affinity-grouping

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.

Case Studies

Scenario 1: App Redesign

Purpose: A tech company is looking to improve the user experience of its mobile app.

Strategy: The strategy is to enhance user engagement and retention by revamping the app’s interface and adding new features.

Values: User satisfaction, Innovation, User-Centered Design.

Behavioral Standards: The development and design teams work closely to implement user feedback, test new features, and ensure the app is intuitive and responsive.

Scenario 2: Employee Feedback

Purpose: A software company wants to gather feedback from its employees to improve the work environment.

Strategy: The strategy involves conducting anonymous surveys and interviews to understand employee concerns and suggestions.

Values: Employee well-being, Continuous Improvement, Transparency.

Behavioral Standards: HR and management teams actively seek employee input, address concerns, and implement changes to create a better workplace.

Scenario 3: Product Backlog Estimation (Agile)

Purpose: An agile development team needs to estimate the size and complexity of user stories in the product backlog.

Strategy: The strategy is to use relative sizing, discussion, and categorization to estimate story points effectively.

Values: Efficiency, Collaboration, Agile Development.

Behavioral Standards: Team members participate in silent relative sizing, engage in discussions to clarify points, and categorize stories into appropriate buckets based on complexity.

Scenario 4: Product Feature Prioritization

Purpose: A software development team is tasked with prioritizing new features for their product.

Strategy: The strategy is to identify which features will have the greatest impact on user satisfaction and align with the product roadmap.

Values: Customer-Centric Development, Innovation, User Engagement.

Behavioral Standards: The development team collaborates to brainstorm feature ideas, group them by similarity, and prioritize them based on their potential impact.

Scenario 5: Marketing Campaign Ideas

Purpose: A marketing team needs to come up with creative ideas for an upcoming campaign.

Strategy: The strategy involves brainstorming marketing campaign concepts that will resonate with the target audience.

Values: Creativity, Customer Engagement, Brand Awareness.

Behavioral Standards: The marketing team uses affinity grouping to organize campaign ideas into thematic clusters and decide which concepts to prioritize.

Scenario 6: Process Improvement in IT

Purpose: An IT department aims to improve its internal processes for faster issue resolution.

Strategy: The strategy is to identify bottlenecks, streamline workflows, and enhance communication within the IT team.

Values: Efficiency, Collaboration, Customer Satisfaction.

Behavioral Standards: The IT team engages in affinity grouping to categorize process improvement ideas, refine them through discussions, and prioritize changes for implementation.

Scenario 7: New Product Ideation

Purpose: A technology company wants to generate ideas for a new product.

Strategy: The strategy is to brainstorm innovative product concepts that address current market needs.

Values: Innovation, Market Relevance, Profitability.

Behavioral Standards: Cross-functional teams use affinity grouping to cluster and prioritize product ideas based on their potential market impact and feasibility.

Scenario 8: Content Strategy for a Tech Blog

Purpose: A tech blog aims to plan its content strategy for the upcoming quarter.

Strategy: The strategy is to identify topics of interest to the target audience and create a content plan that aligns with reader preferences.

Values: Relevance, Audience Engagement, Thought Leadership.

Behavioral Standards: The editorial team uses affinity grouping to group content ideas by themes, ensuring a diverse and appealing content calendar.

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.

Key Highlights

  • Affinity Grouping Overview:
    • Affinity grouping is a collaborative process where participants brainstorm ideas based on similarities and group them accordingly.
    • It helps generate and organize ideas or opportunities according to common themes or likeness.
  • Applications of Affinity Grouping:
    • Affinity grouping can be used to improve app design, classify interview or survey data, and visualize relationships among factors affecting a problem.
  • Process of Affinity Grouping:
    • Begin with brainstorming ideas on Post-It Notes.
    • Place ideas on a table and group related ideas.
    • Sort ideas into thematic clusters or “affinity groups.”
    • Create short descriptive sentences for each group.
    • Brainstorm new ideas and classify them under respective groups.
    • Prioritize categories through voting.
  • Role of Facilitator:
    • A good facilitator is essential for managing the process effectively.
    • Clarifies ground rules, identifies team sponsor, and ensures relevant expertise in the team.
    • Maintains silence during idea generation and grouping.
    • Clarifies context, encourages all ideas, and prevents dismissals.
  • Affinity Grouping in Agile:
    • Affinity grouping in agile, also called affinity estimation, is similar in principle.
    • Used to estimate user stories quickly using story points in product backlogs.
    • Involves silent relative sizing, editing relative sizes through team discussion, and placing items in categorized buckets.
  • Categorizing Story Points:
    • Story points can be categorized using methods like the “t-shirt sizing system,” Fibonacci series, or 2n approach.
    • Helps team members place stories accurately based on relative sizes.
  • Role of Product Owner:
    • Product owner presents stories for estimation and provides clarification when needed.
    • Mediates minor disagreements on story placement.
    • Development team decides on the final size of requirements.
  • Additional Outputs in Affinity Grouping:
    • Affinity grouping may lead to new user stories, removal of some stories, or their combination based on group consensus.

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

Other Brainstorming Frameworks

Appreciative Inquiry

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Appreciate Inquiry (AI) is an organizational change methodology that focuses on strengths and not on weaknesses. Appreciate Inquiry was created by management professors David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva in the 1980s. The Appreciate Inquiry is also known as the 5-D Cycle, an iterative cycle describing five distinct phases, made of define, discover, dream, design, and destiny.

Round-robin Brainstorming

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Round-robin brainstorming is a collective and iterative approach to brainstorming. Brainstorming is an effective way of generating fresh ideas for an organization. Round-robin brainstorming is a balanced approach, employing an iterative, circular process that builds on the previous contribution of each participant.

Constructive Controversy

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Constructive controversy is a theory arguing that controversial discussions create a good starting point for understanding complex problems. A constructive controversy discussion is performed by following six steps: organize information and derive conclusions; presenting and advocating decisions; being challenged by opposing views; conceptual conflict and uncertainty; epistemic curiosity and perspective-taking; and reconceptualization, synthesis, and integration.

Affinity Grouping

affinity-grouping
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.

The Fishbone Diagram

fishbone-diagram
The Fishbone Diagram is a diagram-based technique used in brainstorming to identify potential causes for a problem, thus it is a visual representation of cause and effect. The problem or effect serves as the head of the fish. Possible causes of the problem are listed on the individual “bones” of the fish. This encourages problem-solving teams to consider a wide range of alternatives.

Rolestorming

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Rolestorming as a term was first mentioned by personal development guru Rick Griggs in the 1980s.  Rolestorming is a brainstorming technique where participants pretend they are other people when sharing their thoughts and ideas.

Reverse Brainstorming

reverse-brainstorming
Reverse brainstorming takes advantage of the natural human tendency to more easily see problems than solutions. What’s more, many individuals when placed in a traditional brainstorming environment will find it difficult to become creative on command. Reverse brainstorming is an approach where individuals brainstorm the various ways a plan could fail. 

Lotus Diagram

lotus-diagram
A lotus diagram is a creative tool for ideation and brainstorming. The diagram identifies the key concepts from a broad topic for simple analysis or prioritization.

Futures Wheel

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The futures wheel was invented in 1971 by Jerome C. Glenn while he was studying at the Antioch Graduate School of Education.  The futures wheel is a brainstorming framework for visualizing the future consequences of a particular trend or event.

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