How to consolidate ideas

Is it ever a bad thing to have too many ideas? Probably not, but if you’ve ever experienced information overload or struggled to know where to begin with a wealth of data you’ve been given, you may have wondered how you can use all of these ideas effectively. When there’s lots of “stuff” coming at you, it is hard to sort through everything and organize the information in a way that makes sense and helps you make decisions.

Whether you’re brainstorming ideas, trying to solve a problem or analyzing a situation, when you are dealing with lots of information from a variety of sources, you can end up spending a huge amount of time trying to assimilate all the little bits and pieces. Rather than letting the disjointed information get the better of you, you can use an affinity diagram to help you organize it.

Also called the KJ method, after its developer Kawakita Jiro (a Japanese anthropologist) an affinity diagram helps to synthesize large amounts of data by finding relationships between ideas. The information is then gradually structured from the bottom up into meaningful groups. From there you can clearly “see” what you have, and then begin your analysis or come to a decision.

In any creative process, once you have enough ideas, someone has to look at the possibilities and divide them into useful piles. This makes it possible to understand the different viable design directions and to begin to see their differences. Piles of things are easier to work with than 30, 50, or 150 individual things. This is true for ideas, specifications, hyperactive children, small animals, pieces of candy, annoying writers that make silly lists for no reason, etc.) It’s fine if some ideas are represented in prototypes and others in scribbles, notes, or unexplored thoughts.

The goal isn’t to eliminate or refine individual ideas, it’s to put some shape and structure around them all. There are many techniques for doing this, but the simplest one I know is an affinity diagram (aka KJ diagrams, after the anthropologist Kawakita Jiro). This approach requires four things: ideas, a wall, Post-it notes, and the team (although good beer and tasty food help). In an affinity diagram, each idea is represented as a note, described in
just a few words and placed on the wall.

These ideas can be the output of brainstorming sessions or a list refined by one or more people on the team. There can be anywhere from 20 to 100 or more ideas. The scope of the problem you’re trying to solve, and how creative people have been, can make for wild swings in the size of ideas from project to project. With an affinity diagram, you’ll see a broader view of the ideas. Some ideas are similar, and you want to position them together so that they are easier to identify.

Working visually allows people to focus on relationships and not on how much information they can keep in their head. Affinity diagrams also have the benefit of making discussions with others about ideas natural. A small group of
people can stand together at the wall and make comments about the relationships they see, changing the positions of the Post-it notes as they come to new conclusions. Affinity diagrams use Post-it notes because they can be moved around on a wall and organized easily into different arrangements.

The same raw list of ideas is now grouped into five buckets that represent most of the available ideas. The way to do this is easy. Someone goes to the wall and starts moving ideas around. The lead designer, the project manager, or a small team should be the first to take a stab at organizing the ideas. After someone has taken a first cut, it becomes easier for others to move ideas around between groups, change the names of the groupings, or recognize that some ideas are duplicates of each other and can be removed.

See: for a good list of alternatives.

As people on the team stop by and make changes, the diagram will change in shape in many interesting ways. (One tip: consider taking digital photos periodically if you want to preserve the different groupings people come up with.). Eventually, the affinity diagram settles down and groupings emerge that can be used in the next steps. In case I’m being too abstract in describing how affinity diagrams work, here’s an example that explains in another way.

Let’s say that one of the project goals was to make search results on the intranet web site easier to use. We met, brainstormed, had some beers, and came up with a long list of ideas. The next morning, people had a few more to add, so we included them. We reviewed that list, eliminated duplicates, laughed as we crossed off ideas no one could explain, and had this basic list of ideas to
work with:
• Remove advanced options that no one ever uses.
• Improve the layout of the search results page.
• Use the superior HyperX search engine.
• Reduce the number of results shown.
• Allow users to set preferences for how the page should look.
• Open the results in a new window.
• Fix the performance bugs in our search engine.
• Make the query engine work properly (support Boolean searches).

After reviewing the list and using Post-it notes or some other method to group the ideas, we spent a half-hour organizing them. We moved them around, tried different arrangements, and finally arrived at a list we thought was most useful:
• Simplify
— Remove advanced options that no one uses
— Improve the layout of the search results page
— Reduce the number of figures shown
• Customize
— Allow users to set preferences for how the page should look
— Open the results in a new window
• Remodel architecture
— Make the query engine work properly (support Boolean searches)
— Fix the performance bugs in our search engine
— Use the superior HyperX search engine

The groupings here are very simple, and because there are only a total of eight ideas, it works fine. However, if there were 40 or 50 ideas, a list wouldn’t work as well. Lists promote linear and hierarchical thinking, and they become hard to manage when they get too large. Later on in development, lists are a great way to push the process forward, but while still in the early stages, affinity diagrams are more powerful. They help people see ideas as fluid and tangible things that can be moved around and easily reorganized.

This fluidity helps people to question their assumptions, see new perspectives, and follow other people’s thoughts. For teams new to creative thinking (especially as a group), an affinity diagram is a great way to go. Use lists for your own purposes as a project manager afterward, but give the team an affinity. I’m convinced that it helps find more good ideas and brings people into the process.

Affinity diagrams can also be used to:
– Draw out common themes from a large amount of information
– Discover previously unseen connections between various ideas or information
– Brainstorm root causes and solutions to a problem

Because many decision-making exercises begin with brainstorming, this is one of the most common applications of affinity diagrams. After a brainstorming session there are usually pages of ideas. These won’t have been censored or edited in any way, many of them will be very similar, and many will also be closely related to others in a variety of ways. What an affinity diagram does is start to group the ideas into themes.

From the chaos of the randomly generated ideas comes an insight into the common threads that link groups of them together. From there the solution or best idea often emerges quite naturally. This is why affinity diagrams are so powerful and why the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers consider them one of the “seven management tools.”

Affinity diagrams are not the domain of brainstorming alone though. They can be used in any situation where:
– The solution is not readily apparent
– You want to reach a consensus or decision and have a lot of variables to consider, concepts to discuss, ideas to connect, or opinions to incorporate
– There is a large volume of information to sort through

Key Points
Affinity diagrams are great tools for assimilating and understanding large amounts of information. When you work through the process of creating relationships and working backward from detailed information to broad themes, you get an insight you would not otherwise find. The next time you are confronting a large amount of information or number of ideas and you feel overwhelmed at first glance, use the affinity diagram approach to discover all the hidden linkages. When you cannot see the forest for the trees, an affinity diagram may be exactly what you need to get back in focus.

Further research:

1. Affinity Diagram (KJ Method)
This tool takes large amounts of disorganized data and information and enables one to organize it into groupings based on natural relationships. It was created in the 1960s by Japanese anthropologist Jiro Kawakita. Its also known as KJ diagram,after Jiro Kawakita. Affinity diagram is a special kind of brainstorming tool.

2. Interrelationship Digraph (ID)
This tool displays all the interrelated cause-and-effect relationships and factors involved in a complex problem and describes desired outcomes. The process of creating an interrelationship digraph helps a group analyze the natural links between different aspects of a complex situation.

3. Tree Diagram
This tool is used to break down broad categories into finer and finer levels of detail. It can map levels of details of tasks that are required to accomplish a goal or task. It can be used to break down broad general subjects into finer and finer levels of detail. Developing the tree diagram helps one move their thinking from generalities to specifics.

4. Prioritization Matrix
This tool is used to prioritize items and describe them in terms of weighted criteria. It uses a combination of tree and matrix diagramming techniques to do a pair-wise evaluation of items and to narrow down options to the most desired or most effective.

5. Matrix Diagram
This tool shows the relationship between items. At each intersection a relationship is either absent or present. It then gives information about the relationship, such as its strength, the roles played by various individuals or measurements. Six differently shaped matrices are possible: L, T, Y, X, C, R and roof-shaped, depending on how many groups must be compared.

6. Process Decision Program Chart (PDPC)
A useful way of planning is to break down tasks into a hierarchy, using a Tree Diagram. The PDPC extends the tree diagram a couple of levels to identify risks and countermeasures for the bottom level tasks. Different shaped boxes are used to highlight risks and identify possible countermeasures (often shown as ‘clouds’ to indicate their uncertain nature). The PDPC is similar to the Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) in that both identify risks, consequences of failure, and contingency actions; the FMEA also rates relative risk levels for each potential failure point.

7. Activity Network Diagram
This tool is used to plan the appropriate sequence or schedule for a set of tasks and related subtasks. It is used when subtasks must occur in parallel. The diagram enables one to determine the critical path (longest sequence of tasks). (See also PERT diagram.)