Il blog di PM.fam

Mind your project using a map

by Project Management Family (The Husband) on 2015-04-07

Hey, what's up project manager?

As a project manager you need intensive thinking before conclusion prevails, especially at the project startup and during planning processes. At this stage you explore things and concepts in order to get the "big picture" of the subject in question. Mind mapping could be a valuable tool because stimulates visual thinking by writing ideas in the form of pictures or other graphical representation.

What is exactly a mind map?

A mind map is a kind of highly visual “spider” diagram that captures information radially around a single topic or idea.

The british author and mental coach Tony Buzan uses the term “radiant thinking” to encapsulate the appeal of mind mapping. In a mind map you represent the main concept by a word, a short sentence or an evocative image at the center of the diagram. Then you build a breakdown structure, like a WBS, where major aspects of the concept emerge from the center as primary branches. Each branch, in turn, generates its own smaller branches that capture further aspects of the main concept, and so on, till to tiny leaves that capture the most detailed aspects of the concept.

Despite the hierarchical structure as the most common pattern, you don't have to build the map exactly like a tree. Mind maps can capture ideas and the relationships between them in more free-flowing ways than those showed by a Gantt chart.
Gantt charts do a great job in describing scenarios of sequenced tasks, but they are too limiting in leaving room for exploration. Many project managers find that mind maps could help them looking at a project in new ways, from an holistic standpoint. So a mind map can stimulate different ways to view at your project, can clarify connections for you and your team and, possibily, improve your ability to capture relationships among things.

Who first used a mind map?

We have been told of ancient mindmappers as Porphyry of Tyre but the most famous early adopter of brainstorming and mind mapping was Leonardo da Vinci. The italian genius used mind maps mostly for note taking and is considered as the historical person who popularized mind mapping the most.

We don’t live in Leonardo’s age anymore, and personally I consider Evernote as a great way of capturing my notes, make them searchable and carry them around with me in my cell phone all the time.
This works well simply for registering and/or tracking ideas. But when I'm reading a RFP to prepare a technical bid for a project proposal, I have to build the project storyboard in my mind, imagine how the project could be planned and performed, what the scope will be, how to structure and organize the team and what could be the risks. All those things are needed to try to estimate time and costs. All those thing can be conveniently represented by a mind map (or a set of linked mind maps).

The concepts behind mind mapping are evidently present in brainstorming, note taking, problem solving, memory, learning and visual thinking techniques used by psychologists, educators, engineers and all other knowledge workers.

Where mind maps can be used in a project?

To figure out in advance all the aspects of the project, I've been using mind maps as an indispensable companion tool for years.

  • Defining project goals, use the mind map to list objectives of during the project chartering phase.
  • Milestones: use the mind map to define project milestones and track the progress of the project work, attaching a tag with "percentage done" to tasks within your map.
  • Issues: use the mind map to create an issue log where issues can be related each other and/or linked to other project items: risks, questions you need to ask other people, requirements and any other related question.
  • Project notes: use the mind map to enrich with notes (both textual or visual) the branches of your project. The mind map could serve as a temporary repository until you are ready to look at those items in a more detailed and structured way.
  • Stakeholders informations: use the mind map to capture project stakeholders informations at the desired level of detail, as a starting point to perform an in-depth stakeholder analysis to further build the stakeholder register.
  • Risks: use the mind map to capture project risks informations as a starting point to perform an in-depth analysis to identify risks in a more detailed and structured way, build the risk register and apply the qualitative and quantitative analysis processes.
  • Links to project informations and resources: use the mind map to create links to web sites, documents, reports and other project-related resources to which your team members need fast and easy access. For the "modern-project- manager" having a Google account, who writes, saves and shares documents in the cloud, this could be a time-saving solution instead of searching through file directories, looking for a document or a web page (every document in the cloud has its own URL...)

Strategies for complex scenarios

  • Divide et impera: for complex projects or very large to-do lists, you may want to consider breaking your mind map up into several smaller, linked maps.
  • First dump, then organize: when creating the first version of the map do a "brain dump" without concerning with the information structure and hierarchy. You can organize items and give the map a structure later. The greater the detail initially captured, the higher the "value" of the map.
  • Prepare map templates to save time: if you plan to use mind maps frequently in your projects (and I think you should...) consider creating a "project map template" to serve as a starting point for each new project. Apply the "continuous improvement" principle, updating and enriching your template as projects goes by.

What free mind mapping software tools are available?

I'm planning to write an article in the near future about the cloud-based software tools for project managers, but I want to anticipate something related to that topic recommending two mind map tools among those I've recently used. They satisfy two main requirements:

  • They are free, or have a free version that can be used in a real project environment.
  • They are cloud-based, so you can build your mind maps in a collaboratively way, sharing them on the internet with your team.

Coggle and MindMup are free, simple to use mind mapping tools that are easy to get started with. Sign in with a Google account of your choice and you're off and away. From your Google Drive interface try to add a new file. Click the right button of your mouse, select New File and then Connnect more apps... from the contextual menu. Search "Coggle" and "MindMup" on the store and "connect" them to your Google Drive.

Coggle editor is very simple. You start with a main concept at the center of the screen and clicking the plus signs on either side you can add branches to your mind map. Click and hold to drag them around the canvas to design the map as you like. You can add links and images to your branches and when you have finished, you can download the map as a PDF or PNG file, share it with others who can just view or it or, if you allow it, edit the mind map. You have auto-saving and revision history. Coggle is completely and totally free.

MindMup was developed as a free alternative to commercial tools like XMind and MindMeister. It is more sophisticated than Coggle and in its latest version it can manage projects and budgets easily with measurements assigned to map nodes, providing Google Apps Marketplace integration. MindMup provides real time collaboration and cloud storage, with Google Drive, Dropbox, GitHub and their free anonymous storage.

I posted two examples, one from Coggle and one from MindMup, of a simple mind map representing the Agile Project Management main concept based on the PMI-ACP® exam corpus, and developing the "adaptive planning" branch until the prioritization strategies for sprint backlog (MoSCoW method). Both tools allow me to add an image to the maps.


You don't have to be Leonardo da Vinci to use mind maps. Consider them as a valuable tool to capture at a first glance all the informations, resources and concepts related to your project. Mind map could serve as a temporary archive for brainstorming results, prior to better structure your material into well known project deliverables as Gantt chart, issue log, risk register, stakeholder register and so on. Using tools like Coggle and Mind Mup you can build collaboratively a mind map with your project team and store it on your Dropbox or on your Google Drive.

So you can keep the informations about your project and relationships among them close at hand throughout project execution, to help you stay focused on its outcome.

The Husband, PMP®, PMI-ACP®

The Husband - PMP®, PMI-ACP®, ITIL® v.3 - è un manager curioso ed adattivo della più grande azienda italiana di Information Technology. Appassionato, tra le altre cose, di metodi, strumenti e tecniche manageriali, sia da un punto di vista tradizionale che "agile". Blogger, trainer, mentor e coach, è intervenuto come speaker in diversi meeting, conferenze e webinar sui temi del Project Management.