There are a large number of tools & techniques available to project managers, however few are as hands-on and collaborative as affinity grouping.
The simple act of taking a set of items and organizing them into logical groupings through shared efforts can be a wonderful team building activity as it provides the opportunity for all team members to contribute. I’ve seen the most weary and cynical team members crack a smile when they are able to re-categorize an item which had been poorly classified on a first pass.
The technique can be utilized throughout the project lifecycle. While we tend to think of it for reducing many items down to a few – for example, in scope definition, the practice can also be used to categorize or classify items. Here are three of my favorites:
- Visually classifying items into tables or X-Y graphs. The effectiveness and efficiency of qualitative risk analysis, lessons learned categorization and stakeholder analysis improves when done in this fashion as team members not only have the opportunity to classify or re-classify items, but they can incorporate the knowledge of how other items had been classified into their decision-making. This can be a good way to overcome the effect of bias and to surface unstated concerns or assumptions.
- Helping to differentiate between cause & effect. When analyzing a problem or issue which has multiple symptoms, it can be easy to pursue fixing those instead of trying to identify and eliminate root cause. Affinity grouping in conjunction with a quality tool such as an Ishikawa diagram could help to focus team efforts where the project would experience the greatest uplift.
- Helping to create team identity. I’ve written previously about the benefits in having a mission or vision statement for large complex projects. A good way to come up with the core components of such a statement is through brainstorming & affinity grouping.
What are some of the practices I’ve picked up for affinity grouping?
- Use multi-colored, good quality Post-it Notes. The repetitive action of sticking and unsticking them while grouping is underway can render cheap versions useless.
- Establish structure but make sure you provide everyone a chance to group or re-group items.
- Let the team identify or define the themes or groups.
- Don’t let team members sniff the markers for too long – yes, they smell nice, but they may also kill brain cells!
- Don’t let team members get into an affinity grouping infinite loop where items are moved in and out of the same groups over and over again.
- Schedule affinity grouping workshops late in the day – the act of slapping notes on flip charts or whiteboards is a cathartic method of burning off a day’s stress!
So the next time you are faced with a task requiring analysis or categorization, consider whether you could team-source the work effort and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts by using affinity grouping!