Affinity Mapping

There are plenty of tools you can use in implementing a good idea.  And plenty of ways to generate a lot of ideas.  But how do you figure out what to do when you have a lot of ideas and only a limited resource set?  Today, we’ll look at one method to heard your cat-like brainwave, affinity mapping.

Affinity maps, also called affinity diagrams, are all about taking lots of ideas and whittling them down into manageable buckets.  The easiest way to do so is to set up your idea generation the right way from the start.  This means getting a clear understanding of the issue (think “how do we increase revenue 10% with minimal investment?”, not “improve performance!”).  As ideas are generated, put them on sticky notes and post them up on the wall to be reviewed.  It might look a little something like…

Ideally, you’re going to have at least 20 ideas on the wall.  If not, go back to the generation phase.  You need to think more before you start actions.

Next, the  ideas you have generated are sorted into these categories by the entire team, and this is the fun part, without discussion.  Why?  It helps you focus on the idea on the page, not the history (“That’s never worked before!”), the feasibility (“We’ve never found a way to do that!”) or the personal connection (“You just put that up there because you want to hire my sister!”)  It’s fine to move things that have been moved already.  It’s fine to move someone else’s idea.  Just keep going until the sorting slows to a crawl.

Not all notes will find a home.  Some ideas are real outliers.  They are often the really, really good ones.  Or the really, really bad ones.  Either is OK at this point.  If no one can figure out where it belongs, let it stand alone.  If there are clearly strong feelings about placing an idea in more than one group, don’t get hung up on it.  Make a duplicate of the idea and put it in both places.  No big deal.

Once that is done, work as a team to create a headline or summary for each group.  (Yes, it’s fine to speak to each other again.  But if you really enjoy the silence, then keep it up.)  For example, from our revenue question above, we might have groups that include:

  • Staffing
  • Product Innovation
  • Marketing
  • DSOs/Accounts Receivable
  • New Channels for existing product

When complete, your idea board will look more like this…

Now you have a mass of ideas that are somewhat sorted.  You can take the buckets and break them down further, eliminate duplicates or ideas that aren’t feasible, and work toward deciding if any of these are valid solutions to your problems.

If you’ve used this method and have additional thoughts, or if you have any questions on it, please feel free to leave a comment below!


  1. Just shared this one with my team!!

  2. Another awesome post Dwane. We used this process to completely revamp our Service Standards for the entire Health System, and it was a huge success on every level. Great explanation!


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