Using Mind Maps for Brainstorming
Brainstorming is a great way of solving problems and coming up with new ideas. It allows you to examine the problems from outside the boundaries of normal thinking, and understand the issues and root causes, and come up with alternative solutions. Brainstorming can also be used for impact analysis and decision making.
In the project management context, you can brainstorm from the objectives and goals down to the tasks to explore new ideas, possibilities and alternatives. It gives us a much more understandable and complete plan than what you would get if you just stuck to task level planning.
Brainstorming can be great for team building where you have shared discussions, and also for individual ideation, and has the benefits of improving initiative and innovation within an organization or individually, as well as improving quality and profitability, efficiency and morale.
Basic Concepts of Brainstorming
The basic concept behind brainstorming is to capture ideas as quickly as possible so that you get past the judgment that you typically use to assess ideas before recording them, and instead we want to capture the ideas as they occur assuming no money, time, resource or any other constraint, and without judgment, building on ideas as you think of them as well as pushing yourself to think in new directions. The concept is that out of quantity comes quality – there will be great ideas in amongst the many ideas you throw out there.
As you think of the ideas, you record the keywords on topics – at the moment, you don’t care where you put the topics, because you can graft them elsewhere later, but if it isn’t slowing you down, you might like to do some high level grouping by putting some of the main topics in place and adding related ideas as sub-topics. In some cases, it can work well to have a few floating topics for your main ideas, and create “islands” of information which you can organize and refine later.
In order to keep up with the recording of ideas, you can just type in the topic, press Return/Enter to finish, and press Return/Enter again to create the next topic, and so on. This makes it really quick to record the information as it comes up.
What if I run out of ideas?
Sometimes when you are brainstorming, you will get stuck and run out of ideas completely or you may just think that there should be more ideas related to an idea you have on the map already, but you can’t think of what it might be at the time, so let’s look at some ways of getting unstuck.
Firstly, if you think there should be more ideas related to an existing topic, or additional concepts to come from the title of the Mind Map, add blank topics to your Mind Map, because your subconscious mind hates to leave things unfinished, and will go looking for ideas to fill the empty topics.
You can also take a break, and go away and either do something else or go for a walk. Doing something else lets your subconscious mind work on the problem and come up with answers when it is not under pressure. Repetitive activities like walking are particularly good for letting the thoughts surface. You might find that a change of scenery like going to the park or going down by the sea may lead to a different sort of inspiration where you come up with different ideas. You can either take your laptop with you or anything which will allow you to record ideas as you think of them rather than trying to remember them until you get back to the office.
Very often when we are thinking about a topic, we get stuck in a groove where there is a well worn track in our thinking and it is very hard to come up with new ideas. This is where introducing random words and ideas can jolt your thinking in new directions. Sometimes it’s good to use a thesaurus to find related words first, and progressively move away from your starting point, then at a suitable point, stop, and look for the associations back to the original concept. Other times, it can be more stimulating to pick a random word from a dictionary or web site – anywhere – and then try to relate that in some way to the topic you are brainstorming about.
Another idea is to look at similar problems in different domains and seeing if you can apply solutions that worked in that domain to the idea you are brainstorming about.
You can also ask the question “How would others solve/approach this?”. This is particularly useful when you take the point of view of other parties involved in the problem or impacted by the solution.
You can ask questions like:
- How often?
- Who does this impact?
…to encourage yourself to look at the problem from a different perspective.
And finally, ask the question: “If there was another solution, what would it be?”. This is an idea that comes from Neuro-linguistics, and brings your imagination into play. It’s like saying, “I know that there is no other option, but just for a moment, imagine that there was another option, if there was another option, what would it be?”. And almost every time, your imagination kicks in and supplies another idea, and then once that door that was closing off ideas has opened up, it’s often like floodgates opening up and you start coming up with dozens more ideas.
Now, when you have recorded enough ideas, you need to reorganize them by grouping them so that you start with the overall concepts and then organize the ideas as sub-topics so that you can see the the big picture and the details. Often it is useful to graft related topics into groups as floating topics, and then graft the floating topic on to the Mind Map. Where there are important ideas, make sure they are highlighted with adornments or images or by color etc, and also if there are ideas that are related to more than one group, you can show the secondary associations by the link lines.
Brainstorming Tips and Techniques
Now let’s just drill down a bit and have a look at some important points for both brainstorming by yourself and in a group.
The most critical thing is to define the problem or topic clearly first. Have a look at the problem solving article to remind yourself of the four cartesian quadrants of problem definition by asking the questions:
- What is the problem?
- What is it not?
- We have this problem because…
- We don’t have a solution because…
And apply these thoughts to the topic you are examining.
Also define your desired outcome, so you know when you have achieved your objective.
Start with the subject as the Mind Map title, and imagine that you have your “inner advisor” giving you the ideas and solutions, using the techniques we have already mentioned. Start adding top level topics and then children topics, or using floating topics as required, without judgment or limitation, and not worrying about organization.
Stop when you have either run out of ideas and have exhausted the ideas we just mentioned for getting unstuck, or when you have collected enough ideas.
It is only after you have collected the ideas that you evaluate and organize them, and in the process you sometimes need to expand the best ideas to give more concrete detail.
Group Mind Mapping
Now when you are mind mapping in a group, you need some structures and methods in place to make sure that the whole process goes smoothly.
You should appoint a recorder, a session leader, and everyone else is the “panel”. You don’t want a huge group – groups of more than 10-15 people can get quite difficult to manage, and it may be best to split into different groups and then combine the ideas later, or consider different aspects of the topic.
Now the next point is very important: there have been at least 25 studies done since 1958 which all show that if you try to brainstorm with an entire group without individual brainstorming first, you end up with fewer and lower quality ideas. So, first go through the definition of the topic and the intended outcome with the participants to make sure you are on the same page, and then do the individual brainstorming and return to share ideas, making sure that you give everyone a fair say.
As the ideas are mentioned and recorded on the overall Mind Map, there are going to be ideas relating to those topics come up from other participants, and these should be recorded without judgment or constraints, and also without elaboration – you just want the keywords. Then the process of grouping, culling, and elaboration is much the same as for individual brainstorming.
With this structure in place, and using these techniques, you will be able to brainstorm ideas and solutions either individually or in a group, and come up with better solutions and ideas.