mind mapping

Expert Talk on Mind Mapping for Project Management

“There’s only one interview technique that matters… Do your homework so you can listen to the answers and react to them and ask follow-ups. Do your homework, prepare” – Jim Lehrer

[otw_shortcode_dropcap label=”O” font=”Dancing Script” background_color_class=”otw-blue-background” size=”large” border=”border” border_color_class=”otw-silver-border” shadow=”shadow”][/otw_shortcode_dropcap]n May 30Th, I had the honor to give an interview on Mind Mapping for Project Management to Angel Berniz (Executive Director – ProjectManagers.org).
I’d like to share the interview content and the video recorded yesterday; enjoy it!
Here are the questions and answers:
Q: How is Mind Mapping relevant to Project Management? When should we use mind mapping in Project Management?
A: Let me say only two words about what is Mind Map because not all our followers are expected to know what’s mind mapping and what’s the origin of this technique. Let’s start saying that a mind map is a diagram, similar to the spider or concept ones and is used to outline information in a visual mode. While explaining what a mind map is, I’m sharing an example with you.
Spider Diagram Example

Spider Diagram Example

This is an example of spider diagram. As you can see, a mind map is created around a single word or text, placed in the centre, to which associated ideas, words and concepts are added. Major categories radiate from a central node, and smaller ones are sub-branches of larger branches.
Categories can represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items related to the central key word or idea.
Mind maps can be drawn by hand, either as “rough notes” during a lecture or a meeting for example, or as higher quality pictures when more time is available.
Here are two examples to give you an idea of what I’m saying.
Example of Mind Map drawn with a software on a risk analysis meeting

Example of Mind Map drawn with a software on a risk analysis meeting

This is an example of Mind Map drawn with a software on a risk analysis meeting.
Example of Mind Map drawn by hand

Example of Mind Map drawn by hand

This is an example of Mind Map drawn by hand.
I’ll explain how to get them later; as for now let me say that many people think that mind map was invented by Tony Buzan, a British popular psychology author and television personality, but he invented only the term; the technique was already known in the 3rd century as demonstrated by the finding of some examples of such graphical records made by Porphyry of Tyros who graphically visualized the concept categories of Aristotle.
Mind Map was known in the 1970s, when Tony Buzan presented it BBC TV series.
This is, of course, only an overview; you can find many details in a ton of books and articles concerning the subject.
Coming to your question, I stated that the mind map is used to outline information.
In our job as Project, Program or Portfolio Managers, we everyday deal with information and our time is spent statistically at 90% in communicating information to our stakeholders.
Now we know that, if we’d like to communicate in an effective way, we should use a graphical representation of the info to be shared instead of creating only a verbose document.
In this sense, we could use mind mapping for a series of different scopes, such as for example:

  • Taking notes in a meeting;
  • Summarize the content of a document;
  • Create or analyze the content for a Project Plan;
  • Goal setting;
  • Problem solving;
  • Brainstorming;
  • Decision-making.

Of course the above list isn’t exhaustive.
Let me say two words about taking notes in particular.
I’m sure that all of us take notes in a meeting as well as I’m sure that taking conventional ones has ever been seen as a boring and a problematic activity.
The first thing we do in these occasions is writing quickly in order to follow the natural way of speaking; doing this way, the lecture becomes an exercise in taking dictation, not making sense of what’s said.
Another counter indication is that, doing this exercise, we do write masses of notes, we make a mountain of paper to revise afterwards and we know how difficult would be finding an useful information afterwards.
Another problem that comes up is that if something becomes clear later, we aren’t often able to add that information in the right place.
Mind mapping could help us to avoid these kinds of troubles.
I found in a In Tony Buzan’s book a very peculiar analogy that can explain what I’m saying; I’ll read it in order to avoid any mistakes that could lead to a misunderstanding.

We’ve all experienced not being able to follow directions to a place. We can see clearly around us but we’re still lost. What we need is a map. Maps give us a picture of where to go – not “first left then third turning on the right”. They show and explain the surroundings or context where we find ourselves.
We can only follow written directions when we’re on the described route. We can use a map even when we’re starting from somewhere else. This is because it shows us the whole geography, the relationship between places, not just the “one route to one destination” which directions describe. Conventional notes are like written directions. Like other maps, mind maps give an overall picture and show connections.

And this is why we should use mind mapping.
Let me deepen another situation; the brainstorming sessions; our projects are full of this kind of meetings.
Let me say that mind mapping is a great way to brainstorm ideas structuring them into something that makes sense in a second moment.
To get the most out of brainstorming sessions we have to know that there are two phases:

  • divergent thinking;
  • convergent thinking.

The first phase, the divergent thinking, is coming up with the ideas and topics we want to cover. It’s when we are free flowing and we are not thinking about what is good, bad or semantically correct.
There are no relationships or connections between our thoughts in this phase.
This phase is about quantity over quality; we should get out as many thoughts as we can and we should capture them in a mind map.
The second phase, the convergent thinking, is the one where we start to organize our thoughts (got during the first phase) and structure them; this phase is about quality over quantity.
This is where we deal with the thoughts created previously, remove the thoughts that we think are not relevant and organize what is remaining to work towards our outcome.
Another great situation in which we could use mind mapping is the famous “decision making” session.
When it comes to making decisions, it’s always a good idea to have a list of options to pick from. We can easily do this with an Excel spreadsheet but also with mind maps.
The big advantage of mind maps is that we can make it visual.
Due to its visual nature, we can easily spot relationships between options and it’s easier to make connections among them in order to find out what the best decision is for us.
Plus, making decision trees is much more effective with mind maps.
I hope to have answered to your question, Angel.

Q: How do we start drawing our Mind Map?
A: All mind maps begin with a main concept or idea and the rest of the map will be based on it, so choosing that idea or topic is the first step.
We should begin by creating an image or writing a word that represents that first main idea.
From that main idea, we should create branches (as many as needed), each representing a single word that relates to the main topic.
It’s helpful to use different colours and images to tag the branches and sub-topics.
Then, we should create sub-branches arising from the main branches to further expand on ideas and concepts. These sub-branches will also contain words that deepen the topic of the branch it arises from.
This helps develop and expand the overall theme of the mind map.
Including images and sketches can also be helpful in brainstorming.
Mind maps can be created on paper, of course, but are more easily and fluidly created on a computer with a mind mapping software such as Mindjet Mind Manager or iMindMap that is the software I use.
I’d like to give a peculiar experience about this matter; I discovered that children are very good at creating mind maps; their fantasy is incredible. I was at an elementary school with a teacher who is a friend of mine; we tried to teach his children to organize their birthday party with a mind map. After a first introduction to explain the activities, they worked in a very effective way and finished their task in not more than an hour.
I have to say that their teacher, before starting the experiment, was pessimistic and after the excellent work made by his pupils, was enthusiastic.
Q: Emanuele Giorgi ‏says: “A very interesting topic. My question is: mind map vs CRT: visually similar but conceptually different. Use both? why? When?”
A: A fair question, Angel; I have to say that we have many tools at our disposal in many circumstances and this is one of this cases.
I have to say that the Current Reality Tree (the so-called CRT) is a focusing process that uses time-tested rules of logic to help leaders gain a powerful understanding about what really matters in any given situation. It treats multiple problems in a system, as symptoms arising from one or a few root causes.
The benefit of building a CRT is that it is much easier to identify the connections or dependencies between perceived symptoms (that are the effects) and root causes (that are the core problems) so that if core problems are identified and tackled well, multiple undesirable effects in the system will literally disappear.
We could use Mind Mapping as an alternative to the CRT process as it’s a diagramming tool that could help visualizing connections or dependencies between the effects and their root causes as well as the CRT does.
In order to get this result, we could follow the technique also used for problem solving.
It’s based on the 5W + 1H outline; we ask ourselves a list of questions that we need to answer; the questions are:

  • Who
  • What
  • Where
  • When
  • Why
  • How

As we expand each section, we will oftentimes see relationships between our answers and that is something we can pinpoint on our mind map. This will help us clarify the problem, which makes the solution more apparent as we go through all questions.
To get started, we should have our problem as our core idea in the mind map and have each branch represented by one of those questions. Let’s only try to answer each question in isolation when we start off and, as we go through all of them, we will oftentimes come to a solution.
So, to answer to Emanuele Giorgi’s question, I think that they are two alternative approaches to the same matter and it’s up to us to decide which one we are more comfortable with; personally I’d use mind mapping because I’m used to use it whenever I can.
Q: Is Mind Mapping an internal tool or can we share it with our customers?
A: It’s another fair question, Angel.
I think it’s a good challenge training our customers on this technique but with a little strategy we could get unexpected results.
Let’s start saying that Mind Mapping isn’t at all an internal tool but, in order to get a success sharing mind maps with our customers, we have to follow some little guidelines.
First: let’s number the topics.
On sending a map to someone, to whom we won’t have an opportunity to explain the implied order of its topics, it’s a good practice numbering them. This will help others understand how to “read” the map – in which order they should view its topics.
Second: let’s minimize topic text and use high-impact words.
Too much topic text tends to make mind maps difficult to read and causes our audience’s to glaze over – just like they do when they see a PowerPoint slide that contains a large number of words or bullet points. It’s information overload!
For best results, let’s use meaningful, concise words or sentences. Of course, this takes some extra work for us but it’s worthwhile.
Third: let’s contract our map’s topics before presenting it.
When presenting a mind map, we should have to make sure that the map is fully collapsed initially. If we open a branch, only one level should show at a time.
Let’s expose the contents of our map incrementally, through the expansion and contraction of the various sections. This gives us the ability to control how much information is on the screen at any given time, and reduces the possibility of information overload.
Forth: let’s minimize visual distractions in our maps.
When sharing or presenting a mind map, we should hide irrelevant elements, such as task info, images, markers, this kind of stuff.
This will make the map easier for our audience to assimilate.

If it’s not relevant to them, don’t show it.

If it could be useful, we could prepare two versions of our mind map: One that contains all of the background information and our thinking process – which we can use for our reference – and a simplified version that we may present to others.

Q: Emanuele Giorgi says: “I love mind maps, but have difficulties in introducing them in new teams. Have suggestions?”
A: Well Angel, it’s a very delicate issue and it’s strongly dependent from the people who you’re dealing with.
I could answer to this question giving some advice on how I usually act in these circumstances.
The first thing I usually do is preparing my audience for the journey. I usually tell them that they are going to see something that will be initially confusing to some of them but that, by the end of the exercise, it will make sense to them.
The second thing I usually do is illustrating the theory (in few words of course) and trying to draw a simple example with the team following the guidelines used in case of a problem solving analysis (the same illustrated before).
To simplify the matter we could use a whiteboard and some post-its; every person could use a post-it to answer the questions posed by the moderator, that is typically the meeting leader. After that, the moderator could try to draw a mind map using all info provided by the team.
The last advice I could provide is to believe in the technique, to believe in the results that we can get from mind mapping.
If we are unsure about the results, the team won’t follow our inspiration and the outcome won’t be effective.
I hope this advice will be useful.
Q: Emanuele Giorgi ‏asks: “Do you think that Mind Maps need to be updated as project docs and plans or think of them only as one shot thinking tools?”
A: It depends on the usage you made; if you used it to compile a project plan, you’ll have to consequently update it at every plan update; you may, for example, insert a note in your progress review meeting to make sure to update it if necessary.
On the contrary, if you used it to assess a problem and find a root cause, you may archive the map at the problem closure.
Q: Do you have any final advice about Mind Mapping in Project Management?
A: Many people think that they aren’t fit to use mind mapping because they aren’t able to draw; I assure you that it’s not necessary to be artists to draw a map; even a child can do it (not referencing project management stuff of course).
All you have to do is try, try and one more time try.
You haven’t to get my words for granted; begin with a simple map, for example the one that illustrates the reasons why you’d like to go to vacation or the reasons why you’d like to buy your next car.
Try to organize your next day-work using a mind map and explode the single subjects, this kind of stuff, and you’ll see how is simple and powerful this technique.
And never lose your heart if the first tries aren’t so satisfying.


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