On The Level: The Round Robin Technique

Words: Jude Nosek

Words and Figures: Jude Nosek

“Choice, gentlemen. It comes down to your choices.” My high school football coach’s words echo in my mind every time someone says, “You have to make a choice” or “What should we do?” Coach Hellman said that to me nearly every day we practiced for the four years I played.  

Earlier this year, for this article, I put together some thoughts on “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right,” the unofficial motto of Keson and the Nosek family. Since then, I have received a few questions on how to select among and how to prioritize all of the things worth doing that we choose to take on. I employ a few techniques for finding out what people think is important and for prioritizing those beliefs. 

These tools can work in isolation; that is when I need to decide for myself. And, what’s even better, is that they are most helpful when used with a team. These are tools to help frame conversations to get a group of people moving in the same direction. When employed, I have found that team members feel heard, the best options generally rise to the top, and the overall risk is reduced.  

Here is a technique for speeding your choices along with a few variations. I am going to use “Where are we going to eat today?” as the general example, but the questions could easily be, “What projects do we tackle?” “How should we spend our marketing budget?”, “What are the biggest prospects that we should go after?” etc. 

The Round Robin Technique, “all-play-all”

Best for: ≤ 3 to 7 items. It works for as many as you want, but it can get stale with too many options. Choose some simple parameter-defining criteria to help thin them; for example, Time, Money, Distance, Complexity, etc.  

Pros: Simple, fast, everyone has a voice, majority rule

Why it works? We can easily compare and pick two things. Choosing among many at the same time is more complicated. This is why menus can feel overwhelming (and why I generally ask just for “the most popular” item).

How it works? Pit each option against each other option in a series of rounds. Votes are taken in a number of rounds.  The number of rounds is equal to the number of options minus one.  In my example below, there are five restaurant options, so the number of rounds of voting equals four, i.e., five minus one.

Example: Seven people are trying to decide where to go to lunch. The five options are Chinese, Italian, Burgers, Thai, and Greek. There are four other restaurants but not within easy walking distance, so we chose to exclude them. 

  1. Write the options in a list. 
    • Choose a person/technique to break the tie: a runoff, a coin flip, the person with the nearest birthday decides, whoever has been longest on the job decides, etc. 
  2. Round 1. Pit the First Restaurant against each other Restaurant. First vs. Second, asking, “How many for Chinese over Italian?”. Make a mark for each vote next to Chinese and the remaining next to Italian. 
  3. Then, record the results as you pit the First Restaurant next against the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Restaurants. 
  4. Round 2. Pit the Second Restaurant against each other Restaurant (except for the first that was done in Round 1). Second vs. Third, Fourth, and Fifth. 
  5. Round 3. Third Restaurant vs. Fourth and Fifth.
  6. Round 4. Forth vs. Fifth.
  7. Tally the tick marks and enjoy your lunch!

Notes: Do this very quickly and without debate. If someone misses a vote, move on (it’s caught by the second item in each comparison). You also can now choose to have your ranked list be the order of meals for the next five outings. 

You can choose to count each vote (e.g., four votes for Restaurant One and three for Restaurant Two) OR you can count each victory (e.g., Chinese over Italian, Chinese over Burgers, Thai over Chinese, etc.).

(In my example below, in Round 1, Chinese beat Italian, Burgers, and Greek by votes of 4-3 but lost to Thai by a vote of 2-5.  Thai then won the remaining Rounds 4-3, 5-2, and 5-2.)

Counting Each Vote

Round 1Round 2Round 3Round 4Total
Chineselllll lllll llll

Italianllllllll lllll ll

Burgerslllllllllll l
Votes28 (7 people x 4 head-to-head comparisons)2114770

Thai (19), Italian (15), Chinese (14), Burgers (12), Greek (10)

Counting Each Victory

Round 1Round 2Round 3Round 4Total




Thai (4), Italian (1), Chinese (3), Burgers (2), Greek (0)

A Similar Method is “Choices Squared” or “Weighted Voting”

This technique is great for teasing out what a participant really values. The technique is this: the number of votes each person gets is equal to the number of options squared. In our lunch scenario, we have five options. So, each participant gets 25 (5 squared = 25) votes to disperse ANY WAY they wish. A great advantage to this technique is that it will give you insights into what your participants value. Follow-up questions can help you and others find out why they feel that way. 


Two Points Worth Making

One, for best results, use these tools AND your gut feelings. If the results of using tools align with your gut, great! If they don’t, generally, human beings feel less regret if events don’t play out as we hope when we make decisions that align with our gut feelings. Two, if you are on a team and the decision doesn’t go your way, please don’t complain along the way nor point out at every turn that this wasn’t your idea. When the decisions are made, get on board and work to bring them off as best you can. 

In Conclusion

These are a few ways to organize a selection process for options that face us every day. In a strategy setting, these techniques can help you or a group decide what’s most important. If you have time and an inclination to find out why people are voting a certain way, either of these techniques can help tease out quickly which items need to be acted on immediately, which need further discussion, or which can be discarded. 

Our time and resources are limited, so it will come down to our choices.


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