Affinity Events

by Michael C. Kelly, MA


Affinity events1 create order from chaos. They do this by gathering a group of people to brainstorm ideas (creating chaos) with the help of sticky notes, then assembling the notes according to affinities (creating order). The overall process is continuously punctuated by:

  1. piggy-backing instances, where people build on the ideas of others
  2. clustering moments, where these ideas are grouped logically

Here is how an affinity event works:

(Keep in mind that these are "bottom up"2 events and adaptable to suit individual group environments or issues.)

1. Create, distribute and review a question

The event begins by creating a clear and unambiguous open-ended question that can easily be brainstormed. It is often useful to begin the question with the words "what" or "how.”  

What should be considered in the design of our company logo?

How can we best provide service to our customers?

What issues need to be addressed to meet the needs of our community?

Once the question is settled, distribute it to all participants in advance of the event - say 3 days to a week in most cases. This allows participants to mull it over, consider their responses and generally get  comfortable with it. They may also have questions about the question itself.

At the event and with the question in hand, review the affinity steps. Address questions or concerns. 

Then begin the event by reading the question. 

2. Brainstorm with a difference

Invite participants to brainstorm ideas by writing them on sticky notes. Underscore the need to write one idea per sticky note. Also, remind individuals it is OK if they do not have any ideas to contribute. Encourage participants to be precise in their wording by avoiding abstract words that have many or vague meanings.

3. Display ideas

Once all the ideas are written, invite participants to randomly paste the stickies on a designated wall or board.

At this point the wall or board will look something like this.

4. Take a break

At this time encourage the group to:

  • enjoy a beverage, a conversation or a rest
  • walk around the wall where the various stickies are posted to see if they notice any patterns or trends
  • encourage others with last minute ideas to get them on the wall
  • remind participants that new ideas can be added at any time later in the process

5. Cluster

Gather the group for this silent exercise. 

Have the group, silently and in buffet-style, walk along the wall and cluster the stickies according to affinities (an affinity is something that has a close or natural relationship with something else, usually based on a common origin or structure).

One other thing. In this step - and later in step 6 - there may be "lost sheep" stickies that don't belong in a cluster. These might be stickies intended as humour (tasteful humour is allowed), unreadable or simply unintelligible at the moment. Create a "lost sheep" area to post these stickies. Later, invite a small group to review these and see if they belong in one of the established clusters, if they should be gathered into clusters of their own, or if they should be considered for further elaboration.

At this point the wall or board will be organized like this.

6. Name the clusters

This part is a little more intense. Once step 5 is completed, assign individual clusters to small groups of 3 or 4 people. Have them identify the cluster with a short, one or two word name. Write the name on a distinctive header card. Once done, post the card on the wall with the individual stickies below. Be sure to write the total number of stickies associated with that particular cluster on the header card. This helps create a Pareto Chart for the clusters.

At this point the columns will have headers.

7. Take another break

At this time encourage the group to:

  • enjoy a beverage, a conversation or a rest
  • walk around the wall to observe the various clusters
  • encourage discussion on what just happened, or on the nature of the clusters
  • encourage people to make changes to the clusters, if they feel they are appropriate
  • remind participants that new ideas can still be added 

During the break the facilitator may want to enhance the board

with graphic outlines and quick-reference statistics.

Note too that the headers themselves can be clustered into super headers.

8. Think the clusters through

Form small working groups of 4 or 5 people. Have them address additional questions flowing from the clusters. For example, if the clusters reveal a need for graphic art resources, then a working group might want to determine where these resources can be obtained or who will be responsible for their delivery.


The total time for an affinity event varies, depending on the:

  • number of participants
  • nature and intensity of the question
  • operational scope of an organization, or group of organizations
  • overall dynamic of the group

Some are quick and easy to facilitate. Others are complex and require more planning.

Try using this process to put together a visioning or mission statement, to identify new market areas, to develop new strategies for your operation, or to develop collaboration priorities across many organizations. 

It's fun and functional!



  1. Also known as Affinity Diagraming or the KJ Method. This event variation makes up one of the Seven Management and Planning Tools.  
  2. Unlike "top down" storyboarding, an affinity event starts by brainstorming a detailed idea list (the trees) around a topic, then works the list up into a bigger conceptual picture (the forest). Hence the term "bottom up."

© 2011  Michael C Kelly