Mind-Mapping Your Way to Better Microsoft Project Plans

vintage-1418613_1280“Mind-mapping” (or, as it is also known, “concept mapping”) is a proven method and technology for organizing your thinking, no matter what you’re thinking about. Students now learn this technique in school so that term papers and research reports are better thought out and organized for their professors. Writers use this technique to better prepare and organize articles for their editors (just as I have done with this article — no thanks needed, Madam Editor). And project managers can also benefit from this easy-to-do technique when designing project plans and schedules. Here’s why…

Creating a Mind-mapped WBS is a Great Way to Collaborate

Mind maps are easier to jigger in real time than in a Microsoft Project schedule or Excel spreadsheet, and much easier to share within a group of collaborators who are watching on-screen as you jointly break down the work. So, when first designing your project, you can present your mind-map in the form of a work breakdown structure and quickly adjust for changes suggested by your team.

Some Mind-mapping Tools Have a One-click Export to Project

I use MindJet’s MindManager for all my mind-mapping exercises, especially when I’m first designing a new project and when breaking down the work there. I can re-arrange an idea I have for a project using drag-and-drop and, with a minimum of clicks, map out a WBS in no time flat. When I’m done, it’s just a one-click export to Project, and then I am well on my way to creating a well-laid out schedule. The export from MindManager is also a two-way street. You can bring back a Project into MindManager for better reorganization — even after you have started building your schedule!

There are several other mind-mappers that export to Project, and a review of the most common software packages can be found at mindmapping.com.

You’re New to Project and Don’t Like (or Know How) to Manipulate Rows of Tasks

During all the Project workshops that I facilitate, I train participants who are new to Project in this method. I find that this technique helps newbies learn Project faster, as they’re not distracted by the mechanics of the software when designing their first schedule. Instead, they can focus on the organization of the project without the distraction of a thousand or more click options staring them in the face.

Then, once they have a shell of a plan going, newbies can turn their attention to the actual mechanics of Project using live data that’s meaningful to them.

You Want to Design a Project Plan using a Visual Design Tool

Even for old-timey Project planners, using a visual tool to design projects can be a most welcome change from starting a Project plan from scratch — or from a canned template that needs lots of editing before you can even begin.

This extra step for the experienced project manager may seem redundant, but science says this process is more effective. In other words, it’s always better to combine your thinking with something visual and keep that activity separate from, say, the analytical task of entering data into a Project plan.

How to Begin with Mind-Mapping

To begin building a plan using a mind-mapping tool, you can start with this simple process:

Step 1. Name your project as the central topic of the mind map.

All mind mapping tools work just about the same; you start with a central topic and develop a hierarchy of sub-topics. In the case of project work, the central topic is simply the name of the project, while the sub-topics are tasks or phases found in your typical plan.

Step 2. Break down your work into topic and subtopic branches in the map’s “tree.”

During project work, mind-map topics are treated as tasks, with the largest set of tasks organized in the order in which they’d be implemented. For example, you might have a project defined by phases titled, “Planning,” “Delivery” and “Post-Delivery”:

Mind Mapping Example

These high-level project phases are no more than three topics attached to the mind map’s central topic. To break down the phases further, subtopics are added to each phase, with each representing another task or group of tasks:

Mind Mapping Example

Mind-mapping tools all include selective disclosure “twisties” just like Project does, so you can selectively work on parts of your work breakdown structure without being distracted by all the rest. Using this method, you can break down your project work into as small or large bits as you need to and display what you want depending on the context.

Step 3. Hold a collaborative meet-up with partners, stakeholders and worker bees.

Now the beauty of this approach becomes apparent. Instead of reviewing a printed Gantt chart or live Project with your collaborators, you can review a WBS in mind-map format, which is much easier to change on the fly. Folks not familiar with Gantts or the Project interface will easily understand your map, making for a much more productive review meeting.

During this meet-up, you can confirm the overall design of the plan and begin to collect other needed bits of data, such as estimated costs, proposed resources, approximate durations and all the rest — remembering that the better the design is up front, the more efficient the execution will be later (or, as I like to say, “Goodness in, goodness out”).

Step 4. Prepare your reviewed WBS for export to Project.

During the collaborative meeting, you don’t want to define dependencies and constraints between tasks and subtasks (Finish-Start, Start-Finish, Start-Start, Finish-Finish, and actual dates). But after the meeting you do, and it’s best to do all of that inside of Project itself. However, it’s possible to define all of the above inside of MindManager, but I can’t recommend that step (see my list of gotchas below). What I do recommend is that you annotate your map before export to Project using the “notes” feature, as those are cleanly exported to Project notes.

Other features that can be exported without fear of data corruption are priority designations, resource listings and marking tasks as milestones.

Step 5. Export your WBS into Project and then tailor to suit.

Once exported, your mind-map (now WBS) can be further developed in Project, using all the wonderful functions found there. For example, you should now add all the “linking” and constraints that you need to make your project work in real life:

Sample Mind Map

As I mentioned, the MindManager export is really a two-way street — one that uses an installed Project add-in that allows you to export your project plan back and forth between Mind Manager and Project as needed. However, once your plan has become functional within Project (and perhaps is even in play), I don’t recommend going back and forth so much, as there are a few stray problems that could surface during the export process.

List of Gotchas and Bugaboos in MindJet’s MindManager V15

While I primarily use MindManager as my design tool to front-end Project, I suspect that other mind-mapping tools also have some difficulties when exporting to Project, just as MindManager occasionally does. That’s why I have seared the following implementation tips into my brain:

  • Let Project handle all dates. In other words, I don’t enter dates into a MindManager-created WBS — none at all. I do all the scheduling in Project.
  • When going back to MindManager from Project, a new central topic is always created, thus creating one extra level in the map that’s not really needed. I’ve reported this to Mindjet, and this may be fixed in some future release (they are very good at updating their software based on user input).
  • Dependency linking is possible in MindManager, but I find it much easier to do that task within Project. In fact, there are so many project management-related features in MindManager (with more coming in each new release of the software), that I have found many PMs forgoing Project all together! For example, in the latest version of MindManager (version 17), you can create readable Gantt charts and timelines, as well as calculate costs based on the resources added. But again, I prefer to let Project do all this heavy lifting, and I only use MindManager to visually lay out the plan. After all, I do love Project!
  • Other features of MindManager — such as adding images, icons and calculations — may not translate into any terms that Project can understand. So again, I just use MindManager as a layout tool during the beginning stages of my project planning.

While MindManager comes in a Mac version as well as a Windows version, only the Windows version can export to Project. If you’re a Mac user however, you may find my article on using Project (and Windows in general) on your Apple computer useful.

Closing Notes and Recap

As you can see, using a mind map to front-end your next project plan may be a more efficient and effective way to prepare the initial work breakdown for your next project — and giving it a try is easy enough to do. Just download the 30-day trial and follow the steps listed above to begin mind-mapping your way to better Projects.

If you have already used a mind-mapping tool for other tasks, such as writing a report or preparing a term paper, then you should have no trouble at all when visually designing your next Project plan. If you do run into a problem, then just hit the comments section below.

Have experiences with mind-mapping — good or bad or in between? Share below.

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Written by Jigs Gaton

Jigs Gaton is CEO of Phoenix Consulting and Training Worldwide, a company that helps developers design and implement better programs and build capacity with training and other resources. Jigs has over 30-plus years of experience in both the private and public sectors working as a project manager and PM consultant. He’s currently based in Kathmandu, helping organizations with post-earthquake reconstruction and other disaster-relief efforts.

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  1. Well written article Jigs. I do agree that the use of Mind Mapping tools for the front end work is a good, easy, flexible, and visual way to get the project going. This is more useful for new (aka, not been done before) projects. If its close to a past project, start with that information. One caution I’d offer is the reference to WBS. A WBS contains deliverable…no tasks. Tasks are in the schedule. The Mind Map work can contain both, and all can be ported to Project, but make sure deliverable stand out from tasks. And, if you want a true WBS, flag deliverables in the Mind Map tool so they can be accurately displayed as a true WBS, not a project schedule.

  2. Mind Map to Integrated Master Schedule to Detail Level Schedule

    I have been using Mind Manager from Mindjet since it was started. During this time I created an algorithm starting with the mind map to created fully integrated schedules. I have used it to create DoD projects for space, ground, and radar systems. It can be used for systems, system of system, or subsystems.

    Now that you have recognized the power of mind mapping it is time to take the next step. Starting with the Mind Map, It is not only possible, but it is practical to use an algorithm to create a fully integrated network schedule framework at the Summary Level Planning Package level. The framework is vertically and horizontally integrated, with only one task without a predecessor and one task without a successor. It includes the design, fabrication, and assembly of products for the manufacturing and aerospace industries. The framework meets government, DoD, EVMS requirements for an Summary Level Planning Package level schedule. It can be expanded by substituting control account sets down to their lowest level of detail for the Summary Level Planning Package tasks. It can be expanded to include lower level subcontractors schedules all vertically linked to the master schedule.

    When the Master Schedule is created by the algorithm it is vertically integrated to the IMP events. Additional IMP Events can be added and linked to the underlying schedule at any level quickly and easily.

    Large schedules can be created in a very short period of time.

    It works with MS Project, P6, and others. The purpose is that if a master schedule is built in P6 and the subcontractor is using MS Project, the vertical integration still is available.

    And it is very fast to create the framework that everyone can understand and trace back to the Mind Map since it was created from the mind map. When you build the mind map and insert images of the parts or assemblies into the Mind Map, it creates a very rich map that everyone can understand.

    Images in the mind map are not a problem, because I use only the WBS numbers to generate the Product Map. No tasks or milestones are used at this stage. Then I create a standardized process sequence that includes all of the Summary Level Planning Package level process tasks and milestones. The algorithm is then used to generate the schedule framework by combining the Product Map with the Process map, creating the integrated master schedule.

    The resultant schedule can be built so quickly and inexpensively, that several versions can be created from different mind maps.

    During the proposal phase of a project as soon as the Mind Map has been created the schedule framework can be created. The resultant Summary Level Planning Package schedule can be used to find the critical path and run schedule risk assessments within days instead of weeks.

    The resultant schedule framework is consistent, repeatable, and reusable. When expanded using the DoD and EVMS rules, the final detailed schedule will also meet EVMS requirements.

    For more information contact David Black. David@structnet.com

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