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Mind Maps

Quality Tools > Tools of the Trade > 31: Mind Maps


In the new millennium, we are told that we must  recreate ourselves, be creative and invent a new future. So, in support of these bold goals, the ‘Tools of the Trade’ articles in the millennium year will all have a creative theme.


How do you think? Your brain contains a huge collection of neurons, each of which can connect a number of other neurons, and your thoughts are simply sequences of these connections being made in familiar patterns. Like lightning bolts across the mind, our thoughts flash in a never-ending series of connections.


Thoughts are patterns in the brain


As an indicator of the power of this patterning method of thinking: it gives us the ability to have more thoughts than there are atoms in the known universe! To all extents and purposes, our thinking capacity is infinite: you simply cannot fill up the brain!

A problem often occurs when we are working with sentences and paragraphs, which are sequential, because each word we speak can trigger off multiple other thoughts, as in the diagram below. The interconnectedness of our brain can thus confuse the linearity of our conscious thought process. So how can we capture this jumble of parallel thinking?


Thoughts that lead to other thoughts


How it works

Mind Maps work simply by mimicking the way that the brain works, capturing the key concepts of a sentence of paragraph (and sometimes a complete book) in a single word or short phrase (or even a picture), and then using lines or arrows to show the relationships between those different concepts.

When we use words, such as ‘elephant’, the word is not the elephant, but it is used to represent a large number of facts and ideas about elephants. Words are useful packages that humans use to capture and share concepts. A picture may sometimes be worth a thousand words, but one word contains a thousand pictures.

Words contain the concepts, but it is through the relationships that we build between our concepts that we understand the world and hence build more complete concepts and broader understanding. The better the relationship maps we build, the better we are able to manage the complexities of our world.

In some ways, Mind Maps (which is a name coined by Tony Buzan in the early 1970s) can be viewed as simple hierarchies, or Tree Diagrams drawn radially, but their flexibility can take them beyond this simple usage.

Mind maps can be used in a wide range of situations, such as taking lecture notes, summarising books or just articulating and sorting out your jumbled thoughts. This latter use is particularly helpful in creative situations, where making connections can help stabilise new concepts.


How to do it

1.     Start with a core word or phrase and write it in the middle of a piece of paper or whiteboard. It can be stated as a question, a title or some other form, depending on how you are using the approach.

2.     Find the thoughts that are directly associated with the starting word and place these around the starting word.

There are no rules about whether you should do all these ‘second level’ thoughts first before breaking each one down to lower levels. Simply go where your mind (or book or lecture) takes you. The principle of the Mind Map is to mimic the brain, so let your thoughts be your guide!

You can use various tricks to emphasise these words according to how they strike you, such as using different colours, capitalisation, underlining, boxing, etc. Colours are particularly useful for separating different concept groups or paths of thinking.

3.     As connections between words occur to you, add lines or arrows to show the connection. Again, vary the lines as you wish to add significance to the relationship. You can change arrow-heads, thickness of lines, colour, etc.

4.     Repeat this process of finding concepts or thoughts that are associated with other concepts or thoughts on the map, placing them accordingly and adding lines or arrows to show relationships.


A Mind Map for planning a meeting


Overall, there are no hard and fast rules in Mind Mapping other than ‘use what works for you!’ Thus:

·       You can make connections in any direction with any sort of line.

·       You can use words, phrases, pictures, doodles.

·       You can use Post-it Notes to shuffle around the thoughts before adding lines.

·       You can do it on a computer to enable additional flexibility, including adding pictures, hyperlinks and doing more general shuffling around.


There are only two constraints of MindMaps. The first is the two dimensions and limited space on the paper that you are using: if you add too many items and links, then you will not be able to see the wood for the trees. The second constraint is you: you can limit the map to a strict hierarchy, or by playing and experimenting you can gain new insights and understanding of the area of consideration.


Next time: Brainstorming


This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Institute for Quality Assurance

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