Publication by Miro about the future of distributed teamwork

An affinity diagram is a powerful tool to organize your team’s ideas — and make them easier to act on

Imagine that you’re in the grocery store. You’re working your way through your shopping list, and you grab some avocados in the produce department, a gallon of milk in the dairy department, and some pretzels from the chip aisle.

As you get further down your list, you realize you also need bananas. Back to the produce area you go. Oh wait, you also need eggs. You trek across the store again to the dairy section.

Before you know it, you’ve gone back and forth several times. Wouldn’t it have been a lot easier (not to mention more efficient) if you had grouped everything you needed to purchase by some sort of category or shared theme? Well, that’s exactly what an affinity diagram is used for.

Kat Boogaard

Contributing Writer at Miro


Kat is a Wisconsin-based writer who covers topics related to careers, self-development, and freelancing.

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What is an affinity diagram?

An affinity diagram (also called an affinity map) is a visual tool that helps you organize the information you come up with during a brainstorming session.

Using the affinity diagram, you’ll sort ideas into different groups or categories based on their relationships.

Affinity diagram example

The easiest way to understand an affinity diagram is to see one, so let’s add some clarity by looking at a brief and simple example.

Perhaps you’ve heard a lot of complaints about the way your team handles meetings. So, you sit down with your team members to get a grasp on their biggest complaints. Then, after the brainstorming session, you work together to group those grievances based on shared themes. Here’s what you end up with:

Keep in mind that this is a very simple example, and many affinity diagrams go a step further to sort ideas based on hierarchy. Don’t worry — we’ll get to that a little later. But for now, this is the barebones structure you need to understand.

Who invented affinity diagrams?

Affinity mapping was invented in the 1960s by Japanese anthropologist Jiro Kawakita — which is why this is sometimes called the K-J method.

Affinity diagramming is one of the Seven Management and Planning Tools, used in Japan and worldwide to help leading global organizations make and implement better team decisions. These tools include:

  • The Affinity Diagram
  • The Tree Diagram
  • The Interrelationship Diagram
  • The Matrix Diagram
  • Prioritization Matrices
  • The Process Decision Program Chart (PDPC)
  • The Activity Network Diagram

That’s helpful context to have, but in this guide, we’re focusing exclusively on the affinity diagram and how it can help your team.

When should you use affinity mapping?

Here’s the short answer: when your brainstorming session is over. Affinity diagrams aren’t a brainstorming tool on their own but rather a way to organize, consolidate, and act on the ideas you came up with during the brainstorming conversation.

An affinity map is an effective tool to use when:

  • You brainstormed with a large group of people
  • You’re solving a complex problem
  • You have a large number of ideas or a lot of data to work with
  • You’re eager to think outside the box

To put it simply, think of an affinity diagram as a tool to bring order to chaos. Rather than bouncing all over the grocery store, this tool helps make a large amount of information more manageable and digestible — and, as a result, way more actionable.

What should you do before you start an affinity diagram?

Ready to jump right in? Not so fast. There are a few things you should know and do first, so you can use this diagram as effectively as possible.

1. Invite a diverse group of team members

To get the best ideas during a brainstorming session, you need different mindsets, perspectives, and personalities.

Try inviting people from other departments and varying levels, as well as a few people who are completely unrelated to the problem at hand. They’ll ensure you avoid groupthink and maybe even make a few suggestions that wouldn’t have dawned on anyone else.

2. Assign a leading role

Every meeting needs a facilitator — and that includes a brainstorming session. A good facilitator will need:

  • Listening skills, to help participants express their ideas
  • Analytical skills, to turn brainstorming insights into action items
  • Communication skills, to steer the conversation when necessary

You can be the facilitator, or you can ask one of your colleagues with these skills to lead the meeting.

3. Prepare your supplies and space

To brainstorm and eventually create your affinity diagram, you’ll need the right supplies handy. Find a quiet space where you and your team can collaborate without distractions.

Also, grab some sticky notes and pens if you’re meeting in person, or use the Miro affinity diagram template if you’re meeting remotely.

3 steps to create an affinity diagram

You have what you need, and you’re ready to pull your team together, roll up your sleeves, brainstorm, and then use an affinity diagram to bring some order to your brilliant ideas. Here’s how.

1. Run a brainstorming session

Remember, your affinity map is a tool you use after you’ve brainstormed ideas. To get started, jot down the problem you’re trying to solve or the question you’re trying to answer at the top of your whiteboard and then record individual ideas on sticky notes.

You aren’t categorizing them yet. The point is to just get as many ideas out of your brains and down on notes as you possibly can. That will give you plenty to work with when it’s time to create your affinity diagram.

2. Categorize your ideas

Now that you have a jumbled mess of sticky notes to work with, it’s time to organize them into common themes. Start by taking one sticky note and turn it into the first category.

Next, look at another sticky note and ask yourself if it belongs in the same group as the first. If not, create another group. Continue with that process, evaluating each sticky note to add it to an existing group or create an entirely new one.

When all is said and done, you should have anywhere from three to 10 related groups, which you can name based on their common theme. One important thing to keep in mind: your categories shouldn’t be predetermined before your brainstorming session. They should emerge organically as you sort through your ideas.

3. Act on your ideas

Once you have your groups identified, you can take things a step further with some additional filters and organization tactics, such as:

  • Hierarchy: If there’s a clear hierarchy between your stickies (there doesn’t have to be!) Miro’s template allows you to group stickies based on the level of idea.
  • Prioritization: With a grasp on common themes, you and your team can prioritize the groups based on your goal. Miro’s voting feature makes this easy.

Also, information without action doesn’t do any good. So, once you’ve created your affinity diagram, use it to create action items and timelines that push you to actually solve the problem you discussed.

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FAQs about affinity diagrams

Have a few more questions about affinity diagrams and how they can be your team’s secret sauce for implementing your big ideas? We have answers to some commonly-asked questions.

How does an affinity diagram work?

An affinity diagram works by first brainstorming a list of ideas and then categorizing them according to their relationships. That makes it far easier to develop an action plan for those ideas.

What are the best practices for creating affinity diagrams?

Here are a few important things to keep in mind to make the most of the affinity diagramming process:

  • Don’t come up with predetermined categories. You and your team should brainstorm freely and only come up with categories once all ideas are out on the table, so to speak.
  • Start with a clear objective — such as a question you’re trying to answer or a problem you’re trying to solve.
  • Designate a leader or facilitator who can keep the conversation focused. It’ll help you avoid wasting time on unnecessary topics and tangents.

Turn ideas into action with an affinity diagram

Sure, bouncing around the grocery store with a disorganized shopping list eventually gets the job done. But, is it the best way? Definitely not.

If you had grouped your list into common themes, you could’ve saved time, reduced stress and frustration, and ultimately had a more successful shopping trip (because you’ll avoid getting all the way home only to realize you forgot bread).

That’s what an affinity diagram does for you and your team. It brings order to all of your brilliant ideas so they’re not only easier to understand — but easier to act on.

Make the most of your team’s big ideas with Miro’s affinity diagram template.

Get started for free today

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