Mind mapping as a WBS development tool


Karen A. Brown, Ph.D., PMP, Professor, University of Washington, Bothell
Nancy Lea Hyer, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Vanderbilt University

The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate the value of mind mapping as a work breakdown structure (WBS) development tool. A mind map presents information in a visually stimulating manner and draws on the latent creativity of project team members. As a consequence, it allows a team to generate more ideas and instills involvement.

The WBS Phase in Project Planning

Many books and training programs on project management seem to skip rather lightly over the WBS phase of the planning process, moving directly to scheduling. We contend that the WBS should receive considerably more attention. Anyone reading this article has probably experienced a situation in which team members proclaimed mid-project “Oh my Gosh! We didn't even think about that!”—acknowledging that their hastily assembled WBS was incomplete in some very important way. These late-breaking discoveries often lead to budget and schedule revisions that can completely change project's scope and completion date.

We encourage readers to more carefully consider the WBS phase in project definition. Our tool of choice for WBS development is a mind map. Over the past 15 years, we have trained hundreds of managers to use mind maps for this purpose. Although some people find that it does not fit their mental orientations, the majority of people have told us that it is the single most important project management tool that they have learned to use.

Exhibit 1. Alternative Courses of Action

Alternative Courses of Action

Mind Mapping

In 1974, Tony Buzan was the first to coin the term mind map, but since then many other advocates have emerged to support the method (e.g., Margulies, 1991; Gelb, 1998). Buzan originally envisioned mind mapping as a tool to stimulate individual creativity, encouraging readers to follow his titular advice to “Use Both Sides of Your Brain.” He, and many of the writers who followed him, express dissatisfaction with the emphasis that our educational systems and business environments place on left brain functions such as linearity, sequence, and analysis (e.g., Kao, 1996; Wonder & Donovan, 1984). They encourage us to make use of our creative, holistic, and integrative capabilities.

Exhibit 2. 10 K Macro-Level WBS Mind Map

10 K Macro-Level WBS Mind Map

Mind Maps for Project Definition

Mind maps have great applicability in project planning. Left-brain or linear thinking may be important for scheduling, resource allocation, and monitoring project progress. However, the early stages of a project require more creative or right-brain thinking.

Why is creativity necessary in the early stages of project planning? First, there may be more than one way to achieve project goals. For example, a company might initiate a project to improve delivery of spare parts to its customers. One possibility would be to build additional distribution centers, but there might be other, lower cost and more effective choices. A team that does not think creatively in the early stages may close itself off from more attractive options. During a mind mapping session, a group can brainstorm about ideas for meeting project objectives.

An example of a mind map for generating alternative courses of action is shown in Exhibit 1. Imagine that a company has decided to engage in community service activity. This example shows a mind map for a brainstorming session about charity events to support homeless shelters. In this case, the company's executive team is dedicated to supporting the community, in general, and some of these leaders have a special interest in home-lessness issues. Of course, they also recognize that a well-publicized fund-raiser will create positive goodwill with its customer base.

Most people are familiar with outlining—a mind map is organized in a similar hierarchy, but is displayed more graphically and includes images. It is more structured than traditional brain-storming, but allows for freewheeling creativity.

Although mind maps can look odd to people when they are first introduced, their patterns mirror the way the human brain records and stores information (Buzan, 1983). We have found that the people who are most uncomfortable with mind maps are those who have the strongest left-brain orientations. (If you are interested in testing your own orientation, Wonder and Donovan (1984) present a quick and fun test in their book entitled Whole Brain Thinking.) However, even left-brainers seem to come around to understanding the value of mind maps once they have used them a few times.

Mind Maps for the Work Breakdown Structure

The second place where mind maps can be effective in project planning is at the WBS stage. Once a project team has discussed the pros and cons of various possible courses of action, and once they have selected the one that best meets their goals and constraints, they are ready to develop the chosen idea in more detail. The WBS is a hierarchical task list that contains this needed detail.

Let's imagine that our community fund-raising team has decided that the 10K fun run is the best choice. A mind-mapped WBS for the project might appear as the one shown in Exhibit 2. As the group generates the map, team members will essentially be asking and answering the question “What are all of the things we need to do to complete the fun run?” Team members then begin to brainstorm, keeping in mind the various categories of major deliverables, and appreciating connections among them.

If a WBS includes numerous deliverables, it may be appropriate to conduct the mind mapping activity in at least two stages. In the first stage, the team generates a map of all deliverables and identifies high-level tasks within each deliverable. Once the team feels satisfied that the deliverable set is complete, members may work together or in subgroups to develop sub-project mind maps. A more detailed mind map for the promotion component of the 10-K fun run is shown in Exhibit 3.

Key project team members should develop the WBS. They have an important stake in the project, and are likely to be the source of excellent ideas for its execution. We have found that the ideal group size for this activity is between four and seven people. (Other tips for mind mapping appear below.)

Exhibit 3. Detailed Mind Map for Promotion of 10K Fun Run

Detailed Mind Map for Promotion of 10K Fun Run

Next Steps—Refining the Map

Once the team has developed all of the needed WBS detail in one or several mind maps, one or two people should work separately to analyze, consolidate, and generally organize the ideas they contain. This is an analytical task that does not lend itself well to group interaction. The product of this analysis may be a “cleaned up” mind map that the organizer can present to the team for review and approval. Those who do the clean up may prepare the revised WBS on another large piece of butcher paper. (For those who wish to use software, we recommend a mind mapping package called Inspiration, available through a company of the same name, located in Portland, Oregon.) The second round of group discussion about the WBS will allow for clarification and reinforce team buy-in, but it is also likely to generate additional ideas to add to the map. Once the team feels confident that the mind map is complete (or reasonably so), the project manager or another team member may convert it to outline form.

At this point, some may ask, “If the mind map and the outline convey the same information, why should I use a mind map? There are several good reasons, highlighted below:

1. The mind mapping process brings out more ideas than an outlining exercise does. Because the mind map mirrors human thought processing, it taps into creative channels that might be blocked in an outlining mode. We have found that the use of images and color seem to foster more creativity. Mind mapping is also very fun, and people tend to be more creative when they are having a good time (Margulies, 1991).

2. Mind mapping engages the team and generates enthusiasm for the project. We have witnessed many examples of this phenomenon, but encourage readers to try it themselves.

3. Mind mapping brings out quieter types who may not have contributed much under other circumstances. In an outlining process, a more reserved team member may be reluctant to add an idea to a flip chart, especially if there appears to be no more space under a category heading. With a mind map, it is nearly always possible to add a branch to a parent node, even if it winds up some distance from that node.

4. Mind mapping is fast. When we introduce mind mapping to groups, we find that the speed of the process is often the most striking benefit that they discover. They are amazed at how little time it can take to generate a first pass at a WBS. For a project of moderate size, they can develop an initial framework and a relative amount of detail in just 20 to 30 minutes.

Mind Mapping Tips

Our experience with mind mapping has led us to discover a few universal principles that increase success:

1. Create the mind map on a large (at least 6 feet by 3 feet or 2 meters by 1 meter) piece of butcher-type paper. Two or three flip chart pages, side-by-side, will work also.

2. Orient the paper in a landscape mode and tape or tack it to a wall. When the paper is oriented vertically, people seem to revert to left-brain thinking and list-making. If the paper is on a table, rather than on the wall, people do not tend to participate equally—some people will probably have to view it upside down.

3. Use colored pens. Color acts as a stimulus to the right side of the brain.

4. It is OK for more than one person to have a pen.

5. Let people know that it is OK to be messy. Some groups want to create a small-scale draft on a standard piece of paper before going to the butcher paper on the wall—this defeats the creative purpose of the activity and does not encourage full-group involvement.

6. Encourage people to draw images corresponding to major deliverables or subcomponents. It has been our consistent experience that the imagery leads people to think of more ideas.

7. Try to use keywords rather than sentences. This is sufficient for group communication.

8. At the lowest or more detailed task level, make certain that the element includes a noun and a verb (e.g., build fence as opposed to “fence”). This improves the clarity of the task definition (Berg & Colenso, 1999).

Next Steps—After the Mind Map

Once the WBS has been completed, the project team will be ready for subsequent stages in the project planning process. Those relevant to the present discussion include risk analysis, responsibility assignment, task time estimates, and network scheduling. Details about all four of these are outside of the scope of this paper, but we have a few comments to make about their links with mind mapping.

Early in the planning project, a team should consider possible risks and build-in plans for avoiding them, mitigating their consequences, or responding to them. Once the team has gained a big picture perspective on the project through a mapping process, members can step back and ask, “Given the scope and content of our plan, what could go wrong?” Very often, the group decides to modify the mind map, adding or deleting elements from the WBS, based on this analysis.

Responsibility assignment—determining who does what— falls nicely out of the WBS mind mapping process: If you lead a mapping session, you will discover that individuals gravitate toward certain activities. The mind mapping session provides the project manager with an ideal environment for assessing interest and remarking, for example “Preston and Julianne—you both seem to have been very interested in safety issues for the 10K run. How would you like to work on that aspect of the project?” Chances are good that they will say “yes.”

Once task responsibilities have been established, the project manager can ask assignees to develop time estimates. Those who have been closely involved in mind mapping are likely to have been thinking actively about their interest areas. Consequently, they are probably good sources for preliminary time estimates.

The network schedule may be the next phase for a project team. Careful attention to precedence relationships among activities can make the difference between a tightly scheduled project and one that is poorly coordinated. It is helpful for a project team to see these relationships in graphical form and to discuss and challenge assumptions about activity dependencies. We recommend that team members select from the mind map all of the tasks at the level chosen for scheduling (note that some schedules are more detailed than others). Each task description (noun and verb) is transferred to a Post-it Note. One or two people initially organize the Post its into sequential relationships. (Because this is not a creative task, it does not lend itself well to large group participation.) Once a preliminary schedule has been developed, it can be introduced to the team for discussion. When they see the proposed sequential relationships, they often discover missing elements from the WBS. For example, someone might observe “Now that I see the promotional activities in sequence with those from refreshments, I realize that we could promote the project with local restaurants and get food and beverage donations from them.” Thus, it becomes necessary for team members to don creative hats again, and possibly return to the mind map. Project planning is an organic process, and although each step builds on those before it, the team must be ready to revise previously completed documents as new insights arise.


The early stages of project planning call for creativity and team involvement—mind mapping provides the stimulus for both. Our experience in teaching mind mapping to hundreds of people has shown us that it can be a very useful tool, especially for developing work breakdown structures.


Anderson, J.V. 1993. Mind Mapping: A Tool for Creative Thinking, Business Horizons, January-February: 41–46.

Berg, C., & Colenso. 2000. K. Work breakdown structure practice standard project—WBS versus activities. PM Network, April: 69–71.

Buzan, T. 1983. Use Both Sides of Your Brain. New York: Dutton, (2nd Edition).

Gelb, M.J. 1998. How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. New York: Delacorte Press.

Kao, J. 1996. Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity. New York: Harper.

Margulies, N. 1991. Mapping Inner Space. Tucson: Zephyr.

Wonder, J., and Donovan, P. 1984. Whole-Brain Thinking. New York: Quill.

Wykoff, J. 1991. Mindmapping. New York: Berkeley.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville,Tenn.,USA



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