Posted on


Object of Play

There is a time to go deep. Just as in science, breaking large structures into their base components is fundamental to knowledge work. It is how we create understanding and formulate new ideas.

This exercise starts with a single item and ends with a layer-by-layer analysis of its components. It is useful for unpacking large but poorly understood structures. Although the applications are numerous, some structures that are well suited for atomization include:

• A firm’s offering

• A technology platform

• An enterprise-wide initiative

• A supply or demand chain

• A group’s culture or other “intangible”

By breaking the larger system into its components, the group will have an advantage in problem solving or brainstorming. Because they are more discreet and tangible, the smaller components are more easily handled and better understood. Likewise, the overall map that is created will help serve as an explanation of the overall system.

Number of Players

Small groups

Duration of Play

1 hour or more

How to Play

  1. Open the exercise by putting the name of the system on a sticky note at the top of a large whiteboard. Introduce the exercise as a way to understand what the system is made of in tangible terms, by breaking it down into its “atoms.”
  2. To start the brainstorming, ask the group to “split” the main system into its components. In this step you are generating a list of things to capture on sticky notes directly below the main topic. Generally, a short list of three to five large components is the norm.
  3. For each item, repeat the splitting process by asking “What combines to create this?” In this manner, you will build a pyramid of components all the way down.
  4. The map and individual components that result may be used as inputs into other activities, or may be documented as an explanation of a system’s parts.


At some point, usually four to five levels deep, there is a natural turning point. Instead of becoming more diverse, the items start to become more fundamental. This is the atomic level, and where some of the most interesting results are found. In exploring a group’s culture, this is where hidden attitudes and behaviors unique to the group may be discovered. In atomizing a service offering or product, this is where elementary characteristics and differentiation points may live.

The Atomize game is credited to James Macanufo.