When an Anthrax scare hit the Department of Human Services in Virginia’s Arlington County in 2002, Christopher David, then the county’s chief technology officer, sprang into action. “I knew there was a person who could help us [respond],” he says. “But I didn’t remember his name or how to contact him.” Rather than waste precious time searching through hundreds of documents housed on his desktop or in file cabinets, David opened his mind mapping application from PersonalBrain, entered a few keywords and, within moments, had the information he needed. Mind mapping—the diagramming of ideas and concepts to help streamline thought processes and organize information—has come a long way since the standard pencil-and-paper method of decades past. New applications now help users organize, house and link thousands of pieces of information, including reports, bookmarks and projects, in a personalized and visual way. And given the volume of complex information for which CXOs are responsible, mind mapping should be top of list in personal productivity tools, says Gartner Research Director Donna Fitzgerald, who writes about mind maps and uses one herself. “It allows you to make your thinking process and ideas concrete,” she says. “It should be the first thing you pull up when you think through a new project.”
In many mind mapping applications, you start with a central thought or idea, then add branches—or subcategories—to break down the topic. These subcategories could be thoughts or include links referencing more information, PDFs you can upload or reports to reference. There are plenty of applications to choose from out there, from Freemind to MindMeister.
Brad Isaac, CIO at Breslow Starling Frost Warner, an accounting firm, uses a mind mapping application from Mindjet for project management. In situations like deploying a new server, mind mapping helps him keep track of the project and ensure he’s covered the necessary bases: who’s managing it, who will be using it, who needs training, he says. “You’re able to address all these layers of a complex project in a visual manner and it only takes moments.”
Others use mind mapping to archive and organize files that would typically be scattered in desktop folders. Tim Flemming, CIO at Ingersoll Rand, a manufacturer of industrial tools, started his first mind map in 2006, also using PersonalBrain, and says it has helped him relate to business-side colleagues more easily. “I’ll be on a conference call with Europe, call up my [mind map] and I’ve got everything I might need—sales numbers, their backlog inventory, you name it,” he says. “It allows me to have a business conversation with them in a way that they don’t look at me like the IT guy, they look at me like a business partner.”
Some maps can grow to house tens of thousands of “thoughts”—or points—over time. However, mind mapping users say that since the map is organized in a way that makes sense to you, it never feels overwhelming. David, now an assistant VP at the IT consultancy Catapult Technology, has 4,500 thoughts in his mind map, ranging from business contacts to budget proposals to his cell phone manual.
Maintaining your map, he says, is like tending a garden, meaning if you tend it regularly, the maintenance is easy: “You weed out the stuff you don’t need. Mind mapping is a process that grows over time, and the time-management and productivity benefits are priceless.”