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Forced Ranking

Geneva workshop

Object of Play
When prioritizing, a group may need to agree on a single, ranked list of items. Forced ranking obligates the group to make difficult decisions, and each item is ranked relative to the others. This is an important step in making decisions on items like investments, business priorities, and features or requirements—wherever a clear, prioritized list is needed.

Number of Players: Small group of 3–10 participants

Duration of Play: Medium to long; 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on the length of the list, the criteria, and the size of the group

How to Play
To set up the game, participants need to have two things: an unranked list of items and the criteria for ranking them. Because forced ranking makes the group judge items closely, the criteria should be as clear as possible. For example, in ranking features for a product, the criteria might be “Most important features for User X.” In the case of developing business priorities, the criteria might be “Most potential impact over the next year.”

If there are multiple dimensions to a ranking, it is best to rank the items separately for each criterion, and then combine the scores to determine the final ranking. It is difficult for participants to weigh more than one criterion at a time, as in the confusing “Most potential impact over the next year and least amount of effort over the next six months.”

In this case, it would be best to rank items twice: once by impact and once by effort. Although there is no hard limit on the number of items to be ranked, in a small-group setting the ideal length of a list is about 10 items. This allows participants to judge items relative to one another without becoming overwhelming. By making the entire list visible on a flip chart or whiteboard, participants will have an easier time ranking a larger list.

To play, create a matrix of items and the criteria. Each participant ranks the items by assigning it a number, with the most important item being #1, the second most important item as #2, and so forth, to the least important item. Because the ranking is “forced,” no items can receive equal weight.

Once the items have been ranked, tally them and discuss the prioritized list and next steps.

Creating a forced ranking may be difficult for participants, as it requires they make clear-cut assessments about a set of items. In many cases, this is not the normal mode of operation for groups, where it is easier to add items to lists to string together agreement and support. Getting people to make these assessments, guided by clear criteria, is the entire point of forced ranking.

The original source of the Forced Ranking game is unknown.

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20/20 Vision

Object of Play

The 20/20 Vision game is about getting group clarity around which projects or initiatives should be more of a priority than others. Because employees’ attention is so often divided among multiple projects, it can be refreshing to refocus and realign more intently with the projects that have the biggest bang for the buck.  And defining the “bang” together helps ensure that the process of prioritization is quality.

Number of Players


Duration of Play

30 minutes to 1.5 hours

How to Play

  1. Before the meeting, write any proposed project or initiative relevant to the players on sticky notes, one item per note.  And when you begin, it’s important that the initiatives you’ve written on the sticky notes are posted in random order during both stages of the game.  Shuffle them before the meeting starts—you can even blind-post or ask a player to post—so that from the onset there is no implicit prioritization on your part.
  2. Introduce the game by explaining to the players that 20/20 Vision is about forced prioritization based on perceived benefits. Verbalize the importance of building consensus on priorities to move the organization forward.
  3. In a wall space visible to the players, post an initiative and ask the players to describe its benefits. Write their descriptions on a sticky note posted next to that initiative. If there’s disagreement around the benefits of an initiative, write down both or all of the points made. Assume that there’s validity to multiple perspectives and let the group indicate the majority perspective through the ranking process. If the group already has a shared sense of the benefits for each initiative, don’t spend a lot of time clarifying them. Just move into prioritization and respond to questions around benefits as they organically come up.
  4. Repeat step 3 for all relevant projects or initiatives until the benefits have been thoroughly described by the players, captured on sticky notes and posted.
  5. Ask the players if any initiatives are missing from the wall. If so, request that they write them down, post them, and discuss their benefits so that you can capture them.
  6. Move into a neighboring wall space, pull down two random initiatives and ask the players which they can agree are more or less important to the organization’s vision or goals.
  7. Post the one that the group generally agrees is more important above the one they generally agree is less important.
  8. Move another initiative into the new space. Ask the players if it is more or less important than the two posted and post it accordingly—higher priorities at the top, lower priorities at the bottom.
  9. Repeat this process until all initiatives have been thoroughly discussed and prioritized.


20/20 Vision is about asking players to thoughtfully evaluate priorities as a group. The first phase of the game—describing and capturing the benefits—is significant because it lays the groundwork for the hard part: determining priorities. It can be challenging to get a group to rank its projects, all of which seem important in some way.

The game works best if you can facilitate general agreement around the benefits and resist the temptation to let the group waffle on prioritizing. They must make the hard decisions. And when the going gets tough, take heart: the players who resist ranking the most may also offer a wealth of insight into the initiatives and ultimately help the players better refine the final ranking.

20/20 Vision is based on and adapted from the same-named activity in Luke Hohmann’s book, Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products Through Collaborative Play.

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Post-up, originally uploaded by dgray_xplane.

Object of Play
The goal of this game is to generate ideas with silent sticky note writing.

Number of Players: 1–50

Duration of Play: 10 minutes to 1 hour

How to Play
There are many ways to work with ideas using sticky notes. Generating ideas is the most basic play, and it starts with a question that your group will be brainstorming answers to. For example: “What are possible uses for Product X?” Write the question or topic on a whiteboard. Ask the group to brainstorm answers individually, silently writing their ideas on separate sticky notes. The silence lets people think without interruption, and putting items on separate notes ensures that they can later be shuffled and sorted as distinct thoughts. After a set amount of time, ask the members of the group to stick their notes to the whiteboard and quickly present them. If anyone’s items inspire others to write more, they can stick those up on the wall too, after everyone has presented.

Harry Brignall at the 90% of Everything blog makes a great suggestion:

When doing a post-up activity with sticky notes in a workshop, you may want to use the FOG method: mark each note with F (fact), O (opinion) or G (guess). It’s such a simple thing to do, but it adds a great deal of clarity to the decision-making process.

Generating ideas is an opening activity, and a first step. From here you can create an Affinity Map or further organize and prioritize the thoughts, for example using Forced Ranking.

The Post-Up game is based on the exercises in Rapid Problem-Solving with Post-it® Notes
by David Straker.