four trashcans in primary colors and green
PHOTO: Paweł Czerwiński

In 2014, we completed our largest ever Top Tasks identification project for the European Union. It was in 28 countries and 24 languages. Almost 107,000 voted. After 30 voters, the top three tasks had emerged. Yes, the top three tasks after we closed the survey with 106,792 voters were the same as the top three tasks at 30 voters. (The top three tasks were: EU law; Research and innovation; Funding and grants.)

We’ve been carrying out Top Tasks identification projects for about 15 years now. Over 400,000 people have voted in over 100 countries and in more than 30 languages. Certain patterns have remained consistent. We get the same basic voting patterns whether we are trying to understand what people in Oslo want from urban transport; what health policy professionals want in India; what consumers want in Brazil; what people in Liverpool want from their council; what bot developers want; what matters to managers when it comes to artificial intelligence; what people buying cars want; what IKEA, Rolls-Royce or BBC employees want. The same patterns repeat again and again.

To get statistically reliable data, we aim for about 400 voters. However, we know that at about 25 voters, the top three tasks will begin emerging. The more voters we get, the more stable the overall list becomes.

A typical tasklist will have between 50 and 80 tasks. We tend to define Top Tasks as those who get the first 50% of the vote. That is typically about 15 tasks. We want those 15 tasks to be as stable as possible, so that’s why we aim for 400 voters. Over multiple surveys, we have seen that at about 400 voters we get stability in the first 15 to 20 tasks.

For simplicity, let’s say people were asked to vote on 100 tasks. The top five tasks will get an average of 25% of the vote, with the bottom 50 tasks also getting 25%. In other words, the top five tasks get as much of the vote as the bottom 50. After 400 people have voted, the chances of a task from the bottom 50 of the vote becoming a top task are infinitesimal, as are the chances of a top task dropping into the bottom 50 tasks.

We have carried out more than 500 Top Tasks Identification surveys. To my knowledge, we have never found a situation where there are more than eight tasks in the first 25% of the vote. In every environment of human endeavor we have surveyed, there are a small set of things that really matter to people, and a large set of stuff that doesn’t matter so much.

The same stuff matters everywhere. If you’re living in a city in Norway, Canada, the Netherlands, or the UK, you care about roads, schools, libraries, rubbish collection. When it comes to public health, health professionals in Nigeria care about the same things as their peers in India.

Again and again, the same stuff ends up at the bottom of the list. The stuff that the organization often cares most about. We quite often find inverse relationships. That which people care most about, the organization is doing least about. That which people care least about, the organization is doing most about. The ego and vanity of organizations is one of the most universal and persistent patterns of all.