Friday, January 20, 2012

Using Mind Maps: how and what for

Mind Maps are not considered a Project Management tool. But the fact is they can be very helpful when you need to explore possibilities as they give you a graphical view and arrange topics in a way that's very natural for us humans. If you've never used Mind Maps before or even if you don't know the first thing about them, please get ready for a nice surprise and read on.

The idea to write about Mind Maps came to me a couple of weeks ago when I was surprised to learn that a colleague of mine never used Mind Maps at all.In fact, she didn't know what a Mind Map was. I convinced her to start exploring some possibilities related to a web site using Mind Maps and along the way she was convinced to give it a try and share the information between us in that format. Sometime later she called me amazed with its potential and she was already using them for other stuff!

How to build a Mind Map
Mind Maps are all about exploring and detailing an idea. You start with that idea (or topic, product, service, process or whatever) and start detailing it with the sub-ideas (or sub-topic,...) that compose your initial one. And that's it. Check the Wikipedia if you don't believe me.
On this example on your right you have the main contents for a website. So you start with your focus, the contents for the website, and then you detail it: it should have contents about the company itself, its contacts and so on. Then you would detail each of these branches a bit further until you're satisfied with the level of detail. You'll immediately notice that some things are missing, that others should be in 2 places and so on. And this is the objective of this tool: to map your mind and force you to think straight, go back, delete some stuff, add other and complete what's missing.
Mind Maps are really nothing special. Really. It's just a way to put on paper what you're thinking about.

The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
It's very similar, isn't it? In fact, I usually start detailing the scope using Mind Maps and sometimes use them to represent the WBS. The difference between Mind Maps and a WBS is just the set of rules: Mind Maps don't have any rule other than starting it with just an idea while the WBS have some more rules. In practice, you can represent any WBS using a Mind Map but not the other way around. So the fist use you can make of Mind Maps is to represent your WBS - and better yet, to help you build it.

One other use I make of Mind Maps in Project Management are checklists. They have proven very useful in particular when building a new checklist. For the same reasons as the WBS, they help you explore, associate things and make them very visible. It's not a great idea to use the checklists in the form of a Mind Map though, because:
  • it's very simple to skip steps if you don't tick them
  • it doesn't feel quite right ticking the Mind Map balloons
  • the text in Mind Maps should be kind of short to keep them functional 

Other uses
I have used Mind Maps in other scenarios not connected to Project Management, including to study. They're quite useful when you need to trigger the things you know with just a word. But you can use them in any situation where it's required to explore possibilities, such as when you're trying to figure out the risks and opportunities that may come up within your project.

There are several tools available that allow you to build  Mind Maps, some of them free. I use 2: Free Mind (which is not only free but also Open Source) and Mindomo (that allows collaboration online between users). These are only the ones that I use, they're probably not the best in the market as I never digged deep into the subject. But it's a way to start if you don't know better.

This article covered  the hows and whys of Mind Maps use for Project Management. Basically you can use them in any situation where you need to explore things and when you want to present them in a more natural way other than lists. Mind Maps are a useful tool to have on your Project Management tool set. It's not a Project Management classic tool but hey, if it works for you and makes your life as a Project Manager easier why shouldn't you?

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Joel Bancroft-Connors said...

I've been using MindMaps in project management for close to six years. I use the one made by Mindjet, though there are some good free ones.

I ran an 18 mth project, that required coordinating 30 people across six global locations. The Mindmap was what we used in the WebEx sessions to track everything, and I mean everything.

I even use a Mindmap as my master resume or career management document. I wrote a blog on this a long while back with a sample of the map I used.

Between Mindmaps, Evernote, Onenote and Trello, I have everything I need tracked. And thanks to cloud syncing and multi device support, I have the data on any device I have.

The Juggler said...

Mind maps are used a lot in education nowadays and there are a few nice sites that you can create them on (even though I prefer a big whiteboard and lots of colours!)I find I use them most at the creative, brainstorming stage - it helps each team member feel like their ideas have been valued, even if we don't use all the ideas in the end. I've never really used mind maps later on in the management process, preferring the linear presentation of my project management software, but maybe after reading this I will give it a try.