MindManager Won't Think for You - But it Helps

25 Jun, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

Mind-mapping tool enhances collaboration for business planning, project brainstorming, design what-ifs and more

Can you read somebody's mind? Probably not -- that is, not unless the thinker happens to own a copy of MindManager from Mindjet and is putting it to good use. To borrow its makers' words, it "transforms brainstorming ideas, strategic thinking and business information into blueprints for action." So it becomes possible for others to scrutinize the thought process, the flow of ideas that might lead to an outline for a project, a concept for a product or a killer business plan. But you're not limited to reading others' ideas only. You can also preserve your own thoughts.

The earliest incarnation of MindManager dated back to 1994. Several recurring acronyms in the CAD press -- ERP (enterprise resource planning), PLM (product lifecycle management) and PDM (product data management) -- suggest there is no shortage of coverage on technologies that help engineers organize product data and improve processes during and after manufacturing. On the other hand, mind-mapping tools designed to capture the elusive output of cerebral activities are less well-known.

To better understand its relevance to engineering, we turn to Joel Orr, an analyst from Cyon Research, who's quite accustomed to people harvesting his mind for ideas on effective deployment of CAD technologies.

Mapping How We Think
To an overactive imagination, MindManager might suggest mind control, conjuring up all the sinister imageries from low-budget sci-fi films. Orr, a MindManager user himself, assured us the product is based on a legitimate discipline: "The whole area of mind mapping, or, as I prefer to call it, clustering, is something I've been looking at for about 20 years."

A sample mind map in MindManager shows the agenda, participants and outcome of a brainstorming session.

Orr described the manual process of mind mapping, which he gleaned from a book titled Writing the Natural Way (Gabriele Lusser Rico, Tarcher, April 2000), as follows: "A stripped-down version of mind mapping ... involves putting on a page the ideas you're trying to drag out of your subconscious. You put [the main idea] in the middle of the page in a circle, and then you put associated words or ideas in other circles as they come to you and connect them with arrows. And you keep going until you get a sense of completion."

The Digital Process
In the digital process, MindManager works in tight integration with Microsoft Office applications -- Words, PowerPoint, Excel, Project, Visio and Outlook -- to record the thought process. After installing MindManager Pro 6, the latest version, the MindManger icon becomes embedded in the Office applications' toolbars. Then users can select a chunk of text from Word or a series of columns from Excel and directly import it to a mind map.

The mind map development area is populated with familiar word-processing tools and intuitive diagramming tools. Whereas simple diagrams may contain only one main idea, supported by several subtopics, the more complex ideas may be architected with several layers of topics and subtopics, with internal links connecting each idea to the rest.

The software's chart building features are enhanced with options to insert images, icons, attachments, hyperlinks and email addresses. Finished and in-progress mind maps can be saved as project files. They can also be saved as PDF files, Word-compatible text documents or Excel data. The HTML export feature allows users to create a Web page based on a mind map, complete with an index page, a table-of-contents page and a legend page -- all with a single mouse click.

Collaborative Idea Development
Orr pointed out that MindManager may be best-suited for the earliest phase of product development, where nearly all ideas are permissible, regardless of practicality (or impracticality), and there's little or no need to establish a hierarchy among them. "At Cyon Research, for instance," Orr said, "I'll work on a mind map for a while and then send it to Brad [Holtz, president and CEO of Cyon Research]. He'll add some stuff and then send it back to me. We do that with Groove Virtual Office [a file-sharing network from Microsoft]."

"The cultural aspect of design teams is a delicate affair," he observed. "Especially in mechanical engineering, people tend to shy away from tools that appear freeform. They want to have more rigidly defined boundaries." At the risk of incurring engineers' wrath, he said, "Engineers tend to have a hard time giving themselves permission to use freeform idea generation," possibly because of the specification-driven environment they operate in.

Because of MindManager's diagram-drawing features, comparison to Microsoft Visio will be unavoidable. "[A mind map] is not a process flowchart," Orr explained. "The temporal aspect is deliberately excluded." He added that, whereas a flowchart is designed to show the order in which certain tasks must be accomplished, a mind map is meant to explore the relationship between ideas -- the main topic, subtopics and subsubtopics, relevant background materials and so on.

Big Picture Prompts Creativity
Being an accountant by training, Brett Bumeter, a MindManager reseller, wouldn't go so far as to say all number crunchers lack imagination. Nevertheless, he admitted, "It's one of the traits that some accountants do display." Citing his own experience, he suggested a tool such as MindManager might go a long way to break the straight-thinking mold typically associated with a lack of creativity.

"[As an accountant], I was looking at the historical data, just checking the results for that week, that month or that quarter," he reflected. "But when I was able to see the big picture, even at a glance, I started asking what-if questions. ... When you're dealing with a mind map, it's not just paragraphs after paragraphs of text. You're getting color cues and visual cues. Since it's a map, you can navigate the entire concept all at once."

Bumeter estimated that, "An average person will be able to do everything they want to do [in word processing] by using only 10%-20% of Microsoft Word's functionality." Similarly, he expects most MindManager users will learn the fundamentals very quickly, leaving the more sophisticated features unexplored. So he founded Softduit Partners in 2005 to offer business development and training services based on Mindjet's MindManager product line.

MindManager Basic 6 for PC and MindManager 6 for Mac is $229 for a single user. MindManager Pro 6 for PC is $349. A MindManager viewer for reading mind maps created in these programs is available as a free download.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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