mapping your mind-city: or, why you should think sideways

September 17, 2009


No, this post isn’t about playing with your staples all day. It’s about vision.

I can bet you that your organisation’s CEO loves vision. Every organisation either thinks they they’ve got it, or wants it bad. There are whole schools of thought about how to arrive at your vision, how to figure out what it is, how to act like you mean it. I have literally written the book on this stuff.

So if you look at this picture, what do you see? You see a city, created by the artist Peter Root. He made it out of a box of staples (okay, quite a big box) and a mirror.

We have words for this kind of thinking. In fact, we have buzzwords: creativity. Vision. Lateral thinking. We use them, but I think we often forget what they really mean.

Creativity: ‘use of the imagination or original ideas’.

Vision: ‘a vivid mental image, especially an ambitious one, of the future’.

Lateral thinking: ‘using an indirect and creative approach to generate ideas or solutions that may not be obtainable using step-by-step logic’.

Reminder: ‘lateral’ means ‘sideways’.

We have techniques for arriving at some of the good stuff that comes from these words. Mind maps are a perennial favourite; I’m almost sure that if you’re reading this you’ll have spent some portion of your life drawing a big circle with words in it, and lines coming out of it attached to littler circles with other words in. But even mind-mapping is just one tool. (I think we also love the word ‘mapping’, used as a verb; it really sounds good, doesn’t it.) It’s a tool for seeing connections and similarities between things.

There are lots of other techniques, and one thing I notice is that on some level they all resemble mind-mapping. The main difference is in the shapes of the diagrams. They’re all about looking at things from different angles, or breaking them down into parts, or making a fun-looking list. They’re all good, because anything that gets us thinking afresh is good.

One kind of list that mind-mapping resembles is the good old outlines my 4th grade teacher, Mrs Grover, taught us to make. (Warning: this is very old-fashioned. My kids haven’t even been taught this.) Basically, she made us write an outline before we wrote an essay or research paper. We had to list all the points we wanted to include, and then arrange them in headings, sub-headings, sub-sub-headings, and so forth. She’d come around the room rapping on people’s desks with a ruler and scrutinising their subject headings. (She also used to pick up naughty boys by the ear. I’m not advocating that.)

Whenever anyone asks me the most useful thing I learned at school, I always forget for just a minute about long division, French, and how to make a Thanksgiving turkey by tracing around my outstretched fingers on a brown paper bag. I always say: OUTLINE FORM.

But even with all the buzz, there is one thing we’re still a little bit afraid of – even in those mind-mapping ‘creativity’ meetings. It’s something this picture captures for me. It’s something that lies behind those words – behind even the word ‘buzzword’ – but we ignore it. It’s play.

Yes, play. We forget that all work starts, in childhood, as play. Play is literally how children learn about the world. They experiment. They apply one set of rules to another activity. They watch the same video till they know it by heart, and they copy the bits they like. They’re not afraid. The best play is very serious; in fact, as a child I hated the word play, because I usually considered what I was doing to be very serious. Children get a lot done this way.

This leads me to a third technique that is very effective for creativity, lateral solutions, identifying the USP and envisioning the vision. It’s an old technique, and I think it might be the best one. By using it you can open up your mind and allow all your knowledge to be applied to the project you’re working on. It’s called ‘looking’.

Yep. I like to look at things. Just look, watch, observe. You see a lot this way. What is it? What does it look like? Is it big and heavy? Little and light? Little and heavy? What does it do? Float, sink, stack really tall, hold your staples? Reflect your staples? Who likes it? What are they like? What would it be like if you made it do this instead? Does it go sideways?

The other thing I like about Peter Root’s city is that it makes me smile.

Image, by permission:

Staples and mirror

Low-Rise is a precarious assemblage of thousands of free-standing stacks of staples densely tessellated to create a city-like mosaic. Like a city, the staples are subject to the elements, on a micro scale. The slightest breath or vibration and the domino effect kicks in.

Click here to see more of Peter Root’s work.


3 Responses to “mapping your mind-city: or, why you should think sideways”

  1. Editor said

    Mind Mapping is the most amazing tool and I have never ceased to be amazed by the people who do and those who dont use it. Mind Mapping releases so much potential in each and everyone of us. For example a Year 5 child that I know finds learning her 20 spellings each week really hard, her score usually around 10 – 12 out of 20. I converted the lists for the last four weeks into Mind Maps, we used strong images to associate with each word/spelling, we learnt the meanings not just how to spell the word and bingo week 1 19/20 week 2 20/20 and so far it has been 20/20! What a difference. The class teacher: never seen, heard or used a Mind Map. In the business world one group of a professional creative team found a new product they could produce by combining two existing products within a few minutes of using Mind Maps. The problem here is that people are not always prepared to try something new to them for fear of looking like a child. Well I say so what, being a big kid is fun and being a big and learning is even more fun so go for it!

    • msbaroque said

      Hi editor, hey thanks for that. I love that spelling story! I can;t believe the teacher got all the way through university and teacher training without ever seeing a mind map.

      So can you explain a little more about the spelling ones? What kind of things did you put in? I’m trying to visualise them…

  2. Tim Fulford said

    Hi thanks for the reply. Many teachers in the UK have never been exposed to Mind Mapping in any shape or form.
    Follow this link and you will see the kind of things used on the spelling Mind Maps:

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