Organizational Development Consultant and Leadership Coach

Six Techniques to Brainstorm Ideas: #4 Card Clusters

May 5, 2014

“I know that sharing ideas is essential to our group’s success. But ensuring that everyone’s ideas are heard can be a slow and difficult process. Some people don’t like to talk in front of a group, some people talk too much, and others continuously judge ideas prematurely. I need a technique that is fast and efficient in gathering maximum input in minimum time. What do you suggest?”

4. Card Clusters

What Are Card Clusters?

The Card Clusters technique gathers ideas and information quickly and efficiently, while eliminating common brainstorming problems.

For this technique individuals silently write ideas on cards (usually sticky notes), then the group categorizes the cards together. The Card Clusters technique has been around for some time, and different professional groups call it by different names. The technique is effective in any meeting where it is necessary to gather information quickly.

When to Use Card Clusters

  •  When you want to get everyone’s ideas but don’t have much time
  •  When some participants are not very verbal or like quiet time to think
  •  When some participants tend to talk too much
  •  When the group must categorize brainstormed information

How to Use Card Clusters

Before the Meeting

  1. Identify the topic for discussion. Determine a specific open-ended question that will elicit the information you need.  You might plan to ask, for example, “What are the characteristics we desire in a new department manager?” “What issues do we need to address to decrease our turnaround time?” “What is our vision for the future of our company?”
  2. Plan how you will use the gathered information. Relative to the topics suggested above, you might plan to say, for example, “This information will help us create a job description for the new department manager,” or “We will use this information to determine which issues to address first,” or “This information will serve as the foundation for writing our group’s vision statement.”

NOTE: You can use information from Card Clusters for many purposes. Other examples include establishing goal areas and creating a shared understanding of a problem.

  1. Plan how you will introduce the topic at the meeting. Determine what background information to share.
  2. Prepare the visual aids you will need to support the discussion. Charts or overheads of instructions are usually enough.
  3. Acquire the necessary materials: sticky notes and felt-tip pens for all participants.NOTE: Bring at least thirty sticky notes per person. Use felt-tip pens so that writing can be seen from a distance.
  4. Identify a space within the meeting room to place the sticky notes that the group will generate. Put chart paper or butcher paper over part of a wall.NOTE: Some sticky notes aren’t very sticky at all! Use high-quality sticky notes to ensure they do not fall down while your group(s) are working. Take photos of the card clusters before moving the charts, so you don’t get confused if some fall off in transport.

In the Meeting

  1. Introduce the agenda topic and your open-ended discussion question. Share how the gathered information will be used. Use an instruction chart like the example illustrated below for support.


  1. Ask everyone to silently and individually brainstorm their ideas about the specific question you asked. Ask them to write all their ideas on sticky notes, one idea per sticky note.NOTE: Participate in the brainstorming unless you are a neutral facilitator.
  2. Collect all written ideas and categorize them with other similar ideas.OPTION A: Ask everyone to bring his or her sticky notes up to the front of the room and place them on the wall or designated chart papers. As a group, ask participants to read each other’s sticky notes and start to cluster them into themes. Once themes emerge, ask participants to give the clusters a heading.Use a prepared chart similar to the one below to help you explain the process.


NOTE: It’s common to have more than one response that is the same. This shows any overlaps in thinking.

NOTE: Headings should be short phrases, such as “Improved Communication” or “Mechanical Difficulties.”

NOTE: If your clusters are messy, draw lines around each cluster in order to make it easy to see what goes where.

OPTION B: If there are more than ten to twelve people in the meeting, it is impractical for all participants to participate in the clustering. Instead, ask a smaller group of volunteers to cluster the ideas. (Use the other participants’ time wisely during this period. Have them work on something else or take a ten-minute break.) When the small group has finished, ask them to read aloud what they have put into each category, along with the headings their group has given each cluster. Gain agreement on what is in each category and its heading before moving on.

NOTE: If you have asked the group more than one question, you can break into Small Groups to complete the exercise.

OPTION C: Ask each participant to choose his or her favorite idea and send it forward to you. After posting all these ideas up on the wall, read each idea aloud and ask what ideas are similar to others. Begin to cluster ideas and give each cluster a heading as appropriate. (Many ideas may not have clusters at this point.)

Next, ask participants to send up another favorite idea that is not already represented. With the group’s help, cluster those new cards with other posted cards. Finally, ask participants to bring forward any other new ideas. Put them into the categories that the group thinks are most appropriate, and create a heading for each of them.

     4. Use the accumulated Card Cluster information as planned.


Before the Meeting

  1. Identify your topic and an appropriate 0pen-ended question.
  2. Plan how you will use the gathered information.
  3. Plan how you will introduce the topic at the meeting.
  4. Prepare the visual aids you need to support the discussion.
  5. Acquire sticky notes and felt-tip pens for all participants.
  6. Identify a space within the meeting room to put the sticky notes.

During the Meeting

  1. Introduce the agenda topic. Share how the information will be used.
  2. Ask all participants to write their ideas on sticky notes.
  3. Collectallwrittenideasandcategorizethemwithothersimilarideas.Createheadings for each cluster.
  4. Use the accumulated Card Cluster information as planned.


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