Building affinity diagrams is one of the more useful things that can be effectively done with a virtual team. In the 1960s Kawakita Jito developed and perfected a special technique for building them. His technique, commonly called the KJ Method, is particularly powerful for bringing structure to unstructured and complex problems. When done in a face-to-face meeting, a well organized KJ process can take many hours. We have found that using an online whiteboard in a virtual session can accelerate the process by a factor of 2-3x. The benefits of a whiteboard based KJ process are
- Clarity—It is easy to read the phrases as they appear on the board.
- Energy—It is exciting to watch the words appear in real-time on the whiteboard as each person types them.
- Speed—It is fast and easy to scrub, group and sort the resulting brainstorm of words and phrases into related concepts.
- Self documentation—It is easy to save the work for later distribution.
What follows are screenshots from an actual virtual whiteboard-enabled KJ session that lasted about an hour. It illustrates the power of a virtual whiteboard for accelerating business decision-making. During this session we captured and analyzed how e-mail was being used in our corporation so that we could determine if other forms of communication (e.g., instant messaging, blogs, discussion forums, etc.) would streamline our business communications.
The first step was to brainstorm answers to the question: “What does e-mail do for you?” We started with a whiteboard showing only the question at hand and the list of steps (upper right corner) we were to follow in the session:
We had a team of six engineers and architects simultaneously enter their ideas in real-time onto a whiteboard. It was fascinating to watch the ideas appear. The ideas started slowly, but once everyone got the hang of the process, they flowed quickly. As the rate of new ideas slowed (after about 10 minutes), we stopped this phase with the resulting set of ideas shown below.
The next step was to remove duplicates and group similar ideas. This was done by the leader adding a few small blue dots around key concepts and asking the team to use the dots as centers of gravity around which similar ideas and phrases should be placed. This was done without speaking and everyone worked at the same time. The result of this process, which took about 10 minutes, is shown here:
After grouping the concepts we then added abstraction labels in red. Each person took a group and typed in the label he/she thought was best. We then discussed each label. This step took about 15 minutes and is shown here:
We then analyzed the results using the traditional JK techniques of creating causal relationships between the concepts, ranking their importance, and then brainstorming for solutions using fishbone diagramming techniques. This was all done in real-time.