Saturday, June 15, 2019

Using Mind Maps for Brainstorming and Idea Refinement

Mind Mapping is a very effective technique for getting teams to brainstorm and refine their ideas. I'd like to share where I learned the technique and how I use it today.

My Introduction to Mind Mapping

The year was 2005, and at the time I worked for Microsoft on the product team that was developing "Indigo", later to be known as Windows Communication Foundation. We were a large team of 400, and I'd been invited to attend a meeting called by Oliver Sharp, our General Manager who led the overall team.

What followed was a fascinating meeting where I observed how to get people to brainstorm and refine their ideas quickly and effectively. It's too long ago for me to remember the exact details (nor would it be appropriate for me to share them), but I'll recount the basic way it proceeded with some generalized content.

We were slated to release WCF later that year, and Oliver wanted a program defined to focus on fostering customer adoption of the new technology. At this meeting we needed to take the raw notion of a "Customer Adoption Program" and turn it into something tangible. I and several dozen others had been invited to this meeting.

Oliver shared his screen, which appeared to show a virtual whiteboard. At the center was "Customer Adoption Program". And then he simply asked everyone to chime in. He wanted to hear ideas about what that should include. As things were suggested, he rapidly incorporated them into what I learned was a Mind Map diagram. If someone suggested the need for samples, a spoke went out labeled Samples. If someone else mentioned the need to support migration, a Migration spoke went up. Most suggestions, unless there was group dissent, went on the board initially. Some remained, while others were later removed or combined with something else.

It wasn't just adding spokes. Some spokes, upon being identified, led to offshoot ideas. As ideas were articulated, he asked refinement questions: was this idea right or wrong? what would it entail? Were we considering alternatives? His skillful questioning forced us to think things through and round out our ideas.

As more things were suggested, it was necessary to revise the diagram. After Announcements and Blogging were on the board, we realized these were both types of Customer Communication; so the diagram changed. The Mind Mapping software he was using (MindJet MindManager, I think) made these kinds of reorganizations and moving of whole branches around quick and easy. This allowed the mind map to keep up with the pace of discussion without being onerous.

As more spokes were added, conceptual grouping continued. Convention Sessions and Code Camps were events, so they were incorporated into an Events category; and once the category was up there, other types of events came to mind such as training sessions at local field offices. Samples, documentation, and migration guidance became Resources. Whenever a concept had to be inserted or branches had to be moved around, the Mind Map software made this effortless. Ideas were being shouted out left and right and concepts were forming and being refined quickly. Some items were dropped. Some were combined. Some morphed into their own category with sub-items.

It really was a marvel to behold how seemingly random ideas were herded and coaxed into a cohesive plan, because a skillful leader let the ideas flow from his team while in command of a powerful tool for organizing thought. When it comes to planning and ideation, I've tried to operate in exactly the same way ever since. Thanks Oliver!

How I Use Mind Mapping Today

Mind mapping is powerful, but don't get the idea it's something I do every day or every week. Although I do sometimes use mind maps to organize my own thoughts ("What questions might I get at this upcoming meeting?"), mind mapping really shines in a group setting. It's a technique I regularly employ when I need to need to lead a team through product design or annual planning or making a decision.

A mind map is not the end product in itself but rather a means to an end. You should think of it a device for organizing your thoughts and developing them. For example, I might employ mind mapping in annual planning but my actual deliverable might be a document or spreadsheet, not a mind map.

If you consider how a creative meeting would go without mind maps, you'll have to capture ideas in a document or on a whiteboard. That's far more limiting when it comes to developing ideas, and tends to make people hesitate to share ideas if they're not fully confident about them. In a mind map exercise, people are encouraged to share ideas and put them up there even if they're only half-baked at first. As the group considers and refines these ideas, the right things will happen to them and the half-baked ideas will become fully-baked. I suppose one could use post-it notes for this kind of exercise, but given there are very affordable software tools for this purpose I recommend using them.

Mind Mapping Tools

Today, there are many more choices for mind map software. I recently joined a new organization with a new team, and I took a fresh look at available tools. If you Google "mind map software" these days, you'll find there are many to choose from in addition to originals like MindManager. There are two basic categories: mind map add-ons and templates for general diagramming products; and software specifically designed for mind maps and other conceptual diagrams.

The first category (adds-ons and templates) is tempting because you can leverage a tool you already know well, such as Visio, MS Office, Google Docs, LucidChart or However, I've found this approach is too burdensome when you're trying to keep up with a brainstorming session. There tend to be too many clicks needed to add items and connections; and very limited support for inserting nodes and moving around whole branches to another area of the diagram. For example, I've been a PowerPoint user for decades, but I wouldn't try to use it for a mind map session: it would just be too cumbersome to insert new concept nodes and move things around. You really need something that can capture what's happening at the speed of a creative exercise which might include pivoting all your groupings and connections after a moment of epiphany. You also want to avoid a tool that will distract you from being a participant yourself. Personally, I think you're far better off with something designed to facilitate this kind of dynamic activity.

The second category (software designed for conceptual diagramming) is the better option and also has many choices. You of course should take advantage of free trials to evaluate some of them and decide which features you value the most. You may care most about unlimited canvas size, while someone else may care most about what kind of files can be attached to a diagram. Cost and license models vary: some of these tools are one-time purchases; others are subscription-based or even free. Some require an Internet connection, others don't.

For myself, I ended up settling on Coggle this year. Coggle is nominally free, but if you want privacy of your diagrams you're well-advised to pay the $5/month (or $50/year) for a subscription; that's not much for what is turning out to be a very usable tool. For this low price, you can invite others in your organization to co-edit your diagrams without having to purchase any additional subscriptions.

Here's an example of a mind map in Coggle, one that shows how a spell check feature for a (fictional) web site might be analyzed to get consensus on the best design. Things I value about Coggle include it's attention to usability, it's support for collaborative co-editing of your diagram with others, and that it doesn't overwhelm you with too many choices.

Coggle: Mind Map to Get to Consensus on a Site Feature Design Decision

Here's another example in Coggle, a personal one. I was discussing vacation ideas with my teenage son this morning, and here's our initial mind map. This map will no doubt change considerably when I add my wife and daughters to the conversation. Since some destinations appeal on more than one category (Hawaii rates on both Scenic and Fun Activities, Las Vegas rates on both Food and Fun Activities), this might require me to cross-link some items to multiple categories, but that could get messy. Or perhaps graduate to a different visualization or use a spreadsheet, the mind map having done its job to identify important categories and potential candidates. It's best to use tools like this where they shine, and to not force fit them into applications they aren't right for.

Coggle: Where to Go on Vacation?

In conclusion, mind mapping is a technique and toolset you ought to become acquainted with if you're ever in the position of hosting a brainstorming discussion. Compared to taking notes or just using a whiteboard, mind mapping both invites more ideas and equips you to refine those winning ideas and find consensus. The resulting clarity will be eye-opening.

No comments: