IAF Methods

Polar Gestalt

by for . Last edit was about 2 years ago
45 - 120 6 - 60
A way of seeing new patterns between brainstormed ideas.

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To identify similar ideas and to put them together and to create larger patterns based on an agreed set of values. This is used most often in an Underlying Obstacles Workshop to see new relationships between issues.  It can be used in a variety of other kinds of workshops.


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  • A blank wall or whiteboard
  • Sticky wall, tape, or sticky tack
  • Markers



Pre-Work Required: Make a small simple clock face image and put it in the centre of the working wall. 

Facilitator personality fit: This needs a facilitator who is both pretty rational and linear and one who is pretty intuitive.


1. This is another standard way of organizing similar ideas into clusters (See Clustering in Columns).

2. The idea behind this is that we will develop a pattern from the list of ideas that we have created.

3. We are going to organize these by similar root causes. ("Similar root causes" is the organizing principle. It could be similar elements of a vision, similar strategic directions, similar root causes, etc.)

4.  Write the focus question so it is visible to the group:  i.e. What are all the blocks to our vision?


1. This technique uses a blank wall, white board or sticky wall. In your mind decide what kinds of things will go in the centre, and which kinds go on the left and right. For example, the left might be organizational issues, the centre marketing and the right production. Of course this totally depend on the focus of the workshop. This is a bit more intuitive than the column method. We use it for root cause analysis.

2. Ask participants to silently brainstorm answers to the focus question.  These procedures assume that there are 10 people and each person has individually generated 6-8 items.  (if you have more people, add a step where pairs or small groups share their brainstorms to eliminate overlap and preserve diversity.)

3. Ask people to put each idea on one sheet of paper or post-it (We often use A5 (5 x 8") sheets for this size of group).

4. Explain the process and ask for the most concrete or specific items from each person (the type of idea asked for varies depending on the type of workshop. You can ask for the best, most creative, the most important, etc.).

5. You should have about 10 cards. Put the cards randomly on the wall, near the bottom.

6. Keep doing this until you have put up all 10 cards.

7. Ask if there is a pair of cards that point to a similar root issue (or similar answer to the focus question). Put this pair together on one side of the centre point (clock face).  Repeat, putting pairs in different places around the centre point.

8. Ask that each person send up 2 cards are the most different from any of those up now. (This will help determine the breadth of ideas present in the room.)  

9. After there are 4-5 pairs, begin to add more cards to the pairs, or make new clusters, always asking where the new cards most helpfully illuminate a similar root issue.  Use the analogy of a clock face for participants to easily suggest where a card goes (i.e. with the cluster at 2 o'clock) to avoid naming categories until most of the cards are on the wall.

10. If it looks like most of the unique ideas are now on the board you can move much faster. Number the clusters using the clock analogy. Ask everyone to put the number of the cluster on each of his or her cards. If they think their card does not fit into a cluster put a question mark on it. If they think it goes into two or more clusters put a question mark on it.

11. Ask that all those with question marks be sent up to you. Select a card and ask the group which cluster they think the card goes into. Several things can happen. A new cluster can be created, or the card goes into an existing cluster. Sometimes the card actually has two or more ideas and it can be split into parts. The different parts can create a new cluster or go into existing clusters. Normally, they go into an existing cluster to create a deeper insight (the gestalt).

12. Ask people to recheck the numbers on their cards, if new clusters have been created.

13. Put up all the rest of the cards (or ask everyone to put their own up).

14. Now check the size of the clusters.

a. If a cluster has only one or two cards you may ask if it should go with some other cluster. It may not but normally it does.

b. If a cluster is very much bigger than any other cluster, you may ask if it needs to be broken up into two or more clusters in order to identify more than one underlying obstacle.

18. Now is the time to name. Use a structured approach to naming. We might use a five-word title with blocks or contradictions. The first two words are the block and the last tow are where the problem is located. The middle word is a preposition. One example is: INCONSISTENT APPLICATION OF EMPLOYEE'S RIGHTS. 

Or use the format of a phrase:  "BLOCK, HOW it blocks, WHAT it blocks: eg RIGID HIERARCHY INHIBITS CREATIVITY"

19. Go through the clusters and ask the group for names. We usually go with a very obvious one that should be easy to do. We then move to the most difficult ones and finally, the middle hard ones.

1. When the process is done thank the group and go to the next step. If the topic was to identify underlying root issues, the next step may be strategies to address the issues.

- This process is also known as organizing or gestalting.
- It is best done with a medium number of ideas 35- 60. Naturally the more ideas the more time required.


Follow-Up Required: Go to the next workshop

Usual or Expected Outcomes: An agreed set of clusters of ideas.


Source: Institute of Cultural Affairs

Derived from: Buckminster Fuller's view of the planet from the North Pole showed that all the continents are connected when seen from that perspective. An engineer suggested using a polar display in doing this kind of clustering.

History of Development: This was originally used in a summer research program in 1971.

Recognizable components: This is similar to Column Clustering and Symbol Clustering

References: Stanfield, Brian: The Workshop Book, New Society Press and the Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs, 2002

Alternative names: Random Clustering

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