Reality Check: Finding Affinity

If you’ve ever been overwhelmed, you know it’s not very pleasant. When you are faced with demands from all sides, unknowns about the future, all the uncertainties…It’s overwhelming.
As I was reviewing a tool used with teams to gather and group ideas, it occurred to me that this could also be useful for anyone who is feeling overwhelmed.
The tool is called an Affinity Diagram, and it’s really a process rather than a physical “tool.” It’s a modification of a method developed decades ago by a Japanese anthropologist, Jiro Kawakita. Although popular in some circles, it doesn’t seem widely known by the general public.
Heads-up—this process calls for a lot of sticky notes, so consider going to your favourite dollar emporium to stock up before you get started.
Here’s the general process when working with a team.
First, clearly state the question or issue to be discussed. Make sure everyone understands and agrees. Write it down.
Without talking, each person writes ideas on sticky notes. It’s important to write only one idea per note. Use markers so ideas are easy to see. Stick the notes randomly on a wall or other large surface. Remember—no talking!
After there are plenty of ideas up there, look for any that seem related. Still without talking, move the notes so that related ideas, that is, those that have an “affinity” for each other, are side-by-side.
This step also has some rules. The big rule—still no talking! It’s ok to move a note that someone else has moved. If it seems like an idea belongs in more than one place, then make a copy of it. And it’s ok if there are ideas that don’t fit a group; they can stay by themselves.
You’ll find that the collection will move from a pile of disorganized ideas to a set of groups. You could do this in one session, or you could keep it going for days so people have time to think about the ideas and the affinities.
Now you can talk. Talk about the patterns and any surprises you find. You can still change note positioning at this stage. When you have general agreement on the groupings, come up with headings for the groups.
The result will be a collection of categories that can help you get a different perspective on the issue. It can reduce the confusion from what you may have perceived as contradictory or disjointed ideas. It helps creativity, and it could also reduce communication barriers and misunderstandings.
How might you use this individually, for example, in your own overwhelmed life?
Rubie is trying to figure out the big question—what is her purpose in life? She believes that she has been put on this earth to do something. What is it? Might an Affinity Diagram be helpful for her?
She already knows her core question: “What is my purpose?”
Writing down all of those different, seemingly disjointed ideas that she perceives as connecting to purpose gets the ideas out of her head and onto her wall. If she chooses, she could take several days to uncover all the ideas.
As Rubie starts grouping, again over what could take several days, she’ll see that many of her ideas have an affinity for each other. For example, “Help people to live independently” and “Teach gardening skills” have an affinity.
As she forms the groupings, patterns will emerge. She’ll be able to come up with headings for those groups, which could help her get more clarity on her purpose. With that clarity, she’ll be better equipped to take action toward her purpose, rather than fret in confusion about it.
Can you think of an application for an Affinity Diagram in your life?

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