Collaborative problem solving with affinity diagrams

Not many people seem to know what an affinity diagram is, but most project teams seem to have used them. So maybe I am using the wrong term for the process of “writing ideas on a post-it note and then whacking them up on a wall”.

In my defence though, most seem to have mixed experiences with workshops where they put all their ideas up on a wall. It seems that many workshops involve people brainstorming (or “brain-writing”) ideas on post-it notes and then all putting them up on a wall – but then the workshop ends. The facilitator says something like “thanks – now we will take all this away and get back to you” and the rest of the crew wonder what is going on.

So this article describes a process that can be applied to apply a useful structure to “putting ideas up on the wall”. I will be using the fictional BA team that I have used in a couple of recent posts and I will see if we can help them solve their problem

Our hardy team of analysts is led by Sophie and she has recently implemented some changes to clarify the team’s value proposition and a framework for their skill development. But the team have been complaining that the changes put a lot of pressure on them and they are already struggling to deliver everything that is asked of them. In response Sophie has agreed to run a workshop for the team to “brainstorm solutions”.

Here is where we need to establish some guidelines – firstly, we need to establish exactly what we are solving and then we need to provide a little more structure than just saying “brainstorm stuff”.

Sophie asks Harry Stottle to run the workshop; he is one of her team leaders. Harry says he will use “affinity diagrams” and everyone looks at him a bit funny, but he persists.

As Harry explains it, an Affinity diagram is a structured approach to exploring a problem as a group. It involves a common workshop format of “divergent thinking” followed by “convergent thinking”. This means that there are essentially 2 parts to the workshop:

  • Divergent thinking or the open exploration of new ideas; and
  • Convergent thinking, or the consolidation of ideas into patterns or priorities.

Affinity diagrams involve people brainstorming ideas, but they do it in writing rather than through a group discussion. This has advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantages are that you can run it with really large groups and that people can explore their own thinking without being distracted or driven by the thinking of louder, faster talkers. The main disadvantages are that you need to set the scene properly, since people work on their own for a bit and that you can miss out on the benefit of people bouncing ideas off each other (as happens when people brainstorm aloud). You also need enough space to work on a wall.

So what do you need to get started – just the usual workshop stuff.

The high level approach

At a high level, you will use the following structure:

  • Introduce the workshop by
    • Defining the problem to be solved and explaining the view or focus your will take
    • Running through the agenda for the session
    • Telling people what should happen at the end of the workshop
  • Explore the idea by helping people think of lots of ideas, write them on index cards and put them up on the wall
  • Facilitate a process where people group their ideas and put labels on the “clumps” or categories that they see in them
  • Do something with all that information

Introducing the workshop

Harry explains the problem by providing a clear problem statement:

  • The problem we want to solve is to decide “How we can set our team up to be more successful on projects”.
  • I want you to come up with any suggestions that you can think of, any barriers that you think will get in the way and even any questions that come to mind.
  • I will ask you to come up with your own ideas and then when things quieten down I might through in a few focussed questions to keep you thinking.
  • We may not get to planning how to implement any solutions but I want to at least come up with some alternative solutions or key areas that need to be addressed. We might then have a second session to agree and allocate action steps.

Harry could expand further by adding the focus, problem frame or “point of view” that the group should take. For example

  • A people and emotion focus would mean that the team are focussed on their own reaction to the topic, or the reactions of stakeholders;
  • An action focus would assume that people agreed with a solution and were coming up with ideas to help implement it;
  • A problem focus means that the team assume something is a problem and then try to break it down further – for example by listing impacts, symptoms and resolution ideas;
  • A vision focus means that people take an initial idea and then start to look for alternative solutions, ideas based on what others have done. They don’t worry about breaking the problem down further – they leap to solution ideas; and

Divergent thinking

The next step is to get people to open up their thinking and come up with as many ideas as possible. We ask them to write their own ideas down rather than speak to each other so that each person is free to take a different perspective and so they have time to think without being influenced by someone else.

Harry gives the team 2 minutes to come up with “more than 7 ideas”. Some do this and a couple freeze up – more worried about how they can come up with enough ideas rather than actually coming up with ideas. Next Harry prompts their thinking with some questions to keep them thinking:

  • What would your grandmother tell us to do – 1 minute to write as much as you can
  • If you wanted to do the opposite, what would you do – in other words what could we do to set BA’s up to fail?
  • What have you seen other team’s do?
  • What would be the easiest thing to do?
  • What would you do if you had an unlimited budget?

Everyone is sick of writing so maybe Harry should have just asked two or three questions, or maybe the whole session should have been based on structured questions.

Now everyone has a few ideas, so Harry asks them to put them up on the wall anywhere. He tells them that they will then have a few minutes to read what others put down and ask some questions.

People put their ideas up and Harry tells them to walk along the wall looking at things. They can ask questions and anyone can answer – even though someone might have meant one thing, someone else could add to it. Harry then lets them add more ideas, questions or comments to index cards and put them up too.

Convergent thinking

At this point Harry could get people to do another round of brainstorming, but this is rare. If there were only a few key ideas he could also get them to vote on ideas now. To do so he might use “multi-voting” approaches such as:

  • Stickers – give each person five small stickers and ask them to allocate them to ideas. They can put 5 stickers on one idea or a couple on each of several, it is up to them. For teams that face cost constraints, you can just ask them to put ticks on the ideas rather than a sticker.
  • Currency – tell everyone they have $100 dollars to spend and that they can spend it on any ideas that seem important. They can spend $100 on the most important idea OR $50 on each of two ideas or they can assign small amounts to many ideas.

If Harry did this he would then bring out the ideas that one the most votes and “do something”. This might be to brainstorm solutions or to look at action steps.

However the “formal” affinity process takes a little longer.

If the team just vote on ideas then they might miss patterns or they might be voting on different perceptions of what the wording on the card means. So rather than drawing conclusions as soon as information is on the wall, we get the team to clump information together and then do something with it.

To clump ideas together, the simplest option is to just ask them to start grouping ideas however they like, so this is what Harry does. A couple of people start explaining the categories that they can put ideas into but Harry stops them. It is better let the team find their own “clumps” for ideas from the bottom up – in other words by grouping them without formally naming categories.

Some facilitators even insist that the team work without anyone talking, but Harry lets the crew communicate this time. He also encourages them to add more ideas if they need to split an idea or clarify the meaning in order to make the process work.

So people just keep moving ideas around the wall until the group reaches some sort of equilibrium. Of course, if there was an impasse where two or more people kept shuffling the same cards back and forth then Harry could step in to help the team reach an agreement.

Generally speaking there will be patches of ideas clumped together fairly closely and then there will be some gaps between these clumps, so the next step is to ask the group to agree on a label for each clump.

The team working with Harry come up with several categories – Better tools, better techniques, better training, management support for the BA, the timing of when a BA is brought into the project and finally the constraints that hold the BA back

So what? We now have a bunch of labels with a pile of ideas attached to each one.

Do something

This is where some workshops go wrong – they get a lot of ideas up on the wall and even bundle them together nicely, but don’t know what to do next.

The group could vote on what they should do about the problem, or they can take one idea label and then analyse it in detail. The approach used here should be aligned with the goal of the workshop, but it should be something you have thought about and it should be aligned to the goal of the workshop.

For example, if you your workshop is aimed at planning activities and the ideas are action items then:

  • You can assign a “clump” to each person and agree “when and how” each person will deliver; or
  • You might treat the clumps as streams, iterations or project phases. In this case you would pick the highest priority and redo the ideas as steps and dependencies (or stories and features). Then keep adding other streams (or clumps) and looking for dependencies etc.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for a problem to analyse then you can pick the most significant clump and start analysing it with your favourite tool – maybe the 5-whys, my question compass or a fishbone diagram.

But most of the time you are looking for wider patterns. So depending on what you are looking for you might use step-wise programming or a fishbone diagram to analyse the priority and relationships between the streams.

My favourite approach is the “cause and effect circle”, which is a great way of separating the root cause (or causes) from the secondary causes. It also works well for prioritising where to start in addressing something and in working out what to measure in a complex system (hint – it’s not the root cause).

It is really easy and very powerful and it is very well suited to bringing the workshop home after you have done an affinity diagram.

But once again nobody seems to have heard of it. So maybe next time I will write an article on how to run a simple “cause and effect circle” in a workshop. In the meantime, let me know if you have other techniques that work though.


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