Mind mapping as a brainstorm method

Time to brainstorm! Although there’s many ways to approach this useful thinking process, mind maps are a great way to keep an eye on the larger picture when you’re coming up with ideas. In this article, we discuss brainstorming and how you can benefit from mind mapping during the process.

Osborn’s brainstorm sessions

Although undoubtedly the concept of ‘thinking things through’ has been around for a long time, the name brainstorming is quite new. In 1939, advertising executive Alex F. Osborn first coined the term ‘brainstorm sessions’. With this, he meant group thinking sessions with around 12 participants. In the sessions, those participants can share all their ideas in order to come up with a creative solution to an issue. According to Osborn, brainstorm sessions do not only stimulate the generation of new ideas, but also creativity levels. 

Osborn ended up writing several books about his brainstorming technique, such as Applied Imagination (1953). Many successors took his ideas and developed them further. However, the basics still are the same. What might have been Osborn’s most important condition to a successful brainstorm session is what he called ‘ideative efficacy’. In order to reach this ideative efficacy, brainstorm participants need to focus both on deferring judgement and putting quantity over quality. 

Visual mapping your brainstorm

While there are many ways to brainstorm, we love using maps. Using the map format, you can easily see how one idea links to another, and you can see the bigger picture all at once. Because of this, interconnections are easily made. With linear notes, this is much more challenging.

Mind or concept maps can also create some sort of synergy: having an overview of all the ideas you have been coming up with, you might just make new connections between these ideas, creating an even better solution. 

Brainstorming with maps is a great example of lateral thinking: problem solving in a creative, indirect way. Edward de Bono, who was the first to write about the concept in 1967, used the Judgment of Solomon as a prime example of lateral thinking. According to this biblical story, king Solomon decided to cut a child in half when two women claimed to be its mother. Through his solution, it became clear who the real parent was, as the real mother begged for the baby not to be killed but to be given away instead.

When we are thinking of a solution to a problem and come across something that seems impossible, we are quick to dismiss this option. That’s not the case with lateral thinking. Instead, lateral thinkers take such seemingly impossible options and start to elaborate on them. Take for example the following idea: imagine if cows could drive cars. You might immediately think “that’s impossible”. Because of this, you’re not going to take the step of actually imagining cows driving cars. With lateral thinking, we would purposely go in that direction, as it could possibly result in very other useful and creative ideas.

One of De Bono’s most famous methods for lateral thinking is the method of the six thinking hats. With this method, all participants wear the same ‘hat’ at the same time, forcing them to think in a certain direction. The six hats stand for different angles to look at an idea:

  1. white hat: objectivity and factual information
  2. red hat: emotions and intuition
  3. black hat: weaknesses, what could go wrong?
  4. yellow hat: optimism, the perks
  5. green hat: creativity and originality
  6. blue hat: the organizational aspect

Just like mapping, the thinking hat method and brainstorming are tools to achieve as many perspectives as possible on your work. They challenge us to step out of our comfort zone.

To be or not to be alone

The original brainstorming by Osborn follows a clear design in which several people participate. No one is stopping you, however, from using brainstorming techniques on your own, without any other participants. In fact, researchers have found that individual brainstorming might be more efficient than brainstorming in groups. Brainstorm groups might for instance, find only half the amount of ideas an individual brainstorming session could.

Some ways in which groups might hinder brainstorm productivity could be:

  • Participants might believe that their idea is ‘not good enough’ to share with the group.
  • Since only one participant at a time is speaking his thoughts, others might forget theirs or not share it, because they believe that it’s no longer important.
  • Participants might work less, because they think that their group members will fill in for the productivity.

On the other hand, group brainstorming can also have its benefits, as one can build upon the creativity of another. As a solution, you could go with the best of both worlds, too: each participant brainstorms individually, then all the ideas are merged. During this merging, new ideas can arise. This has also been called the team idea mapping method. Another efficient group brainstorming method is the group passing technique, in which everyone writes down their idea and passes the idea to the person next to them, who then writes down some additional thoughts on the paper. In that way, the idea can be broadened. 

The practicalities

Practically speaking, there’s some important steps to follow when mapping during a brainstorm, regardless of whether you are working on it individually or together.

  1. Start with the main subject you will be working on in the center of your map, either on paper or online. 
  2. From here, you would usually start branching out to the topics that link to your key subject. However, there’s several approaches you can take when brainstorming. 
    1. You could choose to limit yourself to a certain amount of time for instance, in which you come up with as many thoughts as you can to put into the map. By doing this, you put some pressure on your thinking process. Perhaps, the most useful tool to get efficient is a deadline?
    2. You could also consider another approach. Start branching out to the most logical solutions you can think of. From there, take another look and start considering everything that would be the worst solution. Branch out these worst ideas, and you might just turn the results upside down and find a unique solution: lateral thinking.
    3. Alternatively, you could also use a mind map to branch out all the possible solutions and their steps to an issue your brainstorming on. While we usually think we’ve thought about all the steps to take and what could happen if we do, mapping can show us that this is not always the case.

Ideative efficacy

Although mapping brainstorming strays away from Osborn’s original ideas about what brainstorming processes should look like, we believe that his concept of ideative efficacy is still of importance:

  • Having quantity over quality is key for the brainstorming process, as quantity breeds quality. So: don’t be afraid to write out anything that comes up, even if it sounds somewhat pointless or weird. When you’ve been creating many ideas, the chances of getting a solution or outcome that is actually worthwhile are higher than when you’ve just written down what you think are your best thoughts. Don’t let anything hold you back.
  • Don’t judge: wait with criticizing your content, and just let your mind flow. Let your mind roam to the weirdest of thoughts and solutions, and you might just come up with something unique and useful. Creating a map and brainstorming go hand in hand: both push you out of your comfort zone. They force you to have new and creative thoughts about what you are currently doing. Even the most uncreative of persons can be driven to succeed with such approaches. 

Truth be told: being creative all the time is a challenge. It can be exhausting and frustrating. Using tools such as brainstorming and mapping, the effort can be lifted off your shoulders somewhat. Because when you do reach that creative goal, it could not be any greater.


Feature image: Clark Van Der Beken.