From Brainstorming to Mind-mapping

"640K ought to be enough for anybody." - Bill Gates, 1981


Brainstorming was devised by Alex F. Osborn (1888-1966) who, as an advertising executive in America in 1939, was concerned with the ability of his personnel to develop creative ideas for advertising campaigns.  He ascertained that through group sessions there was a significant improvement in the ideas produced by individuals and ultimately published his system of group creativity in Applied Imagination [1953]. 

Brainstorming is a technique that uses lateral thinking and this is more readily achieved with a group of people than with an individual. Edward de Bono asks [The Use of Lateral Thinking, 1967] "How many people will have a single new idea in the course of their lives?  How many people would be capable of inventing the wheel . . ?"  Brainstorming works on the principle that what an individual may be incapable of producing, regardless of education or intellect, a group of people using appropriate brainstorming strategy may achieve - often regardless of lack of education or intellect.  The fact is that the more diverse the group, the more imaginative may be the suggestions proffered as a response to the problem being addressed.

One of the more useful aspects of brainstorming is that, when used in an informal and relaxed environment, this tends to produce much more effective ideas and suggestions, particularly if participants are encouraged to be totally uninhibited no matter how absurd they (or others) may believe their suggestions to be.  These "crack-brained" ideas may trigger other thoughts and suggestions that may be really effective and might not otherwise have been considered.  Therefore it is important that no criticism or comment be offered during the course of a brainstorming session.  Nor should there be any interpretation or evaluation until the end of the session.  Judgement passed and analysis made during a session merely interrupts flow and inhibits creativity.

The more relaxed the ambiance, the more diverse the participants, the more uninhibited and prolific the contributions, the more successful is the session likely to be. 

Individual brainstorming is possible, but far less effective if an issue is complex, believed Osborn. Some more recent research, however, claims to refute Osborn's belief that group brainstorming could generate more ideas than individuals working alone.  Research from Michael Diehl and Wolfgang Stroebe [The Illusion of Group Effectivity, 1992] suggests that groups brainstorming together produce fewer ideas than individuals working separately.

Nevertheless there are many reasons why brainstorming in groups is more valuable, particularly if certain criteria are observed.  To be considered are:

(a)  The range of experience of group members and the involvement of all group members.

(b)  The number of group members.  Osborn thought in terms of 12, but nowadays it is more usual to regard half that number as ideal.

(c)  The appropriate chairing, i.e. a facilitator, to ensure all are encouraged to contribute and none overwhelm others.

(d)  The usefulness for team-building as well as problem-solving.

There are a number of different methods to be used in group brainstorming and some are more favoured than others by different practitioners.  It is fair to say, I think, that there is little if any disagreement with any of the four criteria given above, but having agreed on the basic strategy of the technique, it is then necessary to decide on the tactics to be employed.  These may be:

(a)  The participants are required to write their ideas anonymously. The facilitator collects them and reads them out, and the group votes on each idea.  Subsequently the ideas voted best are sent back to the group for further brainstorming.

(b)  Each person writes down one idea and then the piece of paper is passed on to the next person to add their thoughts.  Ultimately each participant will get back their own piece of paper.  In due course a meeting is held to read out and discuss the various proposals.

(c)  A whiteboard, blackboard or flip-chart is used and - suitably facilitated - participants call out their ideas which are then noted on the board.  This has the advantage of allowing everyone to see what is being proposed and thereby have their own ideas stimulated.  In due course the group votes on those items that are to be discarded and then vote on the remaining items, or add to them.

There are, of course, several other variations on group brainstorming and these will form part of the expanded Main Theme in our next issue, together with several of the criticisms that have been levelled against group brainstorming.  But we need to progress now to the second half of this Main Theme.  We have tried to show that

Brainstorming aims to expand your thinking on a topic.

Having done so, however, we now propose to show how

Mind Mapping then helps you to organise your ideas and consider the relationships between them.

Mind Mapping dates from the early 1970s.  Its originator, Tony Buzan, developed it as an effective method of note taking.  In using it he discovered that it was capable of more than merely aiding the taking of notes, but was actually capable of improving thinking skills.  He described his findings, and the way his techniques could be used to develop abilities that might otherwise lie dormant in the brain, in Use Your Head (1974) - a book that achieved classic status.

As was discovered when using brainstorming in order to generate ideas, our brains work best when they are freed up to generate ideas rather than being restricted to the process of organising them. Our brains have been shown also to work best when they are allowed to work in short bursts of activity.  Mind Mapping uses this feature of the brain to produce ideas and connections between them.  To the extent that these are left to germinate before being processed, this is no different from brainstorming.  The difference - and a very significant difference it is - lies in the way the information is retained.  Instead of a series of disjointed ideas, the Mind Map provides associations and pathways that open up our brains to potential options.

The Mind Map starts from a focus.  This will be the core of the problem that is under consideration.  It will form the central part of the Mind Map.  As an appropriate example, let us use the (imaginary) brainstorming session that preceded the publication of Nurturing Potential.

Michael Mallows and I (Joe Sinclair) had been involved in the publication of several trade journals and newsletters over the years that had, for different reasons, ceased publication.  In the main it was because they no longer fulfilled the professed aims of the membership, their officers, or ourselves.  The most successful and worthy - for us and, in the main, for their readers - had been Groupvine (on behalf of the Group Relations Training Association) and New Learning (for the NLP Education network).  We hit upon the idea of starting up a new magazine that would satisfy our (as yet undetermined) desires and wishes.  We had fruitful and very enjoyable brainstorming sessions before determining on Nurturing Potential.  Had we been using the Mind Map technique, we might have started with something like this:

Click on thumbnail for full size map

It will be seen that the focus of the Mind Map, placed in the box at the centre, is New Journal.  This is because this was the central issue for Michael and myself.  It was our starting point, because it was the only thing that we were sure of.  Thereafter, and in no particular order, we had to decide on what the magazine would encompass by way of material and readership; how it was to be prepared, what name it would have.  These were all signposted and led in turn to further considerations.

Remember that this is a hypothetical scenario, designed to illustrate how Mind-Mapping would have been used by us had we resorted to this strategy rather than the simple brainwashing technique we employed.

It would be interesting to know how, if at all, the ultimate production of the magazine would be changed, had we resorted to Mind Mapping, but lacking 20/20 hindsight we can only conjecture.

The next issue of Nurturing Potential will deal with this subject at greater length.