Monday, October 24, 2016

Using Mind Mapping to Brainstorm Ideas

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

Becoming a crime analyst was quite a change from being a police officer. As a police officer my tasks were being directed largely by someone else. A Call For Service gets you dispatched somewhere to start an investigation, assist a citizen, etc. As a detective, your work is often directed by others. Your supervisor assigns you an investigation and you then follow your agency's investigative protocol.

My experience as a crime analyst is much different. While you still get tasked by others who may request information or a report on crime trends, other projects require more self directed work. One of these types of projects that requires more analytical thinking is developing solutions to local crime problems.

As an analyst I may begin to see a local crime trend develop and then it falls to me to analyze it and brainstorm a solution to that problem. To do this well often requires a way to formalize your thinking about the problem and it's possible solutions.

One thing that I found to be a great help for this kind of brainstorming was something called Mind Mapping. The term was coined by British author and psychologist Tony Buzan but in essence, mind mapping is a way to visually diagram information.

When we were in school, we were often taught to create an outline when we were researching a term paper. Depending on the requirements of your instructor, an outline tends to follow a hierarchical format. While I love outlines, the structure they have is linear. It starts from the top and works it's way down.

However, when you are brainstorming an idea your thoughts don't always come to you in a linear fashion. While a hierarchical outline works well when you start at the beginning and work towards the end of something, the format doesn't as easily lend itself to starting in the middle of a problem and working outwards, or starting at the end and working backwards.

Mind mapping is a diagram that works like a non-linear outline. You define the topic in the middle and then work outwards. Because of it's non-linear format I find that I am less constrained to start at the beginning. I can start wherever my thoughts take me and work in whatever direction I need.
For instance, let's say I discover a trend of increasing vehicle burglaries. I'd start off by putting the words "Vehicle Burglary" in the middle of the page. Then as I think about this, I know that there are proactive and reactive ways of dealing with a crime problem. I'll add branches to the main topic for Proactive and Reactive. Then I'll continue to branch off them until I cover all the bases.

Because a mind map is non-linear, I am not constrained to work in any particular direction. If an idea pops up, I can add it and move on capturing all my thoughts on this topic.

You can see a sample mind map I created for a solution to Vehicle Burglary here.

There are a number of ways to create mind maps. The first and likely one of the easiest is with a pen and paper. There are a number of advantages, its cheap for one. The other is that you can work with a lot less distractions.

Computer applications whether an application installed on your machine or one that is web based is the other way. You can generate some really complex diagrams that are neat and legible. Another advantage a computer generated mind map has is that it's easy to rearrange your diagram or to move whole sections around. You can also link to other computer based resources such as using Internet hyperlinks. The downside is cost (although there are some very good free and open source applications) and distractions.

Brainstorming while mind mapping should be more about getting all the information down quickly so you can understand it. Mind mapping like outlining is just a tool. If you find yourself spending more time playing with the tool than using the tool to create you might be missing the point. The website Vox recently had an interesting article titled Why you should take notes by hand — not on a laptop that gives credence to the idea that people learn and retain more when they take notes by hand rather than using a computer.

In addition to brainstorming, there are other things that people use mind maps for. The most common are note taking such as in a lecture or a meeting and task management.

The website WikiHow has a great tutorial on How To Make a Mind Map that will walk you though the basics.

So how do you brainstorm ideas? What do you find works best for you?

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