Is mind mapping software the ultimate project management tool?

Abstract

This paper is based on the authors experience with mind mapping as a personal management tool for the past 15 years and as an effective project management tool for the past four years. Change is part of life and business and is here to stay. While project management is considered an effective way to manage change, I believe that it is imperative that the tools and techniques for managing projects evolve as well.

The paper gives a conceptual overview of the use of mind mapping software as a tool to plan, monitor and control, single or multiple projects, from the conception trough to completion. Mind maps can give an overview of the big picture or “System” all on one page with the ability to expand to the smallest detail if need be.

Mind mapping as a highly productive and versatile project management tool for:

  • Brainstorming concepts, ideas, strategies and project objectives
  • Project planning that can retains the quality and integrity of conventional project planning and yet exhibits remarkable simplicity and flexibility.
  • Problem solving
  • Recording meeting and discussion notes
  • Produce action items with reminders and email notification
  • Risk Management
  • Stakeholder management
  • Monitoring and controlling

The simple and powerful combination of using Mind mapping, in conjunction with project management standards like A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) and productivity tools like Project Management Institute's (PMI®) Compendium of Project Management Practices (2003), offers a speedy development of the project plans and as a checklist to insure all necessary areas are covered. Mind mapping is also and excellent tool to deal with project related soft skills, portfolio/program management, enterprise solutions and internet meetings right from within mind mapping software and has the ability to expand its capability with Add-on 3rd party software.

Introduction

Change is part of life and business and is here to stay. Project management is considered an effective way to manage change and it is imperative that project management is evolving as well. Some of the PM tools were developed in the early days of modern project management or taken over from classical management and are still used today. Many of these tools have been developed further to offer greater versatility and to incorporate additional functionality e.g. scheduling packages offering project costing, resource management, portfolio management, communication and more.

Project Management is about managing the process. It is difficult to get a good overview when using a number of different tools to plan, monitor and control project. Information stored in different places is hard to manage and cumbersome to use. It can be difficult to see the bigger picture or systemic view of a project when using different tools and storing information in different places.

Mind mapping is a powerful tool that offers great flexibility, creativeness and enables the PM to gather, manage, share and communicate information with stakeholders quickly and easily. It is an ideal place to store, action, monitor and control all information i.e. strategic goals, project objectives, plans, scope, schedules, milestones, costs, risk analysis, quality requirements, meeting minutes, reports and more.

Considering that project success is to a large degree dependant on soft skill like leadership, communication, team building, stakeholder management and HR, not many tools are flexible enough to facilitate innovative thinking for teams, communication with stakeholders, resource management and provide leadership.

Mind mapping software allows links and/or importing/exporting to other programmes like MS Office products and MS Project. Third party add-on software further expands the mind mapping functionality and links to other programmes. Some mind mapping programmes offer viewers, eliminating the need to purchase extra software for stakeholders that only need to view the information.

Mind Mapping Software as a Project Management Tool.

Mind mapping background

Mind mapping was a concept developed by Tony Buzan out of frustration with the traditional way of taking notes. What originally developed as a way of note taking to improve the memory retention and to make note reviews easier, has now developed into an universal tool not just for educational use, but also for business. Traditionally, mind maps were created on paper but with the recent developments of mind mapping software, mind mapping has increased in popularity and extended its use into the business arena. The use of mind mapping for project management started as a tool for planning, note taking and a tool for creating new ideas. As the application and versatility of mind mapping improved so did the uptake in business and project management. The development of add-on 3rd party programs further extended the applications of mind maps and its acceptance as a highly productive and versatile business tool.

Practical application of mind Maps

An article by Frey (2004) described mind mapping software as “a powerful tool for managing your projects, your goals and even your to do lists”(¶1), he goes on to say that mind maps “enable you to gather, manage and share a large variety of information and resources quickly – making them an ideal tool for managing projects”. Makar (2006) summarised, “Mind-mapping tools and techniques go beyond the limitations of rudimentary Microsoft Project plans and Excel issues lists, allowing project leaders to visually define project scope, identify potential risks, assign tasks, and captures meeting minutes”(¶1).

Mind maps can be used right from the concept and strategy development, through to the closing of a project. Any information or function that can not be performed within the mind map can be linked to the appropriate files or program for easy access at the click of a button. One of the key advantages of mind maps is that you can get more of a systemic view or a view of the big picture rather than the fragmented view presented by single dimension software programs. Recent developments in project management talk about the need to manage chaos or to bring agility to the management of software project, all hinting at the fact that a more flexible and responsive approach may be beneficial to some projects.

Mind mapping offers a multidimensional, highly productive, flexible and versatile solution to project management. It can be used for:

  • Brainstorming concepts, ideas, strategies and project objectives
  • Project planning that can retains the quality and integrity of conventional project planning and yet exhibits remarkable simplicity and flexibility.
  • Problem solving
  • Recording meeting and discussion notes
  • Produce action items with reminders and email notification
  • Risk Management
  • Stakeholder management
  • Monitoring and controlling

Exhibit 1 shows a high level outline of a project plan based on the PMBOK® Guide (2004). The planning process may be enhanced and simplified by the use of linked template from PMI's Compendium of Project Management Practices (2003).

High level project plan example

Exhibit 1. High level project plan example.

Project Scope – WBS – Gantt chart

Because mind maps have a high degree of flexibility you can use brainstorming and other “creative” techniques to develop the project scope. The tasks are simply placed on the map and then sorted into the right order at different times during the scope development. Once the tasks have been sorted into a WBS format you can start adding dates, duration and resources to the individual tasks. If you prefer you can export the WBS directly into MS Project and add time and resource related information in MS Project. Exhibit 2 shows a simple work breakdown structure created with mind mapping software.

Scope Development Example

Exhibit 2. Scope Development Example

Project Scheduling

Schedules are easily developed in a mind map by doing a brain dump of all the tasks and arrange them later or you can use the WBS (Exhibit 2) to develop your schedule. For small project you may choose to manage your schedule directly from within the mind map or use add on software to produce a dynamically linked Gantt chart. Alternatively you can export the schedule to programs like MS Project and retain a link on the “Dashboard” for access from your mind map.

Project Budget

By opening a spreadsheet in the mind map or linking to an existing or new spreadsheet in Excel, you can gain access to all the financial information you need. You can display the key information i.e. ROI, earned value and other relevant financial information on your dashboard, giving you instant access to the key financial information

Risk

Because mind mapping is ideal for brainstorming risk and other related topics, mind maps are ideal for generating list of risks. This information can be directly entered into an excel spreadsheet for analysis (see example in exhibit 3) or to a 3rd party software for decision analysis. This information should remain on the “Dashboard” as a frequent reminder and easy way to regularly update projects risks. A timely remainder can be attached to the task to insure regular reviews and updates to the risk analysis and response plan.

Communications

Mind mapping is a visual tool and is ideal for note taking, brainstorming, meeting minutes, to-do lists and links to all other relevant information. Because of that and the ability to directly link with emails in MS Outlook, it is an excellent tool for managing and presenting information. Many programs have free viewing software, allowing all stakeholders to have access to the project information.

Quality and other planning document

It is easy to maintain links to relevant quality standards, policies and management plans from within mind maps. Again, regular reminders can be set for reviews, audits and the reports can be linked to the mind map as well. Any action that needs to be taken can be listed in the action list with timely reminders.

All the other project plans and document can be linked and made accessible in the same way as all the other documents in this paper. Links, reminders and most important access by the team and the other stakeholders to all the information.

Monitoring and controlling

The one area where I think mind mapping software excels is monitoring and controlling projects. Mind Maps have the ability to display high level key information in the form of a “Dashboard” or in any other form to suit individuals. (Exhibit 3) Behind the dashboard is the ability to access any number of layers or levels of information, down to the most detailed level. Links to other software programs, relevant databases, internet, contact details and communications, are all accessible at the click of a button. Because mind maps have the ability to display the information at the level of individuals needs, it suitable for all levels of management and team members. However, it is not just a display of information, it is a very effective action tool for managing all the project needs.

Avalon's High Level Monitor & Control Dashboard Example

Exhibit 1. Avalon's High Level Monitor & Control Dashboard Example

Lessons learned

Lessons learned should be recorded in the mind map as they happen. They maybe recorded in a “note” attached to the “Lessons Learned” (A) task as shown in Exhibit 3, or as separate individual lessons learned like the “To Do List” shown in Exhibit 3. A third option is to have a link that will open the appropriate file or document. Lessons learned are a key deliverable in the project closing process.

Managing soft skills with Mind mapping

Communication is one of the key elements of successful project management. Some mind mapping software enables you to have presentations or interactive meeting over the internet, an excellent way of meeting with teams or other stakeholders that may be based in different locations. Mind mapping software is also more conducive to provide personal touch and a form of leadership not possible with conventional software. Individuals can be empowered to participate in the project process and are more likely to take ownership of the outcome.

Expand capability with Add-on 3rd party software

There are a number of 3rd part software packages that can be added to mind mapping software extending or adding functionality to the programs. Some of the 3rd party added features are:

  • Evaluation and ranking of brainstorming ideas to make faster, better decisions by using a “weighted scoring” system allowing comparisons. A record of how decisions are made is created.
  • Creating dynamically linked Gantt charts with resources and project costs from within mind maps.
  • Adds Prince2 methodology.
  • Automatically generate Dashboards of incomplete activities and supports action and activity reviews.
  • Manage and plan tasks, organise information, write reports and monitors task progress.
  • Add formulas to tasks to perform mathematical calculations.
Portfolio/Program Management

Conceptually, managing a program or a portfolio of project with mind mapping software is similar to managing multiple projects in programmes like MS Project. You either have individual files for each project or you have a number of projects in one file. However, with mind mapping software you have all the benefits listed in this paper for managing a single project i.e. the dashboards, links to all the other programs, creative planning, communication, in short, a single project management tool.

Enterprise Solution

Most organisations use a number of different software programs and methods to manage their day to day business. However, they do not normally have effective tools to share key information and knowledge among teams, management and general employees in a productive way. Also they do not normally have a way of harnessing and managing the creative potential and knowledge of the employees and stakeholders to get themselves ahead of their competitors or manage their projects smarter. Mind mapping software can provide a single platform for capturing, organising and sharing information across the organisation and remote team members. All documents related to a project can be stored or linked to a single project map without the need to maintain isolated documents. Mind maps can manage:

  • Thoughts, suggestions, ideas, comments, meeting minutes, discussion notes etc.
  • To-do lists, tasks, dates, resources, reminders, milestones etc.
  • Attach or add links to documents in other office applications i.e. Microsoft Office applications, or add hyperlinks to relevant websites and web based business applications.

Concluding comments

Mind mapping software offer considerable benefits as a single tool to plan, monitor and control single or multiple projects, from the conception trough to completion. Mind Mapping is an excellent tool for, brainstorming, planning, problem solving, meeting notes, action plans, risk management and communication. It is important to recognise the benefits of a single source of information for the team and stakeholders, the ability of customising and the almost limitless scalability that mind mapping tools offer. Mind mapping bridges the gap between enterprise information, business processes and team collaboration. Add-on 3rd party software offers additional benefits and added functionality.

Is Mind Mapping software the ultimate Project Management tool? Not yet, but in my opinion mind mapping software it is well on the way to become a highly flexible project management tool and control centre. Mind mapping software is still not widely accepted by individuals and corporate as a management tool but with the obvious benefits offered, this will only be a matter of time.

Additional information and links to mind mapping information are available from www.mindtools.com and www.innovationtools.com

References

   Frey, C. (2004). How to use mind mapping software for project management. Retrieved February 20, 2006, from http://www.innovationtools.com/Article/ArticleDetails.asp?a=148

   Makar, A. (2006). A better project map. Retrived July 7, 2006, from http://www.projectsatwork.com/articles/articlsPrint.cfm?ID=229167

Project Management Institute, (2004). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (3rd ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Project Management Institute, (2003). PMI's Compendium of Project Management Practices (2003 ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

©2006, Walter Meister
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Hong Kong

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