How to Categorize (or Cluster) Ideas and Inputs


Categorizing creates clusters of related items so that a group can improve its focus.


The purpose of categorizing is to eliminate redundancies by collapsing related items into clusters or chunks (a scientific term). A label or term that captures the title for each cluster can be more easily re-used in matrices and other visual displays. Categorizing makes it easier for the team to analyze complex groupings and their impact on each other.


Categorizing can take little or much time, depending on how much precision is required, time available, and importance.  The first method shown is quick and effective.  The other methods may also be effective, but probably not as quick.


Take the raw input or lists created during the ideation step and underscore the common nouns (typically the object in a sentence that is preceded by a predicate or a verb). Use a different color marker for each group of nouns, and have the team offer up a term or label that captures the meaning of each cluster that is underscored.


For each item, ask “Why _____?”  Items that share a common purpose likely have a common objective and can be grouped together.


Take the new terms or labels that signify a cluster or grouping and move them to a separate list or table.  The terms may be defined with discussion and illustrated with the list of items that belongs to each cluster.  Use the FAST Definition tool to build additional clarity if required.


Go back to the original list and strike the items that now collapse into the new terms created for each cluster in the Transpose step above.  Allow the group to focus on any remaining items that have not been eliminated and decide if they require unique terms, need further explanation, or can be deleted.


Before transitioning, review the final list of clusters and confirm that team members understand the terms and that they can support the operational definitions.  Let the team members know that they can add additional terms to the clusters later, but if they are comfortable with them as is, to move on and do something with the list, as it was built for input to a subsequent step or activity.

(Other Grouping Themes)

Humans visually perceive items not in isolation, but as part of a larger whole.  The principles of perception include human tendencies towards:

  • Similarity—by their analogous characteristics
  • Proximity—by their physical closeness to each other
  • Continuity—when there is an identifiable pattern
  • Closure—completing or filling-in missing features

Let us know what you think by commenting below. For additional methodology and team-based meeting support for your change initiative, refer to “Change or Die, a Business Process Improvement Manual” for much of the support you might need.

Become Part of the Solution, Improve Your Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership-training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Do not forget to order Change or Die if you’re working on a business process improvement project. It provides detailed workshop agendas and detailed tools to make your role easier and your team’s performance a lot more effective—daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify a facilitative leader.


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