Affinity Diagram

The Affinity Diagram is one of the Seven Management and Planning Tools and is deceptively simple.
It is a means for looking at patterns and for grouping ideas or topics together into meaningful sets which have the support and agreement of the group.

Also known as ‘silent sorting’ it begins with a mass of sticky-notes or cards distributed randomly across a wall space. It is most commonly used at the end of a ‘brainstorming’ session where many disparate thoughts have been collected. Each of the thoughts (ideas, issues, activities, …) are written on a separate sticky-note, and these are stuck up randomly on a large flat wall (check this out beforehand – not all wall surfaces work, and not all sticky-notes either). In a virtual meeting environment, the thoughts can be entered as text spread over the page.
The participants then move one note (or item of text) at a time, in total silence, to place it with other similar notes where they can see some affinity, and away from text where they see no affinity, and this continues until the pattern settles down, at which point the resulting ‘affinities’ or groups of ideas are summarised (not categorised) and labelled.
To work successfully, the tool requires a few simple rules to be rigorously followed.  You might use the following bullet points on a slide to introduce the exercise:

  1. In silence, move one post-it note at a time to create clumps of similar ideas or concepts
  2. You can move any post-it note, but if it is playing yo-yo, try to understand what the other person is trying to achieve, or identify another option
  3. Don’t be held to the patterns and groups you first see, but allow them to evolve
  4. Develop and split the groups so that they can be summarised as clearly focused objectives (eg: “Deliver new products quickly”) not categories
  5. Everybody is to remain fully engaged from the start to the end of the exercise – no drifting out and back in again
  6. No talking, physical violence, or using height advantage
 The key rule is SILENCE. There is no speaking, grunts, sighs, or cheers allowed during the exercise. Silence is important – not being able to explain your own point of view forces you to try and resolve matters by trying to see what the other person is seeing. This rule may seem counterproductive when you have post-its playing yo-yo across the wall, and yet that is the time when it is most valuable. People soon get fed up with the futility of moving things forward and backward, and so they try and understand what the other person is trying to achieve (this is their only real option, since they cannot explain what they are trying to achieve). They test this out by trying to find an alternative location or pattern that might meet both their perspectives.
You will also find rule 5 is important. It can be intensely frustrating for a group to spend 5 minutes batting post-its to a mutually acceptable configuration, only to have someone saunter over with a cup of coffee to rearrange things.
Once the groups have largely settled down, invite people to speak to resolve the last few issues, and then work through the groups and ask people to summarise the content of each group, and provide this as a label.
In practice allow twenty minutes for an Affinity Diagram, or two hours if you allow people to talk their way through it!
The following links provide more information on the tool
You can download a PowerPoint template of the tool below.  Strictly speaking it is not a template at all, just a blank space (whiteboard) with a title – more of a place holder really.
The template can be printed off (at any size) for use in Physical meetings, or uploaded to suitable meeting or collaboration software so that it can be used in virtual or asynchronous meetings.

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