Creative business team looking at sticky notes on window
ATD Blog

From Scattered to Structured: Bringing Order to the Ideas

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Most of us have experienced being in a meeting, offsite work event, or training and having the facilitator ask you to generate ideas. It might have been something like this:

The executives are concerned about the engagement scores on the employee survey and want a list of actions L&D will take to increase the engagement and thus the scores. Let’s take 15 minutes to brainstorm some ideas. I will capture the ideas, so we’ll go around the group in a round-robin format and share our thoughts.

After 15 minutes, where are you? Depending on whether it is a virtual or in-person meeting, you are gazing at a long list, thinking of the many things that will be added to your already overloaded plate. The facilitator, who is probably also the manager, is probably thinking to themself: These ideas are all over the map. We only have limited time. What can we do, and what will I tell the executive team?

scattared stickynotes for brainstorming
This happens daily in most organizations. For example, maybe the team has conducted research and has lots of data, or maybe you have interviewed many people in a focus group type of situation. Anytime you have a large pool of data to generate and sort through to make sense of, you need to have a process to move it from a long list of scattered ideas to a smaller group of actionable items.

Enter the Affinity Diagram

The affinity diagram is a simple collaborative idea creation and analysis tool. Known in quality management circles as one of the seven management and planning tools created in the 1960s by Japanese anthropologist Jiro Kawakita, it is also referred to as affinity chart, affinity mapping, affinity clustering, affinity walls, K-J method, and thematic analysis.

This tool enables the idea generation of the brainstorming but also includes a structure to develop thematic patterns and connections. Seeing these patterns opens the gate to gain insights, which can lead to actions. At the end of the process and with just a bit more time than regular brainstorming, you can have a starting pathway for solving the problem or challenge you started with rather than a huge list of individual ideas.

organized sticky notes for affinity diagram
There are many approaches to conducting the affinity clustering process, and as with most collaborative decision tools, you can adapt them in various ways. While there are apps that can facilitate the process virtually, here are the steps for an in-person process:

Getting Started

  • Frame the question or topic. For example, “How might the L&D team enhance employee engagement?”
  • Gather the appropriate group, such as your L&D team or a cross section of employees who have knowledge of the topic. The ideal group size for each work group is three to five.
  • Use sticky notes and large poster sheets or a whiteboard. The advantage of sticky notes for individual responses is the ability to move ideas around from grouping to grouping.
  • Post the trigger question so everyone can easily see it as they think and write. Ask for questions about the topic and the process prior to starting.
  • Give the group the instructions and the time.


  • Use only one idea on a sticky note. Brevity is best, which means between three and six words; one word is not sufficient.
  • Use the allotted time even if the pace of idea generation slows.
  • Write in silence.

Posting, Sorting, and Clustering

  • Have the team members randomly place the ideas on the poster or whiteboard in silence.
  • Place ideas in like or similar groupings based on their perceptions of how the ideas connect.
  • Place sticky notes of identical ideas on top of each other.
  • This movement of the sticky notes into groups is iterative and continues until the team seems satisfied. These groupings can be in clusters, buckets, or rows.
  • It is common to have an outlier group labeled “miscellaneous.”

Discussing and Labeling

  • Lead a discussion on the contents of each cluster. What are the connections or similarities between all of the ideas?
  • Develop a summary statement or header and label each group.

Benefits to Using Affinity Diagrams

The greatest benefit of the affinity diagram is being able to visually sorts large amounts of data into similar clusters based on connections and patterns perceived by those involved. From these connections and patterns comes further understanding of the issues, which leads to new insights. The process includes all ideas, and because it is done in silence, there is no judgment or debate to derail the focus.

While the individual ideas are unique, the posting, grouping, rearranging, and labeling process builds a shared understanding. Executing the affinity diagram process promotes creativity, analysis, and synthesis.

And even though some think the no talking rule is a bit over the top, it provides every participant the same voice.

The affinity diagram is a versatile tool and can be used in conjunction with other tools like a gallery walk type of review as well as human-centered design thinking methods like Rose, Bud, Thorn. An internet search provides many variants for the process as well as suggestions for how to use it. It can be accomplished virtually with apps or in person. It can be accomplished synchronously or asynchronously. It is also similar to the card sort and post up games from Gamestorming. Check out sites like Langford Learning, ASQ, and LUMA Institute for further suggestions.

About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

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