Agile development · Decisions

Thumb based voting

Not everything in coaching is based on complex psychology and systems thinking.  Sometimes you just want want a quick way to make a group decision, assess data or gather people’s reactions to an idea.

One of the quickest ways to assess an idea is to ask for a show of hands. I leaned this one in school when the teacher would ask us to put our hands up if we had a question.

In the office we seem to hesitate when asking for a show of hands because it seems a little uncool.  So we use a thumbs up.

The one thumb vote

The easiest vote is to ask a question and then have a show of thumbs.

OK, should we implement a new agile transformation this month, setting incredibly touch customer and profit based goals.  Let’s have a show of thumbs

Then you check if everyone gave the thumbs up.  If everyone gave the thumbs up then you go ahead.  If not then you have a choice. You either:

  • Accept a majority decision; or
  • You ask the people who did not agree to explain their hesitation.

The same process works well for small teams or large online communities voting on an idea, where it will look like this Q&A page from Zendesk (note that the “thumbs up” is replaced with a “vote”)

This “one thumb” vote is quick and easy.  But in many teams we get just a little more sophisticated by allowing a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”

Thumbs up or down

When you allow people to vote thumbs up or down, then they can agree, disagree or abstain, but the process is similar.

OK, thumbs up and down – should we implement the aggressive agile transformation this month

This approach scales to surprisingly large teams and even online communities.  For example this one from a Salesforce community:

updown vote.PNG

In this example, users can vote ideas up or down (or not bother to vote).  Then the top ideas gravitate to the top for consideration or review.  In this case they have even added a threshold so that their internal team will respond if there is an aggregate of more than 20 votes.

That is probably more than you need in your small team, but the same process allows you to rate several ideas and rank them by adding together the positive and negative votes.

For example, a team of seven people, I might run a retrospective and find I have many suggestions for the team to act on.  We vote quickly on each idea.  If the average score is 3 thumbs down then we drop the idea.  If it is 3 thumbs up then we add it to the list to discuss.  Anything in between gets discussed only if we get time after the first wave are discussed.


People can abstain by simply not voting, or by holding their thumb horizontal instead of vertical.

What does abstaining mean?  In some teams it means that you can avoid accountability and complain later.  This is done by abstaining and then saying later that you never agreed to anything (which is true on the face of it).

But a better rule is that if you don’t vote then you are saying that you will back the team whatever they decide:

I can be convinced either way or I really don’t care.  So I agree with whatever the rest of the team decides and I will have their back.  I am here and aware of the decision and deliberately decided NOT to disagree or raise concerns

Two thumbs

No that you can vote ideas up and down, you can get really excited.  You can add an additional thumb.

Now that people can vote with two thumbs, they can provide a more precise rating:

  • 2 up means awesome
  • 1 up means good
  • no thumbs (or one up and one down) mean no preference
  • 1 down means bad
  • 2 down means terrible

In some cases this is just a waste of a thumb that you could be using to hold your coffee or fidget with a pen.  But in other cases you get a better spread of opinions.

Documenting the two thumb vote

One advantage of the extra range of votes is that it can provide a richer source of information for discussion.  It can also provide good reporting through techniques like these …

Measuring the spread over time, by comparing today with yesterday:

Ask the team about technical debt – the creeping doom graph

Measuring the rating and the deviation in opinions in one diagram:

Use the river diagram to communicate data

Hope that is helpful.  If I get time then I will also discuss finger based voting in a future article.  I don’t want to destroy the anticipation too much, but in finger based voting you can use all your fingers instead of just your thumbs.


3 thoughts on “Thumb based voting

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