Uncork Your Brain with Mind Maps

That great idea you are looking for is already somewhere in your mind or in the collective mind of your team.  The real effort in coming up with a great idea, is all about getting out of your own way so that your great idea can reveal itself.  I want to refer to this as the “idea release” process, rather than the idea generation process.

A very useful tool in the idea release process is mind mapping.  In this post, I will discuss how we inadvertently trap our great ideas in our mind; strategies for getting out of our own way; and finally how mind maps can help.

Why Our Brains Need To Be “Uncorked”

We are all familiar with those situations where we can’t seem to get our thoughts together in a clear, organized, and useful way.  The solution to that vexing problem just keeps eluding us.  Or we are cursed with a frustrating case of writer’s block.  We try to get our thoughts down on paper, but many times it just produces unsatisfactory results.

There are two general reasons why we run into this and similar problems:

  • We try to do too many things simultaneously: generate new ideas, evaluate their merit, and organize them.  This is something most of us do, and we don't even realize it.
  • We aren’t in a relaxed enough state to let our thoughts freely flow.  Essentially, we stress ourselves out.  And when you are stressed, it is hard to think of anything other than what is stressing you out.  This will happen when we are rushed to deliver the solution NOW.  Panic is an extreme reaction to this kind of stress. 

Strategies for “Uncorking”

There are three general strategies I want to mention here.  

  • Slow down the overall “idea release” process
  • Speed up individual “idea release” events
  • Maintaining a relaxed state-of-mind so that your thoughts and ideas can freely flow

Slow down the overall process: You should not rush the overall idea release process.  Try to give yourself and the team as much time as possible to find the right idea.  Create many situations to revisit the search for ideas.  Some could be scheduled team meetings, and others could be alone time set aside for yourself.  Don’t demand the right solution be the result of any one meeting.  I know that most of us don’t have the luxury of infinite time to find the right idea, but taking an extra week or two to find a better solution can save months later on in the process.

Speed up individual events: When you are doing a brainstorming session with others ,or doing a sole brain dump, fast is your friend.  By expressing your thoughts in a rapid fire way, you don’t give yourself the chance to evaluate or organize your thoughts.  You just capture them.  This is a good thing.  Your goal is to get as many ideas down on paper, as fast as you possibly can.  This is because only the tiniest fraction of ideas will reveal themselves to be “great ideas,” therefore it’s a numbers game.  You need a large number of ideas if you hope to find that one great idea.  Alternatively, only coming up with a few well thought out ideas will usually amount to nothing.  So generate lots of ideas, and be reckless about it!

Maintaining a relaxed state-of-mind: A lot of what I said about slowing down the process will help contribute to reducing stress and getting your mind in the relaxed state required to release ideas.  Additionally, you can remind yourself to think about ideas when you are in relaxed situations.  These might be situations like … watching TV, sitting on the porch watching the kids play, doing your favorite hobby.  How many times have we heard about people and the revelations they've had in the shower?  When you find yourself in one of these relaxed situations and you want to think about new ideas, go for it, but please remember … keep it a no stress situation for two very important reasons.

  • If the situation goes from relaxed to stressful, then you are no better equipped to reveal ideas
  • Don’t ruin those low-stress high-quality moments in your life.  They are way too important!

Why are Mind Maps Useful?

I mentioned earlier that we attempt to do too many things simultaneously when trying to come up with ideas.  These are idea generation (aka release), evaluation, and organization.  We want to separate these into individual tasks.  Mind maps are a great tool for doing just that.  Ideas can be captured in a structure that is relaxed and informal.  It’s easy to later modify the organization and relationships between items.  And items can later be emphasized and de-emphasized based on their importance and relevance.

Its visual layout makes it easy to see and understand the relationships between items.  It’s also very easy to visually scan all of its items.  This means that existing items can and do inspire the addition of new items.  This is why mind maps are such a fantastic brainstorming tool.

Mind map from MindNode Pro

Mind Maps in Action

During the idea release process

  • Start with the core idea or objective as the central node. I will typically circle it to indicate it is the starting point
  • Looking at the center note, quickly write down the first thing that comes to mind.  Draw a line between the center and new node.
  • Looking at the nodes on the sheet, continue to quickly write down what ever comes to mind, and draw a line between the new node and the existing one that inspired it.
  • Don't worry if you duplicate any items; don't worry about spelling things correctly; and don't worry about ensuring the relationships are all captured correctly.  You can fix these things later, so don't let them slow down your progress during this step.
  • Continue to do this until your pace slows down to the point where you feel it is no longer productive.
  • Remember that the point is to quickly write things down.  This is so that we don't give ourselves time to evaluate or organize these ideas as we come up with them.  Those are the separate steps that follow.

Adjusting the organization

  • If you are using mind mapping software, then reorganizing is a very simple drag-and-drop action.  The exact method may be slightly different in each application, but it will be very straight forward in all of those tools.
  • You will have the ability to reorder items and change their locations within the hierarchy.

Evaluating ideas for their importance and relevance

  • Finally you want to emphasize any great idea that has been captured.  I will typically draw a box around those few nodes in the mind map.
  • There may also be items in the mind map that just have no relevance at all.  Remember, that capturing these is absolutely fine, and even encouraged.
  • If you wish, you can put a strike though these items.  Don't delete them or black them out.  A strike through is enough to show that they are not important, yet leaves them understandable … just in case.

Mind Mapping Tools

There are many mind mapping software products available today.  They run on Microsoft Windows, Mac, iPads/iPhones, and some are cloud-based Internet services.  The prices for these products also go across a wide range, from free to a couple of hundred dollars.

Don't forget that a pen and pad or whiteboard also work great.  As a matter of fact, my paper journal is littered with mind maps.  In the spirit of total transparency, here is the mind map that I created one day while having lunch.  It was when I was first considering my AbsurdlyIdeal blog.

Original mind map for AbsurdlyIdeal blog

I also use a software product called MindNode Pro (www.mindnode.com).  Sorry Windows users, it only runs on Mac.  I opted for fast and simple in my choice.  There are very few options and manipulation of the mind map is fast and easy.

If you do an Internet search for "mind mapping tools", you will find many choices on all platforms and at every price including free.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I mentioned earlier that we want to get out of our own way.  Breaking down the idea release process and relaxing, are the two ways we go about doing this.  Making the use of mind maps second nature is a very powerful way to accomplish these two things.  We want to get to the point where using mind maps requires no mental capacity at all.  This way we can fully focus our mental energy on revealing ideas.

In a brainstorming session, you want your mind map creation to be fast and effortless.  You don't want to slow down the process because you are struggling with the tool.  Struggling produces stress, which does NOT produce ideas.  And if you are struggling with the tool, you will have a tough time contributing to the meeting.

So to make mind mapping fast and effortless, you just need to practice using them.  Spend a day using them for everything.  Creating your daily to do list, note taking, creating a shopping list, etc.  Also practice for speed, because this is what a brainstorming session will be like.  You might try practicing this by occasionally giving yourself a time constraint.  An example would be to generate 20 nodes on a mind map in 30 seconds.  Achieve this pace and mind mapping will be an indispensable and fun tool to have in your arsenal

Now it’s your turn …

  • Do you think mind maps would be useful to you?
  • Do you use a mind mapping tool that you really like and want to share with others?
  • Do you use an alternative approach to mind maps that you feel is just as useful?


[Editor's note: This was originally posted on Rick's peronal blog, Absurdley Ideal. Rick will cross-post entries to the SolidWorks blog from time to time.]

25+ year veteran of the CAD industry. Helped conceive and deliver DS SolidWorks products such as eDrawings, FeatureXpert, FilletXpert, DraftXpert, Sustainability, and Augmented Reality in eDrawings. My mission is to come up with new product ideas which are inspired by needs that REALLY matter to technology users.