Several years ago, when my son was 7 or 8, and I was working full-time from our home, he came home from school one day, waved to me through the French doors to my office, grabbed a snack and headed outside. An hour later, after I had finished my call, I went outside to check on him. There, on the driveway, as long as it was wide, he had drawn a mind map of himself. His name was contained within a large bubble at the very center, and surrounding it like flies in a spider web were all the ‘categories’ of ways he identified himself – baseball, candy, school, friends, cartoons – and radiating from there, specific bubbles like Cal Ripken, Orioles, Nestle Crunch Bars, Math, Luke G. and SpongeBob. I was speechless. I had never shown him a mind map before, and never, to my knowledge, had we even discussed such an idea. But there, in front of me, was a beautiful, organic map of his mind.
That day had a powerful impact on me for many reasons – personal ones, clearly, but also for professional reasons. It reminded me, quite viscerally, of how effective a mind map can be to illustrate the interconnectedness of things. This can be very important in group settings, where opinions differ and where unspoken gaps may be overlooked.
It has been quite a while since I have had the opportunity to facilitate a mind mapping exercise for a group, and even within the UX communities to which I am connected, mind mapping seems to be taking a backseat to other kinds of brainstorming and alignment exercises. But mind mapping works – and there are lots of reasons to bring it back to its full glory:
Mind Maps are Visual: Because they are literally visual maps of an individual or group thinking exercise, it documents ideas in a way that a meeting transcript or summary notes cannot. It illustrates areas where participants feel connections between concepts or themes, visually documents concepts that are fully developed as well as concepts that are less mature, and identifies gaps in collective thinking and agreement. The end result is an asset that can be referenced over and over again.
Mind Maps are Natural: A mind map allows a group to solve a problem or elevate a series of ideas by thinking about it holistically – rather than as a series of linear steps toward a goal. This approach is much more organic – and closer to the way our brains work naturally – which is why even a child – or especially a child – can create one that builds upon itself and makes sense as a whole.
Mind Maps Push the Envelope: Asking teams to think in this way can be uncomfortable. This approach forces users out of their comfort zones and back to a time when there were fewer constraints on their creativity. Often, solutions reveal themselves in mind mapping that may otherwise have been hidden behind standard procedures and habitual routines. This format also gives participants the freedom to offer up wild ideas, share new vernacular and build a common reference point for future creative and problem-solving efforts with one another.
Mind Maps allow for Relationship Building: It is rare for an idea or a concept to be self-contained, with no connection to other ideas, problems, concepts or systems. Mind maps allow teams to identify areas of commonality between the problem at hand and other parts of the system, organization or business. Mind maps can, for example, illustrate how fully identifying a customer need in one geographic location opens opportunities to tap resources in other parts of the business or geography. In addition to identifying the obvious benefits of cost control, growth opportunity and potential revenue impact, mind maps give teams tools for solving problems collectively – and can lay a firm foundation of trust and respect within team relationships.
Trying – or returning to — mind mapping as a problem solving exercise may not have been top of the menu for some time – but I vote strongly for its return to reinvigorate teams for better collaboration – and greater project success.