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Online Edition — January 2003

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Using Affinity Diagrams to Build Collaborative Solutions

Most of us have used affinity diagrams on many occasions to organize brainstormed ideas into natural groupings. They also are useful for reducing the number of brainstormed ideas into summarized headings that can be included in minutes or presentations, providing an overall picture of your team’s thoughts.

A less common, but equally effective use of the affinity diagram is to build collaborative decisions from the summarized headings. Quite often, the process of creating the affinity diagram will highlight unexpected relationships among team members’ ideas. This ensures that proposed decisions incorporate the diverse input of all team members, thereby making it easier to reach a consensus.


  1. Ask team members to brainstorm all considerations that should be taken into account when formulating the decision. These considerations may include components that should be included in the decision, as well as those that should be excluded from the decision.
  2. Each idea should be recorded on a Post-It™ note in bold, large print that can be read from a distance of two to four feet. Each Post-It note also should be labeled “include” or “exclude.” Team members should write enough on the notes to convey their ideas completely without explanation to the other team members.
  3. Stick the notes to a wall, whiteboard, or flip chart in random order.
  4. Ask team members to read the “include” ideas silently and sort them into five to 10 groups by moving similar Post-It notes into adjacent positions. All team members work simultaneously, moving the notes into the group where they fit best. No discussion occurs.
  5. Set a maximum time for reading and sorting. Sorting can stop earlier if team members feel sufficiently comfortable with the groups.
  6. Create a summary or header card for each group by quickly selecting a word or phrase that captures the central theme of each group. Then refine the category header as necessary to capture the essence of all the ideas in the group. Divide large groups into subgroups as needed and create appropriate subheaders.
  7. Repeat the process for the “exclude” ideas.
  8. Draw the final affinity diagram connecting all finalized header cards with their groupings.
  9. Draft a decision statement that incorporates all the “include” headers and subheaders. Don’t worry about making complete sentences; just hang all the headers together in a sensible order. Then, expand the draft by incorporating the “exclude” headers and subheaders.
  10. Ask team members to show “thumbs up or thumbs down” whether the draft decision statement reflects their diverse ideas. If a team member is not ready to accept the draft, ask him/her to go back to the headers and subheaders and show what is missing or has been misrepresented. Make adjustments to the draft as needed to make sure all the brainstormed considerations were incorporated appropriately.
  11. Refine the draft into complete sentences. At this point, some of the original ideas may be added to clarify the headers. Avoid wordsmithing, however; it adds no value and wastes time.
  12. Check for consensus by showing “thumbs up or thumbs down” again. Remind team members that consensus is not about perfection; it’s about moving in the right direction.

Facilitation Tips

  • You may want to require that each note contain a noun and a verb. Under any circumstances, your team should agree on the note-writing guidelines before you begin.
  • Sort in silence to focus on the meaning behind and connections among all ideas, instead of the emotions and “history” that often arise in discussions.
  • As an idea is moved back and forth, try to see the logical connection that the other person is making. If the movement continues beyond a reasonable point, agree to create a duplicate Post-It note.
  • It is OK for some notes to stand alone. These “loners” can be as important as others that fit into groupings naturally.
  • In some cases, you may want to reverse the wording of the exclusions, phrasing them as items to include, rather than as items to exclude. The key is to make sure their essence is incorporated into the draft and final decision.


Suppose your team was assigned to come up with recommendations for your organization’s new cafeteria and food services. You’ve talked with people who expect to use the cafeteria on a regular basis, and you’ve benchmarked other local facilities. Now it’s time to compile your ideas and decide what proposal to make.

Figures 1 and 2 show the two affinity diagrams your team prepared to summarize brainstorming on what should be included and excluded in the design proposal. There are four header categories for inclusions and three for exclusions. Original ideas are listed under each header.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3 shows a draft proposal that incorporates all of the header boxes. Note that some of the “exclude” headers have been reversed to positive inclusions. Figure 4 shows the final proposal, which incorporates some of the original ideas to clarify the key components of the recommendation.

Figure 3

Figure 4

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