Monday, April 4, 2011

A few words about Mind Maps

Is it just me, or is there a lot of muddy and unconnected thinking going on? I'd like to advocate a technique that IMHO should be taught in all schools. I came across it way back (whichever year it was the Open University used K as the prefix for its intake and Use Your Head was on the telly.)

They are called Mind Maps and are a graphical way of organising your thoughts. And thoughts might be notes for a speech, outlines for a piece of writing or just getting some clarity about something that is complex or confusing. They are great for taking minutes of meetings because when you come back to them you can pick out the important bits from the other fluff and dross that you get from he-said-she-said minute style. For the more formal stuff they can be structured to form a RAID* log.

The big idea is that thoughts are organised as a number of linked one-liners. Breaking down problems to manageable chunks is one of five* key problem solving skills. The map should use colours, fancy text decoration, pictures, highlights. This brings out the key points (pros in green, cons in red for instance) and allows you to get a bit artistic.

It works because our creative thinking isn't organised into straight line lists. Ideas pop into our heads sponaneously and unexpectedly. The Mind Map allows these apparently random ideas to be recorded, organised, linked and expanded on.

Sounds great. But there are some disadvantages. They are quite difficult to share. I have written a complete spec for a document management system as a map but when I shared it with the customers it became clear that they would much prefer a linear document of 10 pages with all the noise words to a one side of A4 containing the same information.

There is also intentionally no temporal dimension. This is a bad and a good thing. Sometimes things must come in a given order. The good news is you can use numbering schemes, colours or text size to impose an order.

There is no right way to create a Mind Map but here are a few starters to get you going. A map always starts with a central topic which should be in the centre of your piece of paper. It's a good idea to start in landscape mode as maps tend to 'expand widthways.' From the main topic you can start mapping out the high level ideas. Sometimes you will feel that an idea may need to be a 'hub' with it's own spokes. If it does make sure it is less prominent than the main topic. Keep coming back to the main topic and working down the branches of the ideas and let new idea form themselves. Add them to the map. Repeat until done.

I think the best maps are done on paper but attending a meeting with my pencil case of crayons got some very funny looks. And maps created electronically are easier to rearrange and update. There are a few good bits of free software out there that allow the basic notetaking. My current favourite is FreeMind:
There are some omissions the most notable is the ability to do freehand drawings on the map. On the plus side it has a great html export facility which can create javascript webpages as bullet lists to allow branches to be expanded and collapsed.

There's a big list here:
Here are some books that I find useful. A good start is Use Your Head which accompanied the BBC TV program in the 80's. There are some second hand ones for as little as 1p + p&p. It covers lots of other stuff too, like remembering lists and how important revision is.

Use Your Head on Amazon
Mind Maps for Kids
The Mind Map Book on Amazon

So next time you need to organise your thoughts either for yourself or to communicate with others you could give it a try. When I have converted enough people I might be able to get some fun out of writing my specification and proposal documents ;)

BTW the map in the diagram above my first 15 minutes of thoughts for a workshop I am doing with a some local authorities who want a 'Portal'* but have no idea what it is. Personally I dislike the use of the word Portal but I suppose it has the benefit of being a bit shorter than transactional website....

Big hat-tip to Tony Buzan.

*I might get round to writing these up one day.

No comments:

Post a Comment