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How affinity mapping can help you organize ideas

PostsStrategy & planning
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

May 12, 2021

Ideas are hard work. Coming up with them, proposing them, working out what to do with them once they’re out in the wild — it’s tough. It’s even harder when you’re put on the spot and it impacts not just you, but the entire business.

Affinity mapping is a really simple method for helping teams generate, sort, and action ideas. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what it is, how it can help turn your team into a creative powerhouse — and how to get started yourself. Let’s dive in!

What is affinity mapping?

Ever run a brainstorming session, only to feel a bit overwhelmed when faced with dozens and dozens of ideas post-event? An affinity map (aka an ‘affinity diagram’) is the answer to that problem.

Affinity: NOUN. A liking or sympathy for someone or something, especially because of shared characteristics.

An affinity map is a tool for organizing information into logical groups for analysis. This means that rather than ending up with heaps of disparate information, you have digestible chunks of similar ideas. It’s especially useful when you’re grappling with a complex issue, or juggling large amounts of data/ideas that are difficult to align.

Where did affinity mapping come from?

The affinity map was invented by Japanese anthropologist Jiro Kawakita, and is a part of the Seven Management and Planning Tools set — a series of methods designed to promote productivity, communication, and better planning within an organization.

  1. Affinity map or affinity diagram (aka ‘the KJ method’ after its creator)
  2. Interrelationship diagram
  3. Tree diagram
  4. Matrix diagram
  5. Prioritization matrices
  6. The Process Decision Program Chart (PDPC)
  7. The Activity Network Diagram

What are the benefits of affinity mapping?

Affinity mapping makes it easy to gather and organize large sets of data. It’s the perfect partner to a brainstorming session because it provides a structure for turning ideas (generated during brainstorming) into actionable tasks.

It’s also a handy tool for design teams: Seeing the data brought to life in groups and themes, with connections highlighted and themes prioritized helps team members immerse themselves in the job and see how their work fits into the bigger picture.

How to create an affinity map: Stage 1- planning

Creating an affinity map is easy. But before you launch into it, there are three things you need to do to make sure you get the best results.

1. Choose your team carefully

Teamwork is best when you have multiple viewpoints and personalities all working together to tackle the problem. Not only does this mean you’ll get a more diverse set of solutions — but you’ll also find different members of the team complementing each other’s working styles.

For example, someone might be wonderfully creative but not so good at organization, another person might be quiet, but brilliant at playing devil’s advocate. Someone else might be a natural leader. It’s also a good idea to bring in people from different departments and levels of the organization to give a rounded approach to the problem and the ways in which certain solutions affect different levels of the business.

Top tip: To get everyone collaborating cohesively, understand what you’re up against before you begin. There are multiple potential barriers to communication — including language, gender, and cultural differences — not to mention distance. Get to know how to overcome these issues to get the most out of your team.

2. Assign a leader

Running any kind of ideas meeting without a leader is a bit like having an orchestra without a conductor. You need someone to lead the way or it could end up turning into a bit of a free-for-all.

A good leader is someone who can help get the most out of other participants by encouraging each person and making sure a couple of the louder ones don’t dominate the discussion. They should also be good at analyzing information and turning insights into actionable tasks.

3. Run a brainstorming session

Without a brainstorm, there’s no affinity map. During the brainstorming session, collect as many ideas as you can — something you can do virtually or via a whiteboard and sticky notes. Don’t try and sort them now.

Top tip: If you’re running a virtual brainstorming session, use a cloud-based tool, like Google Docs or an online diagramming tool so everyone can log in and add ideas at the same time.

How to create an affinity map: Stage 2 — making your diagram

Once you’ve collated your ideas, it’s time to organize them — and this is where your affinity map begins to take shape.

1. Create your first group

Once you’ve collected all your ideas in one place, it’s time to start sorting them into common themes. Select your first idea and decide on a group/category together. For example, if you ran a restaurant and were brainstorming dish ideas, lobster chowder might go under ‘appetizers,’ or the even more specific ‘seafood appetizers.’

2. Define the remaining groups

Next, pick another idea and ask the team whether it belongs in the same group as the first one. If yes, you know where to put it. If not, create a new group for that idea. Keep doing this with each subsequent idea until they’re all sorted into groups.

This might take a few attempts. You may find you have too many groups and need to refine further. Generally speaking, anything from 3-10 is ideal — go above this and you lose the clarity this method seeks to bring. Or you might discover different team members disagree about which group an idea belongs in. In this case, a vote could help the team reach a decision.

3. Assess your groups

Once you’ve got all your groups set out, you might notice hierarchies or links emerge. Feel free to note these down (color-coordinating works well here). Don’t worry if this doesn’t happen — it’s perfectly fine to have multiple unrelated themes.

4. Prioritize your groups

Organize your themes according to how well they’ll help you accomplish your primary goal. While doing this, consider both ease and budget: Some might be quick wins (cheap, quick, and easy to do). Others might be more expensive/time-consuming but have a big impact.

Top tip: Try matrix organization as a method for helping you prioritize your themes and tasks.

5. Turn your themes into actions

Once you’ve prioritized your list of themes, you’ll need to turn them into actionable tasks. Project management software is a good option here: Simply add your list of tasks into the software along with the diagram, then start assigning jobs and setting deadlines.

Having a clear schedule in place will help you and the team make sure those high-priority jobs are tackled in a timely manner.

Affinity diagram best practice: 6 tips before you start

Here are some pointers for getting the most out of this handy system.

  1. Choose the right tools for the job. You’ll want to move ideas around — so opt for diagramming software, or use sticky notes, cards, or pieces of paper. This makes it easy for people to stack and sort ideas into groups.
  2. Keep ideas short and punchy. If you add too much detail at this stage you’ll slow things down (not to mention have an overly complicated-looking diagram).
  3. Look for priorities. What may be a priority for you might not be a priority for the overall business — keep this in mind when ranking your groups.
  4. Organize your diagram in a way that works for you. Make use of color and lines, arrows, and shapes, which all make the data easier to understand.
  5. Be alert to insights, and describe them as you go. Perhaps connections highlight something you’d not noticed before — or maybe you’ve spotted a potential gap or user need you’d overlooked. Take note.
  6. Use the right tools for the job. Sticky notes are fine, but they get lost, look messy, and are difficult to organize and share. Your best bet is to use a cloud-based tool, like Cacoo. Not only can everyone log in and work on the diagram at once — it’s also neater, easier to share — and more collaborative thanks to real-time commenting and notifications.

Final thoughts

Affinity mapping can help you sort through data, draw insights, and gain a greater understanding of the task at hand — whether that’s helping you spot a gap in your project, or alerting you to a user need you’d not considered until now. Best of all, it’s a really simple process to follow, made all the simpler with diagramming software. With Cacoo, our own tool, you can work in real-time together or remotely, adding ideas, sorting tasks, leaving feedback, and turning all those ideas into something that’s easy to understand and most importantly — actionable.



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