To elicit a set of issues or ideas from a group, record them on hexagons and combine them into a small number of clusters as input to further work. A further step if a whole systems approach is needed is to relate the clusters into one system called an influence diagram.
When to use?
The Hexagon Mapping method described here is a standalone process for reviewing a complex issue, and is structured into five stages:
Stage 1: Choosing the question (Step 1)
Stage 2: Eliciting and capturing ideas on hexagons (Steps 2-3)
Stage 3: Clustering (Steps 4-5)
Method A: Conversational
Method B: Silent
Stage 4: Creating an influence diagram (Step 6)
Stage 5: Answering the question (Step 7)
There are several H3Uni methods that involve generating individual contributions from members of the group which then need to be combined into a small number of ideas for the next stage of that method. The methods have their own approach to Stages 1, 4, and 5, but can all use the hexagon capture and clustering process of Stages 2 and 3. This process is appropriate for taking around 20-30 stickies and combining them into clusters of around 3-7.
- Large visual work area (6′ x 4′) at the front of the meeting space
- Sticky hexagons (50-70)
- Participants seated in U facing work area – not table or other obstruction to everyone standing in front of the visual work area
A completed influence diagram looks like this:
Step 1: Choosing the question
This step is designed such that the question is NOT the direct problem or task that a concern for the group. This topic needs to be clearly understood by the group but then the question aims to ‘get underneath’ the problem, so try to unpick a next level of considerations that determines the task or problem space. This prevents people from jumping to premature conclusions and leaves more space or different individual views and contributions to meld together at the clustering stage. This tactic is important if the group is to develop its own shared mental model.
An example question is “What are the factors we need to take into account in working towards a solution to our problem?”
- Be clear on the topic you are going to think about.
- Make the question open ended.
- Write it clearly at the top of your working area.
Step 2: Individual reflection
Time for individual reflection, however brief, is important so that everyone is prepared for participation. Rushing in to collecting ideas will distract people from getting clear about what their own priority views might be. This is especially important where the task has a creative requirement because space is needed for fresh thoughts to emerge. Prioritization is important to go beyond the stage of simply a brain dump to some reflective judgement about what is important for the rest of the group to take into account. If the task is creative, then this step is more like sorting the wheat from the chaff.
- The facilitator asks the individuals to consider the question from their own perspective and experience
- They do this in silence for between 2 and 5 minutes while making a list
- In the last minute they either:
- Prioritize the top three most important or
- Pick three contrasting ideas or issues
- Which method the facilitator asks them to use depends on whether (a) the task requires the focusing of the group or (b) the task requires an expansion of the range and variety of ideas to be considered
Step 3: Collect ideas
- The facilitator collects one issue per person in sequence and writes it up on the hexagons ensuring that everyone has understood the meaning for the contributor.
- Write in block capitals, numbering each hexagon in turn at the top.
- Where necessary work with the contributors to formulate a clear issue that is genuinely at the level needed by the question – asking ‘why’ can help get up a level, asking ‘how’ will come down a level.
- Read out the contribution to the group and ensure that the group understands its meaning for the contributor.
- Do not allow discussion other than for clarification
- Place on the board making a border around the edge leaving the centre clear.
See Visual Facilitation Tutorial for further tips.
Step 4: Cluster the hexagons
Method A – Conversational
- The facilitator guides the group to search for connections and associations between issues that will develop the clusters. This is an emergent process with no “right” answer.
- Connections are expressed by placing the hexagons together. Try to avoid simple classification grouping.
- Anyone seeing a connection is invited to come up to the visual space and place their two hexagons together.
- Get the person placing two hexagons together to briefly explain the link.
- Clusters of several hexagons are formed. Cognitively it is good to keept their size down to not more than seven (7).
- Guide this process towards achieving consolidation into several main clusters. The result is more powerful if people avoid simple classification and seek interesting connections of difference rather than similarity.
- Once a circle of hexagons is formed the facilitator invites members of the group to point out and explain strong connections:
- Where people disagree encourage brief discussion of differences of viewpoint but move on if there is no quick resolution.
Method B – Silent
This is a similar process to Method A except that it is carried out in this way:
- The whole group (or if the group is large a sub-group) are invited up to the visual space or whiteboard.
- Everyone standing up is asked to put hexagons together and build clusters
- No conversation is allowed!
- When sufficient clustering has emerged, the operation is stopped and people return to their places
- The faciltiator askes for reflections on what has emerged
- Several people join in and a rough shared picture emerges as what the main clusters are about
Where sufficient time is available and also if the task requires a thorough approach, then Method A is preferred. This gives the facilitator more scope to challenge the meaning and quality of what is being done and keep referring back to the purpose of the overall exercise. More care can be taken with avoiding simple classification groupings and with juxtaposing hexagons in a way that brings out a more systmic connection.
Where time is short and the exercise is more one of sketching some kind of quick shared understanding (quickly getting the picture) then Method B is often the best. The clustering process, even done by several people concurrently and done without discussion, is remarkable in how it can elicit common understanding of the pattern of issues that have come up from the group.
Step 5: Name the clusters
The key facilitator question here is “what makes this cluster an interesting topic for our overall task?”
- A good way to do this is to ask “what is the story this cluster is telling?” Have someone tell the story.
- The title can be a phrase, but do not use an active verb unless this is required for the next stage of the process – usually you want to keep the relationship to action open.
- Avoid single words which are often too open to wide interpretation.
- A useful guide is 3 to 5 words.
- Test the title with a question like “what is it that makes this particular cluster significant for our current task?”
- Since judgements about clusters may be made at a later stage in task process, it is usually best to avoid titles that imply an evaluation. It is often better to think of the title as indicating a condition that may or may not be “good” or “bad” or something similar.
Step 6: Add influences
The facilitator invites the group to identify major influences or connections between the decision areas and depicts them as arrows. Discussion is deepened by considering the mutual impact of changes in one cluster with conditions in cluster.
The key facilitator question here is “Where is there a strong relationship of influence of one cluster on another?”
- the diagram that is being drawn here is an influence diagram that brings out knock-on effects between one cluster and another
- the relationships represented by the arrows do not have to be just causal time sequences – they may also be subtle correlations
- where people want to put double-headed arrows, take only the direction which is stronger
- It is easy to draw a lot of lines connecting every cluster to every other cluster. This is not the point!
- the value of the arrow and its direction is to identify what are the connections that makes a difference to how to the situation behaves as a whole
- It is better to be parsimonious and have a few really significant influences rather than lots of minor ones. Judgements will need to be made about this.
If the hexagon clustering is taking place in the context of, say, a project for transformative innovation, then a further exercise is to test the completed diagram by inquiring into where the group think the intervention points might be that have leverage: the biggest transformative impact for the least effort. Quite often these are not in the obvious place and work by transmitting effects around the influence arrows in a particular pathway.
Step 7: Answer the group question
- Read and think about the original question at the top of the space.
- Invite the group to read through the hexagon map they have created getting a feel for the whole as well as the detail.
- Invite them each to reflect: taking that picture into account write down your best thoughts that either answer your question or give you a whole new perspective on the problem even if the answer has not yet emerged.
- Use a circle process to share reflections, each sharing their thoughts:
- “Now that we have:
- Considered all factors
- Clustered them into powerful relationships
- Expressed the meaning of the clusters with specific names
- Stepped back and identified broader relationships that link them all together as one whole
- Reflected on the difference between this picture and where we started from
…We see that an approach to our original problem is…”
- Don’t cramp the exercise with too little whiteboard and insufficient hexagons.
- Do lay out the room so everyone can see and access the board.
- Allow an average of 2 minutes per hexagon in the collection phase: group size will affect timing.
- One full round is essential but after that you can short cut by asking for anyone to contribute something they feel is significantly different from what has come out so far.
- There are often tensions of organisational status, power, and politics around strategic issues as well as the impact of management hierarchies: it is important for the facilitator to understand the context of the group, and to feel as well connected as possible to each individual in the group so as to gain increasing trust and openness.
- The ability of the facilitator to listen and to faithfully record what is being said is critical this process is greatly assisted by preliminary interviews with cognitive mapping and feedback.
- Conceptualising issues can be very hard part of strategic thinking especially where facing unknown of complex areas where there is nothing much from history to go on.
- The extra challenge to the facilitator here is to be able, as well as running the process, to join the thinking task with the group and help to catch and formulate elusive issues.
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