Monday, August 15, 2016

How to lead an affinity exercise

My job is to provide leadership to my IT organization, but often that leadership involves soliciting ideas from a larger group. You might lead a governance group, or you might meet with your entire team as part of an annual meeting. It's good to leverage meeting opportunities to caucus the group and tease out common ideas.

But how you solicit ideas may differ depending on the size of the group. Methods that work well in a small setting (say, ten people) will not work with larger meetings (for example, a hundred people).

For small groups, I often use a SWOT exercise. I usually re-brand this as "Plus/Delta for Now/Future" as a way to get people thinking about what works well and what we should change in the immediate timeframe versus over a longer period of time.

In larger groups, I rely on some variation of an affinity exercise. Here's how I do it:
First, break the room into smaller groups. I find the best group size is five or six people.

Start with a question. At work, I used "What's one or two things we might do differently to make our work easier or better?" Ask the room to use "i-time" ("individual" time) to think about the question and come up with a few ideas. For a large question like my example, I may prompt the question ahead of time and ask people to come to the meeting prepared with a few thoughts.

As they think about the question, each person in each small group should jot down their ideas on slips of paper, like a Post-It note, one idea per slip of paper. I usually limit each person to five slips of paper. They may ask, "What if I have more than five ideas?" I challenge them to be their own filter and come up with their best top five. This avoid one person dominating their small group by "spamming" them with a ton of ideas. At the same time, if you have only three or four ideas, that's okay too.

Give the room ten minutes or so to come up with ideas, then set each group to discuss the ideas. Every person should briefly (!) share each of their ideas with their group, and the group picks the top three ideas. Have each group write their ideas on easel sheets, one idea per easel sheet.

Now repeat the previous exercise with the entire room. Go around the room and have each breakout group present their top three ideas. After you've presented all of the easel sheets, let the room help you arrange the ideas into "themes" or "groups" of related ideas. Often, there is a lot of overlap, and generally the room has pretty good consensus to how the ideas relate to each other.

Congratulations! You have successfully polled a large group to identify priorities or themes! And everyone worked together. Everyone had a voice.

The affinity exercise can take up to an hour, but it's a great way to focus a large group down to a few ideas. At work, my all-team meeting involved eighty-something staff, eleven breakout groups, which generated thirty-three group ideas that we consolidated to eight themes. We have since adopted these eight themes as team priorities.
image: Dean Hochman/Flickr (cc-by)

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