Affinity Grouping And Why It Matters In Business

Affinity grouping is a collaborative prioritization process where group participants brainstorm ideas and opportunities according to their similarities. Affinity grouping is a broad and versatile process based on simple but highly effective ideas. It helps teams generate and then organize teams according to their similarity or likeness.

Understanding affinity grouping

Affinity grouping can be used to:

  • Identify design improvements for an app.
  • Classify information gathered via interviews, surveys, or general observations. For example, employee feedback.
  • Create a diagram showing the relationship between factors influencing an issue or problem.

The process begins with group members collaboratively brainstorming ideas or opportunities using Post-It Notes. 

Then, each idea or opportunity is sorted according to thematic clusters called “affinity groups”. In business, these groups may have themes relating to driving revenue, increasing customer satisfaction, or enhancing performance.

Implementing the affinity grouping technique

The process of affinity grouping is neither formal nor overly structured. Nevertheless, teams should follow this basic order of steps:

  1. Brainstorm ideas around a central issue or problem. Record each idea on a Post-It Note.
  2. Randomly place each idea on a large table or surface.
  3. Without deliberation, group ideas together if they appear to be related. Team members are free to add new ideas to the mix while grouping is occurring.
  4. Continue until all ideas have been grouped. Some ideas will have to be set aside because they don’t belong to a particular theme. At this stage, there should be no more than 10 groups formed.
  5. The team should then formulate short and descriptive sentences that describe each group. For best results, avoid one or two word titles. If descriptive sentences cause conflict with the ideas in one group, move certain ideas to another group or create copies so that one idea can occupy two groups.
  6. With each title, brainstorm some new ideas and classify them accordingly. 
  7. Lastly, the group should determine which categories should be prioritized based on a vote.

The role of the facilitator in affinity grouping

Affinity grouping is a simple process, but it requires a reasonable degree of management

A good facilitator is crucial in getting participants invested and maintaining that investment over meetings that can last hours.

Affinity grouping facilitators should also:

Clarify ground rules

It’s important to identify the team sponsor or the individual with the issue that needs to be addressed by the team.

Team selection is also vital – each individual must have relevant expertise and be willing to engage in creative thinking.

Maintain silence

Affinity grouping should be performed in silence, particularly when ideas are being generated and grouped.

A good facilitator ensures that silence is upheld and that the dominant personality does not jeopardize the “democratic” nature of the technique.

Clarify context and encourage ideas

The context must be established at the beginning of affinity grouping. This helps the technique stay focused on the matter at hand.

Furthermore, all ideas should be encouraged and not dismissed before they’ve been analyzed.

Affinity grouping in agile

Affinity grouping in agile is otherwise known as affinity estimation, but the premise of the technique is more or less the same.

Affinity estimation is used by teams to quickly and easily estimate a large number of user stories using story points. It is most effective for product backlogs that exceed 20 items.

How does this process occur, exactly? There are three steps.

Step 1 – Silent relative sizing

To start, a horizontal scale is defined where one end is marked with “Smaller” and the other “Larger”.

The product owner then presents stories from the product backlog to the team, with each individual placing a story anywhere on the scale.

Note that there is no discussion with others while this step is performed.

Team members are expected to estimate the size of each story based on the relative size of other stories already placed.

Items with a questionable or ambiguous size can be placed in a separate area.

Alternatively, the product owner or another qualified stakeholder can provide clarification.

Step 2 – Editing the wall

Once every team member has had the chance to place a story on the wall, it is now time to edit the relative sizes of each.

This is facilitated by a team discussion regarding story implementation, design, or other notable obstacles.

Again, the product owner can be a useful source of information.

After a consensus is reached, some stories may be re-positioned on the scale to more accurately reflect their size.

Stories are represented by cards that may exist in digital form, physical form, or both.

The card itself typically has details including story header (title), story ID, epic/feature, and of course size.

Step 3 – Placing the items

The scale should then be divided and marked so that each story can be categorized based on story points. There are a few different approaches:

  1. The “t-shirt sizing system” – XS, S, M, L, and XL.
  2. The Fibonacci series – 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, and 8.
  3. 2n – 2, 4, 8, 16, and 32.

Each method provides five buckets (categories) on a converted scale that team members can use to better place their stories.

To help team members appreciate the relative size of each bucket, appropriate spacing should be used on the wall on which the scale is displayed.

For minor disagreements on where a story should be replaced, the product owner can take on the role of a mediator and move the process forward in any case.

This is because the development team ultimately decides on the size of the requirement.

For more significant disagreements, however, the story can be placed in the same separate area outlined in step one. The product owner can then seek clarification on these items later. 

Additional outputs that may occur during affinity grouping include the creation of one or more user stories that were not part of the initial evaluation.

Others still may be removed or combined subject to group consensus.

Key takeaways:

  • Affinity grouping is a brainstorming method used to generate and organise ideas according to their likeness.
  • Affinity grouping can be used to identify design improvements for an app, gather employee feedback, or show the relationship between factors as they contribute to a problem.
  • Affinity grouping does require the services of a good facilitator who clarifies ground rules and context. They also ensure that the process is performed in silence so that dominant personalities do not compromise results.

Read Next: Business AnalysisCompetitor Analysis, Continuous InnovationAgile MethodologyLean StartupBusiness Model InnovationProject Management.

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