A mind map on mind maps

A mind map on mind maps

A number of years ago I was the chair of the IFPUG Conference Committee.  Finding a keynote speaker that had the gravitas to fill seats and that would challenge the audience(on a budget) was a difficult chore. I had been pursuing Ed Yourdon for a few years, however he was too expensive. In 2002 my annual begging and the weak conference market convinced Ed to give IFPUG a break so we could afford him. A few weeks before the conference Ed announced that he would not be providing a set of PowerPoint slides, but rather would be using something called a mind map. I think I considered calling in sick to the conference I was so worried by the approach.  In retrospect Ed’s use of mind mapping represented one of those life-changing moments.

Mind mapping is a technique for mapping information using color, pictures, symbols and most importantly a branching structure emanating from a central concept. The technique and term mind mapping were popularized by Tony Buzan in 1974. Mind mapping includes and leverages ideas and techniques from other problem-solving techniques and concepts, such as radiant thinking and general semantics.

Mind mapping lets you organize your thoughts in a non-linear manner that allows you to see the whole picture at once and the relationships between the components of the map. According to Buzan, outlining, one of the most popular technique for gathering and organizing information, forces users into a top-to-bottom, left-to-right view of the data. Outlining by its nature can impart a deterministic view of the topic being studied (a form of cognitive bias). The popular psychology promoted by Buzan suggests that mind mapping by using words, color, pictures and symbols engages more parts of the mind. In Learning Styles and Teams we discussed the Seven Learning Styles model. Each style absorbs and processes information differently, but while everyone has a predominant style of learning they also are influenced by other styles. The use multiple techniques to gather, organize and convey information engages multiple learning styles therefore we would expect mind mapping to be useful to a broad range of learners.

Mind maps have a few drawbacks. I have observed that some people are (or are trained to be) very linear thinkers. The non-linear approach of a mind map does not work well for linear thinkers.  Note these types of thinkers will also generally have trouble with techniques like affinity diagramming. If you are linear thinker, feel free to experiment with mind mapping but remember that you always have the classic outlining techniques to fall back upon. A second drawback is that since when you draw a mind map the map is a reflection of how you think. In many cases this means the resulting map will be difficult for others to interpret. If a group is going to use the mind map to plan work (one use for a mind map), I strongly suggest building the map as a group effort.

The branching, tree-like structure of a mind map presents a central concept at the center of the map with major topics radiating from that topic. The map continues to branch out to the level of granularity that is important to the person drawing the map. A mind map allows the user to organize and visualize information so it can be consumed both at a big picture level and then drill down to a granular level in a manner that exposes relationships and engages the senses.