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Clustering: Good for all Occasions

By Barry Mohn

Occum’s Razor, loosely interpreted, is a principle stating that the simplest method is often the best.  Philosopher William of Ockham surely would have approved of clustering then.

Clustering, believed to have started in Roman times, is a technique that helps create a hierarchy of ideas around a central purpose or problem.  Circa 75 BC, Cicero etched clusters for his speeches on clay tablets.  Today, third graders mark up clusters in black-and-white composition notebooks for planning stories, and IT managers use iBlueSky mind-mapping software to develop clusters of ideas for project plans.  Clustering has stood the test of time and proved effective in many applications.

You have surely heard of clustering before, maybe even practiced it, but do you use it?

Our minds naturally cluster

In his book, Brain Bugs, Neuroscientist Dean Buonomano explains that “the human brain stores factual knowledge about the world in a relational manner.  That is, an item is stored in relation to other items…and retrieval [of knowledge] is a contagious process.”

In other words, our mind doesn’t process ideas in a straight line, which is what we traditionally do when writing a document or creating a plan.  Instead, the brain accesses information based on what each idea is associated with: our minds naturally cluster.  (Take note when you look at the clustering diagram below—it even looks like a brain.)

So we think of ideas and our minds jump to thoughts that are linked to those ideas.   Sounds too simple, right?  The process is that simple, which is exactly why it is effective.

Choose your own adventure

Clustering can be as simple as tearing a piece of paper out of a notebook, jotting down a problem that needs solving in the middle of the page, and branching off with all possible solutions.  To get fancy, use a white board with colored dry-erase pens.  To impress your co-workers, project one of the many clustering software applications onto a screen.  (Show-off!)

Pick your poison, but the process and outcome will generally be the same.

Again, begin by stating your purpose or problem in a center circle.  Here’s an example of my purpose for this article:

Next, on your own or in a group, branch out from the center circle with the main items you need to consider.  See the example:

After developing your main ideas, consider the W & H questions for each branch: why, who, what, when, where, and how.  These questions help the details flow.   Check out how I expanded my clustering:

While clustering, write everything down that you think of.  Don’t worry about the value or location of ideas.  Once you’ve exhausted your thoughts, rearrange branches to group the information more precisely.

Finally, challenge the clustering for completeness (or for irrelevant information), and move on to your next step, whether that step be writing a document, creating a product plan, or crafting a presentation.

The time that clustering takes varies, but just five minutes of clustering for a document saves time when you start writing and revising.

By the way, clustering also works well for taking notes during a meeting or conference call.  Furthermore, if your boss asks you to give a presentation on the fly, jot down a few clusters to get organized and create your notes.

Create order out of chaos

Clustering is easy to start and quick to finish.  It maintains focus on content only: addressing the problem or purpose at hand—not on grammar and punctuation if writing a document, or public speaking and room set-up if creating a presentation.

The results are categorized clusters of information, which in turn allow your writing or presentation to convey organized information to the audience.

To paraphrase Buonomano, not only do we retrieve information from our brain in an associative way, but we learn and retain information in that way too.  Hence, if you present information to your audience in tight categories, your audience more easily processes the information and is more likely to retain it.

Other benefits to clustering include the ability to organize complex information, come up with creative ideas, get a bird’s eye view of overall content, or to produce a plan for writing a strategy, presentation, or document.

We are asked to process overwhelming amounts of information daily while we attend meetings, read emails and reports, and join conference calls.  Without a clear way to capture and organize our information, we sometimes contribute nothing but noise.  When we receive unorganized information, we receive noise.

German writer Wolfgang von Goethe said, “If any man wishes to write in a clear style, let him first be clear in thoughts.”  Clustering provides order to your thinking and development of ideas.

Try it at least once today.