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  • Writer's pictureMichael McClanahan

Neural Planning

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

The only joy in the world is to begin.

Cesare Pavese

One of the challenges for an entrepreneur to figure out is where to start when putting together an outline for a future business strategy. One way this can be done is using a informal, but rigorous brainstorming session. Brainstorming usually has very few rules and the participants jot down their ideas to help drive the desired outcome. Upon completion, most brainstorming sessions will attempt to gather all the information and then bring together the different thoughts in a prioritized, linear fashion.

The intent is to establish order of the information and prioritize the elements into a meaningful and well thought out business startup plan. The problem with using a standard brainstorming session to develop the initial thoughts for the business plan is not linear and therefore will not show everything that is necessary to be successful. As a result, many business execution plans are left with gaps, lack the ability to identify and call out the interdependent tasks and functions, and do not provide any visual clarity on delivering the plan. There is, however, a secret method that can be employed in brainstorming to make it more successful. The secret to create a more meaningful and fulfilling brainstorming session is the use of a neural map.

A neural business map is a methodology that organizes the thoughts around a central idea to map the relationships, understand the dependencies, and identify the connectivity elements have with one another in a given system. Some may be familiar with a mind map. A mind map is very similar, but the primary difference is that a mind map anchors on the central idea, whereas a neural map analyzes relationships and more holistically. The neural map analyzes and assess the situation as a system. In this case, a neural map will represent a holistic and visual model of the business plan. A neural map can be developed by any size team, including a team of one! The objective of the neural map is to leverage not only thought, but depicting visual concepts into context and deliver holistic meaning to the business planning systemically.

A typical neural map consists of three critical elements:

  • Central tenet or item of focus

  • Critical nodes that are dependent to the central item of focus

  • Scatter arrays or sub-nodes that are more dependent on a critical node or a series of critical nodes

The central tenet, in this case, represents the definition of the business plan. This represents the idea to develop and clarify and decide what needs to be done to complete the plan. This should be looked at from a concise point of view and clear focus. It is the core premise behind the proposed existence of the business and the supporting motivations behind the business itself.

The critical nodes are those elements that support the business plan and include those elements necessary to complete the business plan. For example, the financial plan and competitive analysis could be added as critical nodes. It is important to understand that these elements are critical nodes and not elements of a node or the scatter arrays associated with the critical node. For example, a critical node could be represented as competitive analysis, but the actual strengths and weaknesses of the competitors are not, they would represent the scatter array.

Scatter arrays provide information and broad content on the success of nourishing the critical nodes into viable and sustaining elements that complete and have ties into the central tenet. They also are branches that may show connectivity and represent an interdependent relationship or multiple relationships across critical nodes. Examples of these may include demographics and/or consumption patterns on a critical node to support market analysis.

In order to maximize return on investment within the brainstorming session, the entrepreneur should consider who will act the role of facilitator if a team is involved. The facilitator will keep the conversations flowing and avoid the team from going down rat holes and other unproductive activities. The goal of the facilitator should engage and allow each team member the opportunity to present ideas and champion the cause for the team and not just a select few that monopolize the conversation. There are three common ways for the facilitator to create or “illustrate” a neural map:

Method 1 – Free Flow

In this method nodes and arrays are added as the team brings them to the table. This allows maximum flexibility to adding the appropriate areas of information, but they need to be attached properly so there is no confusion against the node v. the array. This is typically done very early in the brainstorming process and very late in the process, but not very useful when the team is trying to articulate more detailed thinking.

Method 2 – Node by Node

This begins with the central tenet and then focuses on identification of one node and then add as many arrays to the node for the specific branch. The idea is to concentrate on a particular node and build out all of the salient tasks and points to be considered for it. The next step is to build the next node and then come up with and develop an array and continue this process until all of the known nodes have been identified and have arrays associated with them. All dependencies and relationships should also be captured as each node is being developed. For example, a competitive market advantage may also be tied to the both competitive analysis and marketing strategy. Remember to take into close consideration if the array has a one way or two-way relationship.

Method 3 – Layer Method

Start with identification of all the nodes. Then shift to the array layers for each node and sub-arrays. The idea is to layer each level of material one at a time. For example, if you are working on the node layer you do not discuss arrays that are tied to the specific node. The team solely focuses on other nodes that need to be layered on layer by layer.

Planning for neural maps can be done in person or virtually. If the team can assemble ideally a projector and using a software freeware tool such as or even PowerPoint can be used effectively by the team. Obviously, a white board can be used if a team is co-located in a room, but using PowerPoint or software tools prevents having to re-write or capture what the group has created. Any virtual teleconference can leverage the tool and be shared across the team members if it is completed remotely. Be sure to look for a tool that also allows and enables sharing to allow work to be done simultaneously. Try and avoid the use of paper or environments that may limit growth and creativity. The goal is to allow the team to flow and provide input unimpeded for the most lucid and visual outcome.

The process of facilitating a brainstorming session with a neural map visually depicts the relationships and dependencies on how one variable may or may not influence other variables in the process. Furthermore, it can also show diverse insights of others and how they may see an entirely different set of interdependent and independent factors that make up the overall network to understand holistically other critical factors that may have potentially been overlooked.

It is important to point out that the process will determine and self-prioritize the nodes in terms of significance. This is a very significant benefit of the neural map. It eliminates the preconceived notions of the order of things and through doing the necessary due diligence in completing the map it begins to showcase where and how the priorities exist in the business plan.

The overall benefit that is derived from the use of neural maps is to allow the designer and entrepreneur a systemic relationship picture of all the supporting requirements to complete and how each of them influence what has been defined as the critical success factors to complete the overall business plan in the most effective manner. It also allows them to concentrate on what needs to be done and understand the cause and effect of doing things in a specific order. Start one today and see how it all takes shape.

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