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Home / Columns and Features / Brain takes circuitous route with mind-mapping software

Brain takes circuitous route with mind-mapping software

Do you have a business decision to make? Or need to bring together a group of people to consider an issue and buy in to an approach? Can you use help in organizing your to-do list or planning a project? If so, this column on mind-mapping software may be helpful for you.

Article or outline first?

My high school English teacher’s instruction to “begin with an outline, and then write your composition” was always an onerous task for me; after all, how did I know what I was going to write until I wrote it? So the mandatory outline was “reverse engineered” … and Mr. Naething knew it. A linear, hierarchical outline was just not compatible with my creative process.
Over the years, I have looked for, and also previously described in this column, many useful tools for improving writing and releasing creativity, from the classic ThinkTank organizer in the ’80s (the classic DOS version is still graciously available for download from its creator, at www.outliners.com/thinkTank2Pc), to Thoughtline (DOS) and WriteEZ (Windows) (www.projectkickstart.com/products/WriteEZ.cfm), to flow and process charters available today.
But another method of spurring on individual and group planning, outlining and decision making has started to make its presence known-at least in my (standards-setting, collaborative) circles. This method, known as mind mapping, and the related tools promise to work the way you think, rather than making you change the way you think to work with them.

Mind mapping vs. outlining

I recently needed to break a logjam in a group that had met numerous times and yet seemed to be stuck on lack of agreement of what the group’s project was and its scope. Traditional outlines, narrative descriptions and even round-robin discussions had proved unfruitful. What broke that logjam was a mind map.
Mind maps are graphical, visualization tools to help individuals or groups think through a central issue, consider related topics and drill down to additional details necessary to cover the topic at hand. Mind maps are thinking tools that, supposedly, more accurately reflect “on paper” what is going on in the brain.
Mind mapping can be used for discovering and organizing tasks (e.g., “to do” lists), outlining a topic for discussion (e.g., making sure all of the topics necessary for a presentation or publication have been investigated), problem solving, decision making or many other organizational needs.
Compared with a traditional hierarchical outline, mind maps at first seem unorganized and informal. The gurus of mind mapping call for lots of color, organic development, graphics, pictures and uses of a vegetation metaphor in a grand fashion.
Mind maps are not read from left to right and top to bottom, like a traditional (English language) outline. They are, instead, presented in a radiant fashion-in a circle around a core concept-and use graphical images with brief bits of text in place of large blocks of text, representing topics, with similar images for sub and sub-sub topics.
Mind maps are organic and free-flowing, not fixed. Unlike an outline, you can show “web” oriented information, where concepts somewhere along one flow of ideas are connected to related concepts on other branches.
Unlike a traditional outline, mind maps let you visually separate and highlight issues. They remove the limits of linear expression (order or priority) inherent to an outline while still permitting the expression of priority through graphical means. They leverage images, words and lines (or some other mean of connection, such as arrows, illustration of tree branches or vines, or other graphical images representing connections) to promote free thinking.
You can put on one page an incredible amount of information-although you may not be able to see it if it gets too small. It really lets you get “on one page” as you are getting “on the same page.”

Mind-mapping software

Mind-mapping software can help produce and publish the ideas and interrelationships between those thoughts and a central topic to aid in thinking through an issue and communicating those thoughts to others. Some facilitators may prefer starting off on paper (for their personal thinking) or using a white board or flip chart (for group discussions) for their initial mind-mapping activities. In those cases, software can be used after-the-fact to produce more legible and attractive diagrams and provide an electronic and modifiable format for further collaboration.
With a little time and experience, a leader can use mind-mapping software in real time for facilitating a group’s process. However, lack of experience with software shouldn’t get in the way of the creative process, and this should be done with care and caution. Using software initially, rather than pen or marker, allows the easy reformatting of the work and movement of the thoughts and groupings of thoughts as necessary.
Some software limits you to developing the graphical hierarchy by starting from the main topic and refining; others also let you collect thoughts quickly and later organize and associate the thoughts.
Introducing mind-mapping software should not get in the way of the process, or make the software itself the focus of the discussion; it should lend instead to promoting the topic at hand. Likewise, the output of a mind-mapping exercise, which makes sense to those going through the process, is not necessarily intuitive to a casual later reader.

Software choices

There is quite a variety of software and services available to help with mind mapping. For users with familiarity of and access to Microsoft Visio, Visio’s “brainstorming” diagrams provide the basics needed to develop hierarchically or through collection and assignment of ideas. This lets you seamlessly interface mind maps with other Visio files.
More dedicated tools vary from very simple to very sophisticated, cost-free to expensive, and desktop or Web-based. With more of my colleagues moving to the Macintosh, I wanted to investigate solutions that would allow me to share diagrams between Windows-based computers and Macs.
One solution is to go online. For example, if you want to brainstorm for free using online tools, there is bubbl.us (www.bubbl.us), which lets you create and share mind maps online. All you need is a browser.
However, as I am often in areas with no available Internet access, I also wanted to test more traditional solutions. I selected and worked with the Windows and Macintosh versions of Mindjet LLC’s MindManager. For Windows, I tested MindManager Pro 7; for the Mac, MindManager 7 Mac. At time of publication, Mindjet has just released MindManager 8 (Windows), with new collaboration and Web-based tools, as well as database integration. A Mac version will follow later.
Both versions very intuitively let you perform all of the basic functions you would look for. The Windows version offered additional functionality for collaboration, review, publication and viewing processes, including exporting the diagrams and associated outlines into Office and other formats. A non-technical colleague of mine volunteered to sit down and do some decision making and found the software not only easy to use but immediately productive. Another business colleague, head of a large not-for-profit, has been using the software for over eight years, noting, “I use it for everything!”
Moving between the software on the two platforms wasn’t as easy as I might like. The Windows version has adopted the Office 2007 “ribbon” approach to the menus, which I am generally not fond of. The Mac version “hid” some functionality more easily found in the Windows version, in what are called “Inspector” (the key to formatting in the Mac version) and “Library” toolboxes. Perhaps if I started on the Mac and later moved to the PC version, I might have appreciated the Mac’s user interface better.
Mind mapping lets groups organically brainstorm, organize and work together. Mind-mapping software may be a key tool for you and your organization to work through tasks, projects and challenges.
Eric E. Cohen, CPA, of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, is spending his time reinventing how accounting information is shared, with XBRL.org.

11/28/2008 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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