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Coaching: How the affinity diagram can enable creativity

What are you trying to accomplish? An Affinity diagram may help you decide.

A client of mine was in preparation for what he was calling a ‘Reboot’! Like many of us, him and his company had experienced a challenging year, they lacked resources, people worked long hours and they have a strong sense that their people are exhausted. He has now recruited the majority of his new team and is looking to bring his direct reports and then the wider team together to reenergise them and get their engagement.

Over the course of their two day event, my client has planned some time to get input from his direct reports on the shape and structure of their organisation. His plan was to present the strategy, present the organisational structure and then ask the 10 reports in the room for their thoughts.

I asked him what we was trying to accomplish. There was some pause for thought and then he said;

“My gut tells me we should use what we’ve got, but I’m prepared to change and consider alternatives; I don’t want to spend weeks debating it but it’s important that I get their buy-in!”

Sound familiar?

How often have you wanted to get input from your team, get their consensus and support for the plan you finally decide upon but what are the risks that not everyone is heard, not everyone agrees and that the conversation deteriorates into an unstructured moan, or deviates from the original topic?

The Affinity Diagram can be a useful tool in these situations.

STEP ONE: Ask everyone, what’s the question?

Everyone needs to agree and understand it and this can take time but it’s worth it because you’ve got the team engaged.

STEP TWO: Using silent idea generation

Allow at least 10 minutes, use Post-it notes and limit the team to one idea per note.

Each member writes all the ideas they can, we find that some people are prolific at the start, while others sit back and collect their thoughts.

That’s OK, it gives everyone the space they need to generate ideas and helps ensure that we get everyone’s input, not just those who would verbally shout loudest!

STEP THREE: Cluster your ideas

Once all the ideas are on notes, encourage the team members to read them and start to cluster similar ideas together. This gives everyone a chance to read each other’s ideas with interest, start to think about their own thoughts, how they compare and group similar ideas together. We find people are very open and intrigued at this stage and tend to suspend judgement.

STEP FOUR: Put your idea into logical groups

When you have got the ideas clustered, it’s an opportunity for the team to discuss the central theme for each cluster of ideas and create a header card that describes the meaning that the cards in the cluster have to each other. The team see their ideas have been captured and placed into logical groups that now have an agreed header or title, they are confident that they have been heard and agree.

This particular leader is keen to try new ideas that bring structure and process whilst enabling creativity so he embraced the idea and now plans to use the Affinity Diagram in his session.

Coaching: How the affinity diagram can enable creativity- image - 3

Some Advice

Coming up with ideas can be tough, but the person who does all the hard work is the Facilitator! Make sure that you have someone who is skilled at managing and controlling the affinity diagram process and team dynamics. They need to plan each step carefully, ensure everyone contributes, maintain silence when the ideas are being generated, don’t allow one individual to dominate the process and most importantly, bring everyone to consensus.

This is the first step. It’s what he does next, with the input from his team, which will determine his overall success.


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