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How to Generate and Organize Ideas with Affinity Mapping

So you have an idea for a book. You can see your title and your first paragraph AND NOTHING ELSE. The rest is an uncooperative snarl of shifting concepts that refuse to jump onto the screen and fall into a neat outline so you can begin.

Enter affinity mapping, a quick way to brainstorm, categorize, and make order of ideas. I’ve loved this tool since I first learned about it many years ago. I’ve used it for books, business planning, and personal priorities. Here’s a quick guide with a couple of practical examples to get your ideas out into the open so they can take shape.

Affinity mapping approach

The affinity mapping process can be done alone or with a group.

Supplies

You will need:

  • Sticky notes
  • Sharpies (or another strong black pen that’s easily legible)
  • Some surface that you can put the sticky notes on—a whiteboard or giant sheet of paper (it helps to be a vertical surface so people can see more easily)

Process

Here’s the general process, but feel free to create your own variations:

  1. Define the topic – Define your topic—ideas for book content, things your team needs to do in 2018, and so on.
  2. Distribute supplies – Give each person sticky notes and a Sharpie.
  3. Document ideas – Have each person write all their ideas, activities, etc., on sticky notes—only one item per sticky note!
  4. Display the sticky notes – When everyone is done, put the sticky notes on the wall—in random order—for everyone to see.
  5. Group the sticky notes – Now’s the fun. Start moving the sticky notes around, grouping them into clusters of similar items, i.e., items that have an affinity with each other. There may be some duplicate ideas that are quickly sorted. After that, people will see different groupings, and will keep moving the stickies around for a while. Eventually the group will settle on clusters of stickies, but don’t worry if there are a few stragglers that haven’t “stuck” to anything else.
  6. Name the groups – Now take a look at the clusters. What themes have emerged? Give each group a name. These are your categories.
  7. Organize as needed – If appropriate for your purpose, organize the categories, e.g., by priority or sequentially. You may identify gaps in your groupings, and you may realize the stragglers are unnecessary—or they may lead to new brainstorming.

Tips

Here are some tips to keep your affinity mapping session fast and fun:

  • Set time limits – Brains sometimes work best with a deadline and a quick pace. For example, maybe you want 10-15 minutes for writing down ideas, 10-15 minutes for moving stickies around, and 10-15 minutes for categorizing.
  • Engage the whole group – If you have a modest-size group, you can have everyone moving the sticky notes at once. In my experience, most people self-regulate pretty well (i.e., they don’t try to hog the sticky notes). If you have a larger group or someone who dominates, you could consider rotating people through in shifts to make sure everyone gets a chance to influence the groupings.
  • Use silence – Generate ideas without speaking; let everyone think without being influenced by other voices. Try moving the sticky notes around without speaking as well; let the movement create the communication. Usually it helps to talk through the groupings to find the right labels, but you may want to allow some silence for individual drafting of possible labels too. (Your introverts in particular will appreciate the chance to think in peace.)

Affinity mapping examples

Two real-life examples of affinity mapping…

Book content (individual exercise)

In a recent discovery session, the prospective client I spoke with was in the very early stages of developing her book content. She had a clear idea of her book’s subject and purpose. Visually she knew she wanted quotes, short inspirational pieces, thought-provoking questions, and other items you might find in a motivational book.

But the content was still conceptual, not yet developed, and she didn’t know what the chapters might be or what the overall organization would look like.

I suggested she try affinity mapping to help her identify the themes and specific topics she wanted to cover. My guess is that she will come up with a half dozen principles or “big ideas” that will become her chapters. (Besides principles, other structures might include process, chronology, or argument, but those seem less likely in this case.)

After identifying themes, I imagine she will begin to identify gaps in her chapters; for example, she will realize she has way too many quotes for chapter 1 and none for chapter 5.

Additionally, the affinity map can be a living document in these early stages of planning and content development—she can leave it up on the wall, keep adding sticky notes, and move things around as her thinking evolves.

Business strategy (group exercise)

In strategic planning, there’s often an expectation that one can clearly define the vision, and then easily map the path to it—a deliberate strategy. From the top down, we set the objective (O), we identify our strategies (S) to achieve it, and then we define the tactics (T) that fall under each strategy: this is our O-S-T chart.

But sometimes the vision isn’t quite so obvious. In that case, a useful application of affinity mapping is to create an O-S-T chart from the bottom upan intuitive strategy.

Say you are planning the upcoming year for your department.

  1. Using sticky notes, list all the activities (tactics) you believe your department needs to do.
  2. After you group those tactics, assess each group—what is the overarching strategy this group of tactics supports?
  3. As you look at the strategies, what is the reason you are pursuing them? What team and organizational objective(s) do they help you meet?

Aha! You knew there was a reason you had all these items on the to-do list. Now you can see them in context. And now that you understand the alignment to overarching objectives and strategies, you can test your thinking by going back down the chart:

  1. If those are the objectives, are you missing any core strategies? Do all the strategies align with at least one objective?
  2. If those strategies are appropriate, are they missing any supporting tactics?
  3. Do you have leftover sticky notes? If those tactics don’t directly support the strategies that lead to the objectives(s), are they needed?

On your mark, get set—get sticky!

Affinity mapping won’t get you all the way to a strategic plan or project plan or book outline, but it is an excellent jumping-off place for those items. It’s cheap, quick, and fun.

And as we’re in January, it may even work for planning those New Year’s goals…

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