Team Tool: Controlled Clusters

red10‘s Gavin Simpson shares a great facilitation team tool for creating themes from many ideas – building understanding, alignment and ownership.

So many great ideas…

We often ask teams to brainstorm using sticky notes. One sticky note for one idea. The teams we work with are wonderfully creative and healthily competitive; with a team of eight this can generate a lot of stickies, maybe 30-60.

How do you help the team see the wood for the trees and build understanding, agreement and ownership of the themes hidden in the masses of post-it-notes?

This is where Controlled Clusters works brilliantly.

How we do it…

Ask everyone to keep hold of their stack of stickies as we run the process together:

  1. Ask someone to come forward and explain their sticky note as they place it on the map, creating the first cluster. Let’s call this first person Anna.
  2. Encourage Anna to ask the team if anyone has anything “the same or similar”. Once someone has suggested another sticky note, it is for Anna to decide if this is in her cluster or not. It can become quite fun, especially when people start to be very persuasive to have their sticky accepted in to the cluster or comically act out their dismay of having had their sticky rejected.
  3. Once Anna’s cluster is complete then we ask Anna to label it. It is unlikely that the label is the same as Anna’s original sticky as the label now needs to represent all the stickies within the cluster. The label is important as it frames the content and gives the cluster meaning.We often use this process to identify what we call Must-Wins. These are the big bold steps i.e. the Strategy needed to achieve a team’s Vision. For these we like the label to start with a verb and contain a noun e.g. Creating a Medical Information Community
  4. Repeat the process with another person creating a cluster. Keep repeating until no-one has any stickies left.

One of the benefits of this process is that it quickly teaches the team a process they can run for themselves and re-use, without an external facilitator. In red10 we really like to equip teams with tools that they can use themselves over and over again.

At the end of the clustering, when the team stands back and reviews all the clusters there tends to be three possible outcomes:

A. It needs no more work. There are just the right number of clusters that completely and fully deliver on the outcome needed and they are all mutually exclusive.

B. It looks like there is a need to combine a couple of clusters, perhaps because they are not significant enough on their own and there is high interdependency between them. The final decision to consolidate is the team leaders. We’ll have agreed this at the start of the session.

C. There are just too many to focus on and there needs to be some prioritisation. With a project plan, sometimes the clusters need to be grouped in waves.

If the priorities are not immediately obvious to the team then you might want to use the classic sticky dots approach to get the spread of opinion on the priorities (e.g. everyone gets 3 dots, and you can either put them all on one theme or spread them).

Now with this prioritised view in front of you it is still a good idea to see how supportive the team is of the overall priorities i.e. voting does not equal consensus. So taking top voted priority, ask how supportive the team would be of this being the No 1 priority, using the Fist Five Technique, to explore different assumptions to come to commitment on the priorities.

As I mentioned we often use this to efficiently get alignment on strategy. The next step for us is to then help the team scope out the Must Win; the who, the why, when, and what. By the end of a session the team has a strategy and plan to deliver on it. Teams can do amazing things when they have a process that supports creativity, building understanding and generating alignment.

If you would like to learn more about any of red10’s Team Tools then please contact us to find out more about how we work with teams to help them develop their effectiveness.

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