Thursday, February 4, 2021

Contending with Complex Interdisciplinary Problems using Affinity Congregates

Many innovations come from those in marginal positions in a discipline, and these individuals therefore greatly benefit from the support afforded by like-minded people. James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix nature of DNA, stated the power of collaboration unequivocally: “Nothing new that is really interesting comes without collaboration”. However, in some groups a dominating person might drive ideation. As discussed previously, group dynamics need to be recognized in group settings. Particularly in the case of new groups, such as in a classroom setting, an affinity congregate allows people to individually express their ideas before becoming engaged in a group situation. This is a small variation of affinity diagraming because affinity congregating focuses on initial, independent problem solving before bringing ideas to a group so that participants may collectively identify affinities. Affinity congregation preserves the independent voice of each student. This approach is intended to prevent group dynamics from taking over the ideation process.

With affinity congregating, the participants are presented with a problem or design prompt, they individually write solutions on a sticky notes or other suitable media. When they are finished writing proposed solutions, the notes are collected and assembled by a moderator and grouped by affinities or themes into an affinity diagram. The themes arise from the data, which is founded on grounded theory. Grounded theory is a method common in the social sciences that allows categories and concepts to develop based exclusively on data and not from predisposed theories.

While these affinity congregations shown by the groupings of notes is subjective, general themes or affinities arise in a logical fashion. A variation of this approach is to have the group identify themes rather than a moderator. In this approach, the group gathers around the notes and identifies logical groupings. The notes are reviewed and duplicate ideas are stacked on top of each other. Finally, the affinities can be discussed and each idea can be critiqued by the group.

Affinity Congregating Technique Summary

1. Problem statement or design prompt.

2. Individuals write proposed solutions on sticky notes.

3. Moderator collects notes and assembles by affinities or themes that arise (affinity diagrams). Alternatively, the group identifies affinities as a team.

4. Duplicates omitted.

5. Group critiques affinities and proposed solutions.

Outcomes of Affinity Congregation

One example of applying this technique to professional practice is addressing the issue of palliative care in the developing world. In this case, I invited two physician colleagues to partner with this investigation. Because we came from different disciplines (design, pain management and palliative care), the congregation technique was used to prevent the board-certified palliative care specialist from overwhelming the pain management expert and the engineer. This cooperation led to identifying four tracks of palliative care: physical, psychological, relational, and spiritual as shown in Figure 4. These tracks were further divided into key concerns and we developed practical treatment options.

In this example, the most common concerns were identified as pain, dyspnea (air hunger), nausea and vomiting, delirium, anxiety, and terminal secretions (‘the death rattle’). The affinity aggregation allowed artificial intelligence driven diagnosis systems to inhabit an equal space as recommending paracetamol or diclofenac for pain relief. This technique worked well in this interdisciplinary environment because we concluded with specific recommendations as well as the somewhat surprising result that the patient care should be the responsibility of a loving caregiver rather than a medical professional.


Figure 4 – Integrative palliative care factors.

From:  T. Ask, “Engaging Creativity: Classroom Exercises for Enhancing Engineering Students' Creative Self Identity,” 2019 ASEE Zone I Conference & Workshop, Niagara Falls, NY, USA, April 2019,

And     T. E. Ask, J. Boll and A. Nesbitt, “Steps towards Integrative Palliative Care in the Developing World,” Design for All Institute of India, Newsletter Vol. 12, No. 3, p. 61, 2017.


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