I have recently discovered “mind mapping.” Mind mapping is not a new concept, but since I (re)learned it, I’ve found it to be an excellent tool for analyzing business problems and processes. I thought you might find it interesting too!
Here’s an example: The other day, I was thinking about all of the different elements within an organization that need to exist and interact to make business analytics a reality. I started to scribble a list on a sheet of paper: I created some high level categories around people, process, data and technology, and then brainstormed all the different things associated with those categories that I could think of. The more I scribbled away, the more things I began to think of and my scribbles became a mess of notes that didn’t really represent what I wanted to convey. What I really wanted to do was visually present my concept in a way that showed the interactions and dependencies between the functions. (I mean, you can’t really have a business architecture without a business strategy, and that is connected to your technical and data architecture, and if you have a data architecture, you need a database and a data model, etc.) A problem that I uncover in many of the organizations that I work with is that most companies have a poor handle on their business analytic processes. They often don’t understand the linkage or dependencies between concepts, tasks or functions. Being able to visualize the interconnectedness of the business analytic “system” helps you understand where you may have gaps or opportunities to improve efficiency. In my case, the deeper I began to think about business analytics, the more complex it became. I needed a good way to organize the relationships visually in a way that I could communicate and share with others (and record and remember all the little pieces of information I was likely to forget!).
Enter the mind map. A mind map is simply a conceptual model. Anyone familiar with data and systems architecture has used conceptual models to construct complex systems and the interactions of the actors of the system. But conceptual models are also excellent tools for thinking through, or brainstorming, practically any process. I even used the technique to take notes for a book I was reading on business strategy: I identified all of the subject areas of the book, the steps in which the strategy is developed, and the different things to remember to do when developing elements of the business strategy. Even better, I captured the essence of the book without taking exhaustive notes (which for me ended up being a mini-version of the book).
Why is the mind map all new again? Because we have all kinds of new tools at our fingertips that enable visualization. There are bunches of great apps for mind mapping on the iPad, and the iPad is all about being visual. Think about this – I gave a presentation recently at a JMP event on increasing “visual thinking.” The whole premise behind visual thinking is that you spend less time looking at cells of data and more time understanding your data through visual tools. There’s no reason why this just has to apply to data. Also, the smartphones, tablets and other devices that we use in our personal lives are really encouraging us to focus on capabilities and functionality, not tools and technologies. So I picked up my trusty iPad, went to the iTunes store and found an app called SimpleMind (free version is fine, you can upgrade to the full version through the app for a couple of dollars, or purchase the directly from iTunes). While my diagram in this posting is going to be too tiny to see, you can get a sense of how you can color code different areas, build a hierarchy between them and identify relationships between seemingly disparate concepts.
For those of you who don’t use an iPad, there are many free applications that you can download to your PC (FreeMind is a good example). All the applications I downloaded were simple and easy to use. The functionality and level of detail that you can capture is different, the visual aesthetics are also different (I like SimpleMind’s visual display, but you can’t capture a lot of detail; FreeMind lets you add lots of detail, but isn’t as pretty). And for the Android crowd, check out Thinking Space.
Back to my business analytic example – now I have a one-page diagram that I can walk people through that illustrates a complex system in a simple way. So throw away your lists and scribbled notes; let’s get creative and do some mind mapping!