Organizing Ideas Into Common Themes
Group similar items together..
Is it ever a bad thing to have too many ideas?
Probably not, but if you've ever experienced information overload
or struggled to know where to begin with a wealth of data you've
been given, you may have wondered how you can use all of these
When there's lots of "stuff" coming at you, it is hard to sort
through everything and organize the information in a way that
makes sense and helps you make decisions. Whether you're brainstorming
ideas, trying to solve a problem or analyzing a situation, when
you are dealing with lots of information from a variety of sources,
you can end up spending a huge amount of time trying to assimilate
all the little bits and pieces. Rather than letting the disjointed
information get the better of you, you can use an affinity diagram
to help you organize it.
Also called the KJ method, after its developer Kawakita Jiro (a
Japanese anthropologist) an affinity diagram helps to synthesize
large amounts of data by finding relationships between ideas. The
information is then gradually structured from the bottom up into
meaningful groups. From there you can clearly "see" what you have,
and then begin your analysis or come to a decision.
Affinity diagrams can be used to:
- Draw out common themes from a large amount of
- Discover previously unseen connections between various ideas or
- Brainstorm root causes and solutions to a problem
Because many decision-making exercises begin with brainstorming,
this is one of the most common applications of affinity diagrams.
After a brainstorming session there are usually pages of ideas.
These won't have been censored or edited in any way, many of them
will be very similar, and many will also be closely related to
others in a variety of ways. What an affinity diagram does is
start to group the ideas into themes.
From the chaos of the randomly generated ideas comes an insight
into the common threads that link groups of them together. From
there the solution or best idea often emerges quite naturally.
This is why affinity diagrams are so powerful and why the Japanese
Union of Scientists and Engineers consider them one of the "seven
Affinity diagrams are not the domain of brainstorming alone
though. They can be used in any situation where:
- The solution is not readily apparent
- You want to reach a consensus or decision and have a lot of
variables to consider, concepts to discuss, ideas to connect, or
opinions to incorporate
- There is a large volume of information to sort through
Here is a step-by-step guide to using affinity diagrams along with
a simple example to show how the process works.
How to Use the Tool
- Describe the problem or issue
Generate ideas by brainstorming.
Write each idea on a separate sticky note and put these on
a wall or flip chart. Remember to:
- Emphasize volume
- Suspend judgment
- Piggyback on other ideas
Sort ideas into natural themes by asking:
- What ideas are similar?
- Is this idea connected to any of the
If you're working in a team:
- Separate into smaller groups of 3 to
- Sort the ideas IN SILENCE so that no
one is influenced by anyone else's comments
- Keep moving the cards around until consensus
- Create total group consensus
- Discuss the shared meaning of each of
the sorted groups
- Continue until consensus is reached
- If some ideas do not fit into any theme,
separate them as "stand-alone" ideas
- If some ideas fit into more than one
theme, create a duplicate card and put it in the proper
- Try to limit the total number of themes
to between five and nine
- Create theme cards (also called affinity
cards or header cards)
- Create a short 3-5 word description
for the relationship
- If you're working in a group, do this
together, out loud
- Write this theme/header on a blank card
and place at the top of the group it describes
- Create a "super-headers" where necessary
to group themes
- Use a "sub-header" card where necessary
- Continue to group the themes/headers until you have reached the
broadest, but still meaningful, categories possible
- Draw lines connecting the super-headers, themes/headers, and
- You'll end up with a hierarchical structure that shows, at a
glance, where the relationships are
Grouping ideas under headings, and then grouping headings under super-headers in an affinity diagram is a practical way of
"chunking" information generated in brainstorming sessions, during process mapping, or even a planning exercise. Click here for more information on Chunking
Affinity diagrams are great tools for assimilating
and understanding large amounts of information. When you work
through the process of creating relationships and working backward
from detailed information to broad themes, you get an insight
you would not otherwise find. The next time you are confronting
a large amount of information or number of ideas and you feel
overwhelmed at first glance, use the affinity diagram approach
to discover all the hidden linkages. When you cannot see the forest
for the trees, an affinity diagram may be exactly what you need
to get back in focus.
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