I spend about 75 percent of my waking hours working with, fixing, or otherwise thinking about Microsoft Project, so I naturally gravitated toward the features that work with Project when I began reviewing MindJet’s MindManager 2002 Enterprise Edition. I knew that the software had its roots in Mind Mapping techniques, which encourage a visual representation of projects and other ideas, but I hadn’t given these techniques much thought as a tool for my work. As I got further into the product, I started seeing ways to use this in other areas of my work, also.

MindManager’s key value is its ability to change the way you look at the information you work with and the tasks you take for granted. If you work visually more easily than with text, if you work with subject matter that needs to be grouped into categories, or if you’re a project manager, you might want to check out MindManager. Play around with it and keep an open mind. You could find a new way to work with your old information.

Think visually
For me, and many others, visual elements are often easier to deal with than lists or text. Creating an outline, for example, can be frustrating because I’m already thinking about document structure and layout.

MindManager offers a visual way of creating outlines that is similar to the ideas behind brainstorming. A map starts with a central idea or central word and you add branches that directly describe or are related to the central word. Then you go through and add subbranches. The end result looks like the diagram shown in Figure A.

Figure A

This diagram began with the central idea of a checklist for a trade show. The user was able to add these branches and then rearrange them into this format.

The key is that once you’ve captured the ideas, you can rearrange them into groups that make sense. For example, in Figure A under the Hardware branch you see Laptop, Projector, Powerstrip, Extension cord, and Business cards. These items might have been put under supplies during the initial layout but have been broken down into their own sections.

Now think about project planning. What is a work breakdown structure (WBS) but a grouping of ideas into a pattern? This tool is perfect for thinking out your WBS because it gives an easy visual tool for generating linkages between ideas or concepts.

You start with a central idea that is the name of the project. Then you quickly brainstorm some contributing words or concepts that support the idea of the project. Figure B shows a sample project at this stage.

Figure B

Our Implement Server Based Software project has six branches that are all related to the project and will have to be addressed as part of the project plan. Some of them, like Resources and Timeframe, won’t become part of the WBS; they’re simply outcomes of the brainstorming process, but they’re still valuable areas into which we can gather ideas about the project.

The next step is to break down each of these branches. Notice how this deconstruction is identical to the process for creating a WBS. Figure C shows a sample of how Software and Hardware could be broken down one level.

Figure C

When you have broken down each branch, you can export this map to Project 98, 2000, or 2002. Branches with subbranches will be summary tasks. The whole export takes two wizardlike screens and about 10 seconds and then you have your task plan built for you from your mind map.

You can also import Project plans into MindManager so that you can see them in a different format. The import and export to Project are well thought out and nicely done.

Other uses
After working with the Project integration, I started seeing new ways to work the tool into my routine. Part of my job is working with Project users who are having trouble with the tool. Solving any kind of problem involves gathering information about the issue and the environment and then linking that information together to figure out a solution. Taking notes is essential to the process but after you have two or three pages of notes, the connections can be hard to make.

I started opening a MindManager file for every issue and, as I asked questions and had the user check settings, I would note these down and keep track of whether the question or setting was the issue. Figure D shows a sample of one of these Issue Maps.

Figure D

You can see in Figure D that I moved the questions into groups and used symbols to show which one was the solution. In this case, the solution was a setting on the leveling dialog box dealing with the threshold for leveling assignments.

This kind of structured note taking is valuable because it keeps the notes grouped, it allows for the tracking of questions asked and their answers (there are text fields for each node on the map to take further notes), and more importantly, it allows for future reference to this map the next time I have an issue about leveling.

Wrap up
MindManager also integrates with Word by importing and exporting Word outlines into and from map files. It will do the same thing with PowerPoint.

You can also send your tasks to MindManager or send maps to Outlook as a set of tasks. The Enterprise version has advanced network-sharing capabilities to allow for the simultaneous editing of maps by many users across the network. It does an excellent HTML export into a format that allows for detailed navigation of the model from in a browser.

It also allows for the filtering of branches and the insertion of multiple maps into a single consolidated map, and, for someone who is fond of macros, it also has its own scripting language to enable you to build custom actions and macros.

If you’re so impressed with the product that you want to share maps with colleagues who don’t have MindManager, you can have them download the free MindManager viewer. (It’s a 2.3-MB file.)

MindJet lists the Enterprise Edition at $269 with a five-user pack for $1,278. For more information on other versions of MindManager, visit the MindJet Web site.