Recently I’ve been working on a couple of projects with teams who have embraced ‘mind-mapping’ software. There’s a lot of hype about this concept, and about this software, but basically the software is a simple mechanism for documenting thoughts and information graphically as they are generated. Or, as Wikipedia puts it, “a radial diagram that represents semantic connections between learned material”. It’s not significantly different from ‘outlining‘, except that, for some reason, the graphical layouts of mind maps are more comprehensible, easier to grasp and follow, and aesthetically superior to the linear, multi-layered indentation of outliners.
A good scribe with this software and an overhead projector can capture a group’s consensus, clarify areas of disagreement and misunderstanding, and document the collective intelligence and ideation of a collaborative group. I’ve seen it work wondrously on several recent occasions focused on completely different classes of problems. The scribe needs to constantly clarify, reiterate, and question the group, and needs to learn to listen for what is not said as carefully as what is said. In addition to building and documenting consensus, this tool is useful for some other things:
What intrigues me about this list of applications is that some of them are left-brain, deductive processes while others are right-brain, inductive, creative processes. I’ve often used pencil and paper to sketch out cause-and-effect (systems thinking) and process diagrams (which are more linear), but recently I’ve started playing with mind maps as a personal ‘thinking out loud’ tool, to organize my thoughts and think creatively all by myself. I’ve always learned best by writing, synthesizing and distilling books and other voluminous materials down to their essence: the message, the meaning, and the necessary actions. So perhaps this ‘learning by writing down’ style is the reason I find mind maps useful.
I always found developing sequences of PowerPoint slides with bullets on them, which is mind mapping in a rudimentary way, useful for organizing my thoughts for presentations. Now I’ve learned that they’re boring for the audience, so I use them to organize my thoughts but then transform them into a story, and show only graphics on my slides. With mind maps, I can dispense with PowerPoint entirely.
What’s interesting is that stories have a completely different structure to them than analytical discourse, so it’s a major reconstruction effort to build the critical points back into the story. Sometimes you find that some of the points you planned on making are extraneous, or just don’t fit, in the story. Sometimes, I confess, you’re tempted to exaggerate the truth to make the story better (resist this temptation!) And sometimes you find that you’ve changed your mind about what you were going to tell the audience entirely. And you always learn something yourself just from the process of preparing to teach others.
Using the mind map approach has had a similar impact on some of my written work. Perhaps the graphic layout stimulates the right brain and gets you thinking about how ideas and information relate to other ideas and information, pulls you out of your linear thinking habits. I even wonder whether in some way the mind map mimics the way the neurons in the brain are organized, the way they make connections across space.
The existing mind mapping tools (MindManager and Inspiration are both excellent, but expensive, while OpenSource FreeMind, which I used for the mind map above, is less robust and a bit counterintuitive but perfectly serviceable, and it’s free) — all use a tree-structure or ‘fish-bone’ approach to organizing thoughts and information. That’s a severe limitation. Take the lower half of the mind map above, for example. The first eight of the ten Making Your Own Way critical life skills are all applied to some extent to developing the ninth and tenth skills on this part of the map. The first eight and the last two skills would better be represented as an 8 x 2 matrix, which the mind map can’t properly depict.
Other thinking and deciding representations, besides matrix relationships, that mind maps don’t handle well:
Despite these drawbacks, I would commend mind mapping, and the software tools described above, to anyone who hasn’t used them. There’s something about a quickly-produced yet elegant, legible, organized and flexible ‘picture’ of your thoughts that just seems to evoke more, faster, from both sides of the brain. In a business and social culture that is increasingly oral, and aspires to become more collaborative, the current explosion in use of mind mapping is likely to continue, and the ability to use these tools will probably become a skill you can add to your rÈsumÈ. I’d love to hear others’ successes and war stories in using mind mapping both for business and personal purposes.
For the thinking and deciding applications that mind maps don’t lend themselves to, I’m still using low-tech solutions: Tables for matrices, 2 x 2 charts and compare-and-contrast analyses, and graphics software to create legible versions of my hand-made systems thinking charts and flowcharts. I’m on the lookout for robust, OpenSource applications for systems thinking and flowcharting. In the meantime, there’s only one tool versatile enough to handle all these graphic representations of semantic information and relationships: The lowly pencil and paper.
See what I’m thinking?
The mind-map above is a first cut at a radically new educational curriculum. I’ll be writing about it soon, but in the meantime, teachers are welcome to jump in with their thoughts.
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