Affinity Diagram

Messy thinking? Scrappy data? Can’t see the wood for the trees?

Oh, yes, that’s me.

But, there’s help. It has a big name, but is a deceptively simple process. It’s called an affinity diagram.

Project managers often make use of it. It was devised by Jiro Kawakita in the 1960s. So things other than hippies happened back then! Jiro is an amazing fellow who devised his KJ Method, based on what he called the Key Problem Approach, largely as a result of his experience dealing with an ecological disaster in a Himalayan village in 1951 (the Sikha Valley Project) after finding dissatisfaction with other anthropological field techniques. His life’s work has been about creating harmony from chaos.


You can do the process solo or in a group. Generally it works best in a group. The dynamics and feeding from others’ ideas is really stimulating. You may want to start by using Brainstorming to get the ideas out into the open.

  1. Record each idea or piece of data on index cards or sticky notes
  2. Pin or stick them up on a board
  3. Look for ideas or data that seem to be related
  4. Sort the cards or notes into clusters of ones that seem to be alike in nature.
  5. Then you may start to see patterns that enable re-grouping, or creating new sub-groups.

affinity diagramming

This is a group working at Human Computer Interaction Institute of Carnegie Mellon University.

The whole process will seem very messy and patterns may take quite a while to emerge, but keep at it, or maybe even leave the notes posted, go away and then come back to them later.

When you are happy with the groupings, it will be time to start another process. Perhaps the Cause and Effect (or Fishbone) Diagram.