilty. I have seen many times the action list drawn up and prioritised only to lay unmentioned. I’ve addressed this issue by ensuring there is a core team of volunteers who have already put their hand up to do whatever it takes to move things along in addition to encourage those at the workshop to take responsibility for the next steps. The open space approach is even better because it creates a market that indicates what people will actually put their energy behind.

  3. I used a dotmocracy in a workshop a couple of weeks ago. I had the rule that you had to use your votes on different things. I certainly still noticed a strong ‘information cascade’ and participants, most of whom hadn’t used the method before, even commented that that seemed to be occuring.
    What I thought was more interesting and valuable than the actual rankings was the bustle and conversations while people were making their decisions. I used this not in a clustering exercise (as with Shawn’s picture) but on the results of a world cafe session. We had four big sheets of paper on the wall. Because people had rotated around they’d already seen at least 3 of them, but they hadn’t seen them all together. There was obviously duplication, and things expressed in slightly different ways. Doing the dotmocracy made them look at the totality, and think and talk about it all again. We had a break between the world cafe and the dotmocracy so it worked very well in terms of refreshing their memories for the next session. Quietly handing out dot stickers was also a nice way to get them gently out of the break and back into the main session.

  4. Dave Snowden says:

    I’ve used three variants on the technique
    one is secret ballot in which people write down their five and only then place their dots.
    the second is secret ballot with three different coloured dots and then give everyone two dots for swarming (comining both techniques and this works best)
    the third is giving everyone one a “I will take responsbility for this” coloured dot the use of which is conditional on their voting for anything

  5. Have you looked into the Advanced Dotmocracy technique?
    Advanced dotmocracy uses one dot per a person, per a proposal, placed on a grading scale of A,B,C,D,F and ?. It avoids many of the pitfalls of traditional dotmocracy.
    See a comparison of Traditional Dotmocracy VS Advanced Dotmocracy from Co-op Tools
    – jd – –

  6. joitske hulsebosch says:

    I was drawn to this topic by your picture!
    I have also used it at the beginning and end of a workshop or event. Not to prioritise, but to see visualise opinions within the group and to see how they have shifted throught the event. It had really shifted!
    I have also used secret ballots (with illiterate people) by using pockets and people putting in their pieces of papers. I think the secrecy is a great help if people tend to influence eachother a lot and yet you want to know there real opinions (I’ve learned to watch out for probing afterwards though).

  7. There is another variant that I have used a number of times that I find effective. I have modified the system a few times since I was first shown it. It goes like this:
    – Everyone get three red dots and 5 blue. Red is worth 5 points, and blue 1.
    – We do a very simple secret ballot – every topic on the wall has a letter (A, B, C…), so everyone must write letters on their dots, in silence, before leaving their chairs.
    – Once everyone is ready, they go up and stick their dots on the relevant topics en masse.
    – Add the points to prioritise the topics. (Fives and ones are easy to add.)
    This is, of course, a little out of context – it is just one step in a longer process, and there is more group interaction in the other stages.

  8. Fin says:

    Does anyone out there know how to create a blind dotomocracy computer program that could be emailed out to community members, would automatically collect the data and create a grid that could be viewed at the official in person gathering?

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