Collaborative Card Play

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and not say all the words on the card facilitates communication and saves a bit of time in the conversation.

Distill Your Ideas
Now that you've got clusters, let's summarize each pile in a useful way so we have fewer and sharper ideas to work with.

As a team, discuss each cluster. Write a single risk down that summarizes or distills all the ideas in that cluster of cards, giving you a single distilling card per cluster. When writing this card, use a different color card if available; otherwise, underline the text written on the card. Place the distiller card on top of its respective cluster.

You may have started with a large number of cards (forty, fifty, or more is common for this type of exercise). With luck, distillation will bring the number of cards down to a fraction of its size (twelve or fifteen).

Distillation should incorporate everyone's ideas successfully. At this point, everyone should feel a sense of accomplishment. You also might notice that no single person seems to "own" this list-the group members own it together.

Prioritize
All the risks on the cards aren't equally important; some are more worrisome than others. Prioritize each risk by asking each person to vote for the risks he believes are the biggest threats to the project. Give everyone a small number of votes. Calculate the number of votes given to each person by taking the number of distilled risks, divide by four, and then round up. For example, fourteen risks divided by four equals 3.5, which rounds up to four votes. Ask people to mark their votes directly on the distilled risk cards.

A typical affinity diagram built on a meeting room conference table.

Two or three distiller cards might get a large number of votes, and others might get only a few votes. Some of the cards might get no votes at all. Now you know what risks need the most discussion and which ones you don't have to waste much time on.

Repeat
Once the most worrisome risks are identified, it's time to talk about a mitigation plan that specifies what actions to take to reduce these risks. Starting with the most worrisome risk-the one with the most votes-get some ideas for actions onto the table. With those actions, repeate the clustering, distilling, and prioritizing processes.

By now your group should be impressed with how easy, clear, and fun this is. Normally risk identification meetings are long and annoying.

You've Built an Affinity Diagram, But Don't Stop There
You've just used the index cards to build a simple affinity diagram. It's a technique commonly used to distill ideas. Using cards and collaboration makes the process fast, effective, and fun.

But don't stop there.

Bring cards and pens to every meeting. As you're talking, write ideas-one per card-and place them out where others can see them. You'll find you can easily arrange cards into timeline-like sequences, build simple hierarchies of ideas that contain other ideas, or prioritize lists quickly by voting or rearranging lists on a tabletop. You'll find that all this happens quite naturally.

Collaboration techniques like simple card modeling help speed up communication and make it more effective. In software development, where ideas become complex and making sure everyone understands what's on the table is critical, approaches like card modeling become critical as well.

A massive affinity diagram built from stickies by a collaborative group of over 100.

For more information on collaboration skills see Jean Tabaka's Collaboration Explained .

About the author

Jeff Patton's picture Jeff Patton

Jeff Patton leads Agile Product Design, a small consultancy that focuses on creating healthy processes that result in products that customers love. Articles, essays, and blog can be found at www.AgileProductDesign.com. Information about public classes, including Certified Scrum Training, can be found at www.AgileProductDesign.com/training.

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