Distribute one index card and a pen to each person in your group.
Instruct each person to write the letters A, B, C, and Total on the left-hand side of their card, one under the other.
Pose your question or statement and invite everyone to write their response on the other (blank) side of the card as clearly, succinctly and legibly as possible.
When ready, invite your group to re-distribute all of the cards in a series of continuous one-for-one random swaps until the cards are adequately shuffled.
Once shuffled, ensure that no one is holding their own card, ie if so, simply swap with the card of another person.
Announce that over the course of 3 x 60-second rounds (identified as A, B, and C) you would like each person to interact with one other person to discuss and assess the two ideas/statements written on the cards they happen to be holding.
When ready, instruct each pair to allocate a total of seven points across the two options according to their combined and relative preference, ie the two scores must equal seven points.
For example, a pair may award 5 points to the idea expressed on one card and only 2 points to the other idea because they prefer/like the former idea more.
Instruct each person to write the score allocated to that idea next to letter A on the back of the card on which that idea is written, ie if the pair allocate 2 points to idea X, the person holding the card with idea X will write 2 next to (round) A.
Repeat steps 6 to 9 for two more rounds (B and C) ensuring the cards are distributed randomly between rounds.
Over the course of three rounds, it is expected that each person will have viewed and discussed a total of six new ideas (none of which are their own.)
Upon completion of the third round, ask each person to add up the total points awarded to the idea written on their card (for all three rounds) and write this sum next to Total.
Starting with 21, survey your group to identify the idea that was awarded a total of 21 points, ie meaning this idea earned 7 points for each of the three rounds.
Write this idea (if any) on flip-chart paper or a whiteboard for all to see.
Next, survey those who are holding a card with an idea valued at 20 points, and then 19 points, etc.
Continue this process until you have identified and listed the top 3 to 5 ideas of your group.
Presuming these ideas represent the collective wisdom of your group, facilitate a conversation about them in the context of your question/statement.
How To Play Narrative
Sometimes it can be difficult to know if a particular idea your group is embracing is truly the most preferred or desired by your group. I have found this method to produce the most accurate result.
First, distribute an index card or something similar to every person in your group. Their first task is to write the letters A, B, C, and Total on one side of the card, one under the other. See the Resources tab to see what I mean. I often find it useful to show a ‘demonstration model’ to make it crystal clear how each index card should look.
In consideration of surveying your group’s collective wisdom, articulate a question or statement that you can pose to your group. For example, you could ask or say the following:
What is community leadership?
Effective group facilitation means…
One thing our group could do to improve is…
It may help to display this on a whiteboard or flip chart paper to keep it ever-present in people’s minds.
It’s now time to allow your group a minute or two to consider their response to your question/statement. Instruct them all to write their answer clearly and succinctly on the other side of the index card. Legibility is also important because other people will have to read it.
When ready, announce that over the course of three distinct rounds – called A, B and C – each person will have a brief conversation with a different partner to discuss the relative merits of two different responses to the question at a time.
To start, instruct your group to re-distribute the cards in a series of one-for-one swaps with as any other people until you say “STOP.” The objective here is to produce a random redistribution of the cards. To this end, ensure that no one ends up holding their own card when the shuffling has stopped. If they do, simply ask them to swap their card with someone else.
With a new card in their hand, invite each person to seek out a new, random partner. Invite them to have a brief 1-minute conversation in regards to each of the two ideas/answers/responses they are holding.
Now, for the fun part.
When ready, ask each pair to allocate a total of seven points across the two ideas to reflect their relative worthiness. This allocation of points must be shared in agreement and always add to seven points. For example, the pair my award 5 points to one of the ideas and only 2 points to the other based on their relative preferences.
This next step is critical. Each person must now write the score allocated to the idea belonging to the card they are holding on the back of the card next to Round A. So if I am holding the card with the least preferred idea (my partner and I gave it only 2 points) this is the number I write on the back of the card next to Round A.
You are now ready to launch into the next round.
Simply repeat all of the above steps – redistribute the cards, check that everyone is holding a new card (and not their own,) everyone looks for a new partner, each pair discusses the relative merits of these two new ideas and then awards a total of seven points shared across them.
Complete this task three times for Rounds A, B, and C and then ask each person to add the total of all points written on the back of the card (for all three rounds) and write it next to Total. The sum will equal anything from 0 to 21 points.
Working from the presumption that the result will reflect the group’s collective wisdom, your final task is to identify those ideas/responses that attracted the most number of points, ie the most preferred ideas. An idea with 21 points means that each of the three pairs that assessed it gave it 7 points in every round.
In my experience, it is unusual to see many if any ideas awarded 21 points. Equally, there are few ideas that end up with 0 points.
From here, I typically record or document the top 3 or 5 ideas on flip chart paper or a whiteboard and invite my group to discuss them further in a large group plenary.
Practical Leadership Tips
To reiterate, the presumption is that if we can trust the process, the result of this exercise will reflect the collective wisdom / intelligence of your group. That is, the best result will likely be voted to the top of the list, ie more points.
Even when the two ideas are equally preferred, each pair must choose one of them to earn the 4 points. It is not possible for people to sit on the fence, nor to use fractions.
I like to ask people to circle the total number (sum of three rounds) on the back of their card to make it super clear which number is the total.
It is important that for each round, no one ends up holding (and therefore, assessing) their own idea. This means, that you should check before each round starts that everyone is holding a card belonging to someone else. Also, if someone happens to end up with a card (not their own) that they have seen before, invite these folks to swap that card with another person.
Reminder, when each pair allocates their points, it is necessary for this allocation to be an agreed split. That is, each person will be sure to write what was agreed to on their card. What we’re trying to avoid is when two people can not agree on the allocation of points, and each of them write a number that when added together total more or less than 7 points. For this process to work, every allocation must add to seven.
You could integrate Twenty One as part of a well-designed SEL program to develop your group’s ability to understand their emotions, thoughts and values and how these influence behaviour in different situations.
Specifically, this activity offers ample opportunities to explore and practice the following social & interpersonal skills:
Linking Feelings, Values & Thoughts
Identifying Personal, Cultural & Linguistic Assets
You can learn more about SEL and how it can support character education here.
Health & Wellness Programming
Making responsible decisions is a critical foundation of healthy social-emotional learning skills especially in the context of full value living. This decision-making tool leverages respectful and healthy behavioural norms as much as many social and interpersonal skills. Take a look at the questions described in the Reflection Tips tab for some useful starting points to help your group debrief their process.
Nine Points: As above, allocate a total of nine points. Honestly, you could allocate any number of points, but you are well-advised to use an odd number to force a choice of preference.
Line-Up: Ask your group to form one straight line according to the points allocated on the cards, from highest to lowest score. This is a quick visual way to identify the most preferred ideas.
Solo Time: Ask each person to produce/write 3+ ideas of their own first before selecting their best idea or response to write on their index card.
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Useful Framing Ideas
The process of identifying the best of many ideas can be difficult at times. How can we be certain that the best idea rose to the top? Do we just conduct a vote or is there a better way to assess the collective wisdom of the group. I think I’ve found a useful tool to do just that…
Reflection Tips & Strategies
Coupled with one or more reflection strategies, here are some sample questions you could use to process your group’s experience after leading this innovative decision-making tool:
What thoughts do you have about this process?
Do you believe the result that attracted the most points was the group’s best idea? Why or why not?
What limitations do you see?
What are this technique’s greatest strengths?
How did it feel to see your (personal) idea awarded a low or high score? What did you make this mean?
Did our group achieve its goal?
The inspiration for Twenty-One was sourced from a fellow facilitator who is a member of the Victorian Facilitators Network. This technique was used to help our group make a decision and I was struck by its simplicity as much as its democratic process. With thanks to Tathra Street for helping me document this process.