Solving problems graphically

A new look at old problems will generate solutions.

Businesses, especially white collar businesses, are all about "processes and information" (thank you Michael Dortch). But what do you do when you find yourself looking at the same processes and the same information and can't improve your results? Try looking at things in a new way, graphically, using tools such as MindManager or TheBrain.

A “mind map” organizes ideas, topics, tasks, random thoughts, solutions and relationships to other information in a new, graphical format. Early mind maps were done on paper or whiteboards. Now we have applications that take all the advantages of the paper and whiteboard mind maps and add a range of extra features, such as linking to documents and Web sites outside the map.

Basic mind maps might look like a couple of outlines on either side of a central idea, but modern ones look like anything you want. However they look, they look new and interesting enough to kick start people into approaching problems from different angles.

The self-acknowledged leader in mind mapping software, MindJet, has expanded its flagship MindManager product to the Web for better collaboration. The company’s MindManager8 desktop version sells for $349 for a perpetual license, and works with the Web standalone product available for $10 per user per month (usual volume discounts apply). The company added Mindjet Connect to take interactive mind mapping meetings down the same road WebEx took PowerPoint: multiple people can view the same map at the same time. Even better, mind maps are now as shareable and public as any online collaboration workspace.

MindJet's CEO Scott Raskin says there are about 400 million knowledge workers worldwide today. Most are using Microsoft Office and “passively interacting” with information. He believes every Outlook user is a prime candidate for MindManager8, either on the desktop or the Web. The only real difference between the two is the inability of the Web version to tightly integrate with desktop programs and work offline.

I've been playing with MindJet Connect using Flash inside my browser, and it will make online brainstorming easier than ever. Add in some of the extra features and templates, like JVCGantt Pro 3 for project management, and you start to understand how some users have given up databases to keep all their information in mind maps of one kind or another.

One customer quote from CEO Raskin explains how a small business owner uses a MindManager8 map for every customer to better see at a glance what the customer has done for them, and what they can do for the customer in the future. Once you start coloring outside the lines with your thinking, thanks to visual information presentations, interesting things happen.

There are between 20 and 30 mind mapping software programs available. One that claims to be the official product of Tony Buzan, the father of modern mind mapping, is iMindMap. The Open Source Software world offers FreeMind, a mind mapping product for free. Of course, all the mind mapping vendors offer free trials because the vast majority of potential customers have never tried mind mapping software.

I'll leave it to the experts to say whether TheBrain's dynamic mind maps take the paradigm to a new level or in a different direction. But the first time you play with PersonalBrain the moving and shifting maps will catch you by surprise.

“When CEO Harlan Hugh created TheBrain, he was just trying to emulate how the mind worked,” said VP Shelley Hayduk. “He didn't know about Tony Buzan's work. Our secret sauce is our dynamic, associative connections.”

She's right that the difference between traditional mind maps in 2D and how TheBrain’s almost 3D moving focus points emphasize new ways of connecting information. Every time you click on a thought (the company’s term for any type of digital information in the map), that item becomes the center of the mind map. Since the map display is reworked with every click, the tool is able to connect one thought to many other thoughts, unlike traditional maps where everything is connected through the main topic in the middle of the map.

I'm working on a project to encourage small businesses to do a better job backing up their data and keeping it safe. If “backup” is the central idea, that will always be in the middle of a traditional mind map. But there are dozens of things to consider, and many relate to each other. I can't really show the relationships between backup hardware, software and processes to all the user storage locations like desktop, shared file server and laptops. Add in disaster recovery and the 2D map no longer helps because we can't make all the connections we need to make. The only way to link multiple topics together in a 2D map is to make multiple maps and switch between them.

With PersonalBrain, I highlight the Backup Hardware thought, and all the connected thoughts are linked and visible. When I shift to Backup Software, another full set of thoughts are linked to that, and the same thing happens when I click on Processes. Even better, I can easily link items common to two or three topics. If I focus on Check Backup Logs, that links to Hardware, Software, and Processes on PersonalBrain just like it should for your data safety administrator.

TheBrain doesn't yet have a Web version for individuals. PersonlBrain runs on Window, Mac OS X, and many Linux versions, and is $149 for the core version and $249 for the Pro that lets you integrate with Outlook, add multiple attachments to a thought, and export your Brain to HTML. The company’s networked, multi-user version is priced for large companies.

I admit mind mapping is a little tough to describe with words, so try one or more of these soon. If Apple can make a fortune advising us to “Think Different” you can get a jump on some tough problems and visualize solutions in new ways with mind mapping. Remember, smarter is always better.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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