Developing a Collective Perspective – The Affinity Diagram

May 28, 2019 in CreativityCultureHow to - tips & tricksMeetingsTools

Once upon a time, not so long ago, people worked in jobs with a lot more routine. If change was required, there was usually enough data and time to work it out rationally, and decisions were more autocratic. 

These days, roles, situations and context evolve a lot more quickly. We find that, decisions have to be made closer to the work, and we need our people to make judgements far more frequently, often without the full facts. As a result, we need them to be more engaged in what is happening, and we need their insight and commitment to be part of a more participative approach.  

However, if we want more participation in developing a collective perspective, one that truly reflects the insight and passions of our people, we need meetings whereby people can contribute equally, and in parallel. But, in a group situation, the typical meeting behaviour of ‘talking’ does not do that particularly well. It is great for wrapping things into a conclusion, but not so good at getting everyone’s contributions or maintaining a balanced picture. 

Why would it be? ‘Sitting around a table and talking’ harks back to a time when such things would be unnecessary and even undesirable. (Note: The typical approach taken to meetings was evident well before Medieval times).

Fortunately, there are many proven alternatives to talking, and the simplest and easiest of these is an Affinity Diagram – an approach which, paradoxically, actively requires silence. 

The steps to producing an Affinity Diagram are very simple.

A question is posed which requires people to submit a range of opinions, ideas, observations, concerns … For example, “What currently undermines the quality of our service?” or “What ideas do we have to improve meetings?”

Then people individually list out their thoughts in response to the question. Each thought is written on a separate sticky-note, clearly, unambiguously, usually in a flipchart pen to keep them succinct and readable at a distance. Each person may generate several sticky-notes. 

The sticky-notes are stuck up on a large section of wall, and people read all of what has been put forward. Where these prompt someone to a new thought or idea that has not yet been covered, they write a further sticky note and add it to the wall. At this stage people can ask for clarifications on what is meant by what has been put up (and this sometimes leads to a sticky-note being rewritten) but they cannot debate it.

Then the group, individually and concurrently, move individual sticky-notes to pull them into meaningful groups. There are some rules which apply to this phase – these can be found here:  https://help.inspirometer.com/meetings_clinic/affinity-diagram/ – and if these are followed even large teams can arrive at something they jointly agree within about 20 minutes.

The end result can then be labelled, cleaned-up, prioritised, actioned, further developed … whatever adds most value. But the most important thing is that it reflects the full insight, experience and commitment of those assembled. It has their ownership, and it will maintain their engagement, particularly if it is then taken forward by means of other participative approaches

If you have never used an Affinity Diagram before, why not try it out in your next meeting?

Affinity Diagrams work even better in the virtual environment, where engagement is even more key, and where tools like electronic whiteboards make it even easier than using a physical wall. Or if you would like to get some practice beforehand, why not join us for our free online training session on the 4th June and experience it firsthand – there is nothing quite like active participation for generating confidence and insight.