Ranking Options: A Simple Way to Identify Priorities

Faced with deciding how to allocate human and financial resources to accomplish many organizational objectives? The author proposes a fast group exercise designed to prioritize any list of options under consideration.

By Bruce F. Meaker

Bruce Meaker consults for and conducts technical seminars for the Northwest Hydroelectric Association. He recently retired after 30 years as principal engineer for dam safety and hydro operations with PUD No. 1 of Snohomish County.

Many times, groups are faced with deciding how to allocate human and financial resources to accomplish many objectives. This can occur, for example, when choosing which department capital and maintenance initiatives to fund in any given year or when a group dedicated to recovery of an endangered species is deciding how to rank various environmental restoration projects for funding recommendation. Most of the time, the needs exceed the resources and choices must be made about how to prioritize resource allocation to maximize value for the group or organization. Yet the choices are not clear either because of differences of opinion amongst the choosers or because the presence of many subjective choices makes it hard to rank them collectively.

I learned the technique described in this article in the early 1980s at a facilitator training workshop in Billings, Mt. It will allow any group to sort by priority a list of options under consideration. The process is simple and it does not take a facilitator more than about 10 minutes to conduct a group exercise to determine the democractic ranking of several choices.

An example

To illustrate this technique, I offer a hypothetical example of ranking five environmental choices for funding. This is offered strictly to illustrate the technique without thorough elaboration on the details and does not imply that any group would or should make these same choices.

The challenge is to rank and prioritize a list of environmental solutions to facilitate recovery of a species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Several projects have been proposed for consideration of funding. The group is to determine which projects should get funded with the resources available to maximize species recovery. Suppose the group received the following proposals:

  1. Build a fish ladder at a natural barrier in the river.
  2. Plant trees and other buffer vegetation along stream banks.
  3. Remove a dike that restricts river meandering across the width of the historic river channel.
  4. Construct wetland restoration in the off-channel habitat.
  5. Conduct a screw trap fish count survey to determine the outmigration of smolts each year.

The matrix

Each of the above five options is a solution. Funding is available for several solutions, but there is not enough funding to implement all of them. Therefore, the challenge is how to sort out which is more desirable by the group for funding recommendation. To conduct the ranking exercise, the facilitator would draw the matrix shown below on a flip chart.

Along the first row, compare option 1 with option 2 and have the group choose between those two. After they have chosen (by vote), write the choice in the box under the column for 2. For the sake of illustration, let’s say the choice is 1. The matrix would look like this:

Next, in the first row, compare option 1 with option 3. Again the group decides. Let’s say the choice is 3. Now the matrix looks like this:

Continue with the comparisons in the first row and then begin with the second row. The first second-row comparison will be between option 2 and option 3 because 2 and 1 have already been compared and 2 is not compared to itself. Let’s say the group prefers 3 over 2. The matrix then becomes:

Repeat this process for the remainder of row 2 and then again for rows 3 and 4.

Let’s say the results of these individual comparisons by the group are:

Now add up the total number of incremental choices for each option and prioritize them by the number of times chosen:

Therefore, in this illustration the group has chosen option 3 (dike removal) as the first priority for funding, followed by option 1 (construction of a fish ladder at a natural barrier), and so on. With the ranking in place, funds available may be allocated until they are all committed.

Final thoughts

When just picking the best single solution from a list of options, the goal can be accomplished by a simple popularity vote, with the option receiving the most votes becoming the desired solution. However, when the occasion calls for ranking multiple solutions with the desire to accomplish several, the complexity of determining the ranking cannot be solved by a simple popularity vote.

All the options should be desirable to implement, with no options being mutually exclusive.

This technique has allowed me to quickly sort and prioritize lists of subjective options throughout my 30-year career in the hydropower industry and, therefore, has proven to be an invaluable leadership tool for facilitating efficient and effective group decision-making.

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