Post-its and Priorities: A Participatory Exercise for Understanding Perspectives of Diverse Stakeholders

Instructional Guide

J. LaChance, M. Hunter, and D. Finney (The Pennsylvania State University)


The following exercise was developed to help engage a diverse research advisory panel in participatory leadership of a cropping systems project with multiple goals. It was designed to help stakeholders from different backgrounds improve their understanding of their colleagues’ perspectives and priorities. It is especially suited to research projects and Extension events that involve a diversity of stakeholders and that are interested in multiple treatment outcomes and the tradeoffs among them, but it is broadly applicable to a range of settings where diverse groups are working together to understand and manage complex systems.

Development of the Exercise

The exercise was developed by the project coordinator (Jim LaChance) and two graduate students (Denise Finney and Mitch Hunter) for an organic cropping systems experiment at Penn State, Finding the Right Mix: Multifunctional Cover Crop Mixtures for Organic Systems. The exercise was implemented at the project’s annual advisory panel meeting in 2014. Examples from this initial implementation will be provided throughout this guide.

Use of the Exercise

The exercise is ideally suited to the joint development of research proposals with diverse advisory panels of farmers, researchers, Extension personnel, and other stakeholders, or to similar Extension or community events where a range of stakeholders with varying perspectives are working together on a multifaceted challenge. In our research context, jointly developed proposals have the potential to better reflect farmers’ research needs, and we expect the same outcome in other Extension and community stakeholder settings.

PSU Example: The exercise was implemented in the middle of the project and was used to iteratively adjust the research approach and to better understand perspectives of diverse collaborators.

In a research application, the project leaders would need to have identified an area of research in order to focus the discussion. The exercise could then be used to shape research treatments and prioritize potential areas of data collection. Alternately, the exercise can be used later in a project to deepen mutual understanding among the advisory board members and contribute to future research efforts.

Objectives of the Exercise

The goals of the exercise are to:

  1. define key outcomes from the system of interest (e.g., the cropping system)
  2. rank the outcomes
  3. develop a better understanding of diverse participants’ perspectives on the outcomes.

PSU Example: The outcomes of interest were the “ecosystem services”—benefits to the farm and the surrounding environment—supplied by cover crop mixtures.

The Spider Plot as an Organizational Tool

We used this exercise to define the categories of a spider plot for our ongoing research. A spider plot, also known as a radar plot or flower plot, is a visualization tool that allows multiple factors to be compared simultaneously. Spider plots have been used extensively to evaluate multiple outcomes from agricultural and environmental research. This exercise extends their use to research planning. Typically, the categories displayed on spider plots are researcher-defined, which may reduce their relevance to other stakeholders. Our approach actively engaged the project advisory panel, garnered diverse perspectives on project priorities, and cultivated a sense of project ownership among panel members. Going forward, the spider plot we built can be used to assess cover crop performance, communicate research findings, and guide Extension activities.


PSU Example: The above spider plot shows (with fictional data) how this tool can be used to highlight multiple benefits that a specific cover crop can provide. Each of the 6 categories can be simultaneously compared on a scale of 0 to 5 (from lowest to highest benefit). If desired, the performance of multiple cover crops can be plotted on a single graph.

Step-by-Step Instructions

1. Explain the goal. Participants of all backgrounds may not have experience with participatory research planning.

2. Define the scope of your outcomes. The proposed focus of the exercise is on different outcomes of the research treatments that would map to specific data collection tasks (e.g. crop yield, soil variables, environmental variables, etc.). Broader outcomes could also be included, but it is advisable to make sure the outcomes are all of one “type.” E.g., it may be confusing to include broader outcomes, such as farmer adoption of new techniques, in the same exercise as research finding outcomes.

PSU Example: The outcomes were framed as “ecosystem services” and a definition of this term was provided. For clarity, the question was also posed as: “What do you want to get out of your cover crop?”

  3. Solicit participants’ ideas for outcomes. Provide each participant with small Post-it notes and ask them to write down their top priority outcomes.

  4. Distinguish among different groups (optional). Each group of participants can be given notes of a certain color to allow the organizers to distinguish among the different groups’ ideas.

PSU Example: The advisory board was split into three groups: farmers, Extension/outreach personnel, and researchers.

  5. Ensure equal representation of different groups (optional). Notes can be distributed so that each group has a roughly equal number, though this may result in individuals from different groups having different numbers of notes.

PSU Example: Since there were more researchers than farmers and Extension/outreach personnel, the latter two groups were given more Post-it notes per person.

  6. Collect participants’ outcome ideas and arrange them into groups.

PSU Example: Participants voluntarily got up and helped arrange the outcomes into categories, with no prompting from the organizers. This got them actively involved in clarifying the ecosystem service categories.

  7. Involve participants in arranging the outcomes (optional).

  8. Create coherent categories of outcomes. The organizers may do this while other participants take a break or are engaged in other activities.

  9. Develop consensus on the categories of outcomes. Lead a discussion to clarify the group’s understanding of each category and refine the categories as needed to achieve clearly defined outcomes. Try to narrow down to a manageable number of outcomes (roughly 10). This discussion is a great opportunity for deeper learning about participants’ different perspectives and priorities.

PSU Example: This discussion helped clarify important differences in how farmers and researchers look at soil quality and soil nitrogen dynamics. This clarification will inform ongoing and future research projects.

 10. Prioritize the outcomes. Distribute stickers to each participant and instruct them to place them on sheets of paper that correspond to each outcome. Each sticker represents a “vote” for the importance of that outcome. There are no limits to how many times participants can vote for each outcome. If desired, the stickers may be color-coded by group and distributed to achieve equal group representation. This part of the exercise gets participants up out of their seats and walking around, which increases the level of energy in the room.

PSU Example: The name of each ecosystem service was written on a large sheet of paper and posted around the room. Stickers were distributed to each group (farmers, Extension/outreach personnel, and researchers) in colors that corresponded to their notes. Voting was a fun and engaging experience.

 11. Tabulate the voting results. It is helpful to prepare a PowerPoint graph prior to the exercise so that the results can be entered and displayed quickly. Voting results can be broken down by group (with color-coded bars in the graph) to illustrate the differences among groups’ priorities.

PSU Example: There was general agreement among groups that soil organic matter is an important cover crop service, but groups had different perspectives on several services. Extension/outreach personal ranked weed suppression as important, while others did not. Researchers were the only group to prioritize beneficial insect services. Though profit was highly ranked by the other groups, farmers did not view this service as a high priority. These differences lead to lively discussion and deeper understanding of the differing perspectives.

 12. Discuss the results. Display the results to the group and discuss what you have learned. This may be done in a large group or small groups.

PSU Example: The group was split into three sub-groups for focused discussion on pre-determined questions, and then reconvened for a report-back session. This proved to be less successful than the spontaneous large group discussion that took place during the definition and clarification of outcomes. Unstructured discussion may be the most valuable part of this exercise.

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