Keeping it Clean – Sorting Ideas for Success


The opportunities associated with generating lots of ideas are only realised when you know what to do with them. Surely no one can argue with that?

Therefore brainstorming, as discussed in my last post, is only the first part of developing an amazing new strategy – or even just articulating the current strategy – for your organisation. The next steps are just as important and are needed to stop your million dollar ideas being rolled up in the butcher’s paper they’re written on and pushed to the back of the highest, dustiest shelf in your organisation’s filing room.

So today we’re looking at some of the techniques that exist for analysing, classifying and generally sorting through a large number of disparate ideas.

At first glance it seems like this subject requires the use of the very techniques we are talking about. There are lots. In some ways it makes a mockery of what I’m trying to do here – tie together those things already in existence to create a simple but integrated system for creating and implementing strategy in any organisation. How can you create something simple when there is such a complex array of management tools developed for solving problems of such finely nuanced differences and through so many lenses?

But fortunately I’m stubborn. And very happy to develop another framework that best supports my model so that I can apply a broad brush analysis to any tools I come across in my allotted fortnightly time slot. However I would be very happy to hear from anyone who wants to put in their two cents worth about how the techniques I cover have worked for them, or if there are better ones which I’ve missed.

So… analysis tools. As mentioned already this is potentially not simple, but today I’m going to cover just three. One for grouping ideas, one for organising ideas and one for ranking and culling them. There may be other tools more useful for further analysis of relationships and interdependencies, but we’re going to keep to essentials. Chances are you already use one or more of them without even thinking about it.

1- Grouping Ideas

The so called ‘Affinity Diagram’ (or KJ Method) is useful for grouping ideas together in natural themes and is a fairly intuitive technique.

The principle is that if you have a large number of ideas / options / concepts that are all over the place, you break them up into themed groupings and sort them that way. My preference would always be to set a maximum of 6 or 7 headings and then move each idea into the appropriate group. The group / theme headings themselves may change around a bit as you go through the sorting process, but that’s how you come up with the right classification.

The output is essentially 6 or 7 (or less) groups with a list of ideas / concepts within each of them. This should at least help you get your head around the range of ideas / options you have and start to analyse them.

2- Organising Ideas

Maybe ‘organising ideas’ is not the right heading, given that an Affinity Diagram is already starting the organising process, but that is what a Tree Diagram or Mind Map is all about. Organising ideas into a hierarchy so that it’s clear where the overlaps and linking levels of detail between your ideas exist.

I’m sure you’ve all seen the finished product of a Tree Diagram or Mind Map. In my understanding they’re the same thing; just a Mind Map has the themes (outputs from creating an Affinity Diagram) wiggling out from the centre point (ie the problem) whereas the tree diagram is presented in a more linear fashion, working down the page. There may be some other presentation differences by convention, but I figure that this is a perfect case not letting the tail wag the dog and whichever method you use should be tailored to fit your purpose.

The key idea of both mind maps and tree diagrams though is to reflect the granularity of ideas and somehow – ideally visually – show what ideas form part of other ideas which form part of other ideas that go some way toward addressing the problem.

It’s worth mentioning that there are times when mind mapping is used during the brainstorm itself to help elicit brainwaves. I do this sometimes myself and don’t think there’s anything wrong with it as long as during a brainstorm the focus is kept on generating new ideas, not making sure they’re written in the right place. However it is during the analysis phase is when the mind map can be reviewed, changed around and validated.

3- Ranking and Culling Ideas

To start seriously analysing the validity of ideas I can’t think of any better way than using a Prioritisation Matrix. Of course, I’m sure even through the steps of grouping and organising ideas, some will already be culled, but that is not the purpose of those steps. A Prioritisation Matrix is essentially a table with the ideas / options down one axis and rating criteria along the other axis, and sets up the physical framework for starting to rate and therefore – as a result – rank and eliminate ideas.

It’s another simple tool, but often simple seems to be best. However, unlike the other two techniques I’ve discussed, some preparation is required before you can apply it to the problem and some other work may be required along the way before you can complete the matrix.

Before you start rating your ideas, you need to identify the criteria by which you will judge your ideas. These may be quite complex from the outset and include different weightings against each criteria, or it may be that you can keep these high level and uniform and then use more specialised analysis tools to finish off the cull later.

Once the criteria and weightings are sorted (and sometimes that is A LOT easier said than done) you can start rating the ideas, with the expectation that the ideas with the lowest ratings will be culled and not pursued. In some cases once again, this may be quite a complex process (probably depending on the criteria you have set) and the rating process turns up knowledge gaps that need to be filled before the prioritisation can be completed. This is not a bad thing, it can just be time consuming, and it certainly helps to target what additional research is required to properly analyse your options before deciding on a new approach.

I personally quite like all these approaches though and to be quite honest would use them all to varying depths of complexity in my regular problem solving activities. For instance, in the recent elections there were a large number of parties to vote for in one of the houses of parliament and I didn’t know a lot of the policies of these parties, let alone how I would preference the 70 plus candidates. To me the easiest way to address this was to set up a Prioritisation Matrix with my personal policy criteria across the top, find out each candidate or party’s position on each of these issues and then rate accordingly. Gosh that was a fun night in, but I certainly felt like I had responsibly exercised my democratic duty!

Anyway, leaving my exciting social life behind…

Here we are, spick and span, at the end of our classification journey and I’d like to know what you think.

Have you found these tools helpful in the past? Or can you suggest something that has worked far better?

What do you think?