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Rico Clusters: An Alternative to Mind Mapping

Rico Clusters: An Alternative to Mind Mapping
Rico Cluster

    I’m not a big fan of mind mapping, though I concede that it does have its uses. Recently, I learned of a different approach to brainstorming that seems both more practical and better grounded in the way the mind works than traditional, Buzan-style mind mapping. This approach, called the Rico Cluster after its developer, Dr. Gabrielle Rico, focuses on the creation of a “web” of related and interconnected ideas, rather than radiating out from a central concept, and is intended to leverage the brain’s normal processes of communication between the right and left hemispheres. The idea is to work towards a kind of “critical mass”, where the language- and process-oriented left brain takes over from the visual- and pattern-oriented left.

    What is a Rico Cluster?

    Rico clustering is a brainstorming tool that emphasizes the connection between left-brain openness and connection-making and right-brain verbalization and ordering. Although it is intended primarily as a writing tool, it can also be applied to teaching — and Rico herself has written about its use as a therapeutic tool, as well.
    Here’s the basic idea:

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    1. Write a word in the middle of a sheet of paper.
    2. Circle it.
    3. Write down the first word or phrase that comes to mind and circle it.
    4. Draw a line connecting the second circle to the first.
    5. Repeat. As you write and circle new words and phrases, draw lines back to the last word, the central word, or other words that seem connected. Don’t worry about how they’re connected — the goal is to let your right-brain do its thing, which is to see patterns; later, the left-brain will take over and put the nature of those relationships into words.
    6. When you’ve filled the page, or just feel like you’ve done enough (a sign of what Rico calls a “felt-shift”), go back through what you’ve written down. Cross out words and phrases that seem irrelevant, and begin to impose some order by numbering individual bubbles or clusters. Here is where your right-brain is working in tandem with your left-brain, producing what is essentially an outline. At this point, you can either transfer your numbered clusters to a proper outline or simply begin writing in the order you’ve numbered the clusters.

    By the time you’ve started reviewing your clusters, your brain has done much of the work of fleshing out your ideas; all that remains is to put these relationships into words, which is what your left-brain excels at.

    The Rico cluster grabbed my attention because I’ve lately been thinking a lot about how to brainstorm alone and this seems to fit the bill. I suppose “regular” mind mapping would do the trick, but I was pretty put off by the extravagant claims made by mind-mapping advocate Tony Buzan; clustering seems much more down-to-earth and homey than Buzan’s elaborate, multi-colored, goal-oriented mind maps. Maybe that’s just me, and I’ve bought into mind mapping under a different name; so be it.

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    Rico Clusters as a Teaching Tool

    While my interest is in clustering as a brainstorming-for-one tool, it is easily adapted to a group situation, where ideas are thrown out and jotted quickly on a whiteboard. What’s missing, though, is the patterning — someone needs to draw the lines that form the clusters.

    A teacher or facilitator could do this, using the role of pattern-maker to subtly guide the discussion, but another option would be to have a student or, in a business setting, one of the brainstormers, take on this role, perhaps rotating and having a series of people draw in connecting lines. When the ideas start drying up (or the board is full) begin the process of sorting out and numbering ideas, with input from the group.

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    There is some evidence that brainstorming as a group is actually less effective than several people brainstorming individually and just combining their results, so I’m not sure I advocate this as an idea-generating tool. Instead, I see it as a way of helping a class draw lessons from a body of work — a book or play, a movie, a trip, or an experience. In a business setting, this might be a way to draw lessons out of a strategic failure, or develop new ways of applying existing processes.

    Clustering as a Therapeutic Tool

    Rico’s book Pain and Possibility: Writing Your Way through Personal Crisis suggests another use for clustering: using them to draw out unconscious sources of pain in the context of recovery and healing. While this is exactly the kind of extravagant claim I generally reject, it might be useful for other people so it at least deserves consideration. A feeling or source of pain is listed as the “seed” and ideas free-associated off of that. The process is akin to automatic writing, where the mind starts calling forth language and concepts without conscious filtering; hopefully we surprise ourselves with connections we hadn’t been aware of, or conflicts that we had carefully concealed from our conscious awareness.

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    Like I said, this isn’t the kind of thing I think generally works, but for some people this kind of emotional work proves very uplifting, so who am I to judge? For myself, I think I’ll stick with trying clustering to deal with the more mundane problem of generating and capturing writing ideas. If nothing else, it’s at least worth a try, especially if you’re the kind of person for whom traditional outlining is a real chore.

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    Last Updated on April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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