Matt Burns was mapping his mind long before his employer, work management platform Monday.com, incorporated mind maps into its software.
The company, founded in 2012, underwent multiple rounds of growth ahead of its IPO filing earlier this year. Simply keeping track of so many roles and responsibilities, and how each evolved, amid the hiring pushes required some accounting.
“When we were a much younger company, I used mind mapping a lot while thinking about how to structure our organization,” Burns, startup ecosystem leader at Monday.com, told Built In. “From 25 people, suddenly we were at 150, and then 300. While that process was happening, you couldn’t just do things with the same kinds of roles.”
What Is a Mind Map?
At the heart of a mind map is the central hub idea. From there, a number of “nodes” and additional sub-categorical “nodes” branch off, often radially. The technique was popularized decades ago as a note-taking and brainstorming technique that was said to aid recall better than linear outlines. But it has since found greater business-world adoption in project management, product and design ideation, and knowledge management.
Per Burns’s example, organizational charts are another intuitive use case — not surprising since hierarchical relationships are a hallmark of the system. In an org chart, a CEO might be the central idea, with C-suite and VP-level roles making up the first nodes, followed by titles one step below in rank (senior marketing manager, email marketing manager, etc., underneath the chief marketing officer).
The mind map helped Burns apply some shape to what was still an in-flux situation — a set of circumstances that might also indicate a fit for mind mapping.
“You’re putting together all the puzzle pieces,” he said. “But also, you’re creating the puzzle at the same time.” For the same reason, mind mapping has also found a place in some approaches to product development, where it could be applied to brainstorming new features and aid team alignment.
Michelle Matus, product marketing manager for mind mapping app MindMeister, said that, along with software development and product teams, the bulk of the company’s business-sector base includes marketers, creatives and consultants — all of whom often use it for conceptual-stage ideation.
“At the start of a project, people kind of use it as a brain dump, where they’re able to throw in keywords, random thoughts, tidbits — kind of a free flow of ideas, which you’re able to then structure into topic categories,” said Matus. “You can take this really expansive look, with an infinite canvas of all of your ideas, and then start to organize and categorize.”
From Memory Mnemonic to Brainstorming and Planning Tool
Mind mapping took an unlikely route to today’s digital whiteboards and team huddles. The approach was popularized in the early seventies by the late Tony Buzan, a British educational consultant who put forth the concept in a BBC series and accompanying book. Buzan said he started exploring information mapping while in college, where he noticed that students who took doodly, diagrammatic notes seemed to perform better in class than those who wrote traditional, linear outlines — a discovery he traced back to historical innovators.
“The great thinkers, including [Leonardo] da Vinci and [Maria] Montessori, always drew images and arrows and lines in their notes,” Buzan said, according to the Herald. “When I started using keyword notes, bigger letters, with color and arrows, it allowed my brain to speak to myself with a lot less clutter. It was as if I’d been driving all my life with my windscreen caked in mud and suddenly I could see clearly.”
In the nineties, Buzan’s approach took hold in some corporate corners, too. It was positioned as a way of unlocking imaginative thinking for businesses that prioritized logic and analysis at the cost of innovation. The framing mirrored Buzan’s pitch, which emphasized brain lateralization (left brain versus right brain) and the picture superiority effect (the idea that images are more memorable than words) — pop-science tropes that today draw more skepticism.
Such reliance on “bad science” irked skeptics like former Guardian education columnist Philip Beadle, who also criticized Buzan’s penchant for grand claims and self-marketing. (Buzan developed a lucrative brand that included seminars, instructor training and 120-plus books.)
But even Beadle acknowledged a degree of utility in mind mapping despite Buzan’s over-the-top tendencies. “It is a shame that perfectly good teaching tools are constantly being justified with hokum references to neuroscience,” he wrote in 2006.
In Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer’s 2011 book about memory, the author also finds the device to be helpful, though unfortunately burdened by hyperbole.
“My own impression of mind mapping … is that much of its usefulness comes from the mindfulness necessary to create the map,” Foer wrote. “Unlike standard note taking, you can’t mind map on autopilot. My sense is that it’s a reasonably efficient way to brainstorm and organize information, but hardly the ‘ultimate mind-power tool’ or ‘revolutionary system’ that Buzan makes it out to be.”
It calls to mind over-hyped wellness cures. No, coconut oil won’t lower cholesterol or eliminate viruses, but why let such overstatement keep you from its genuinely healthy fats?
Anatomy of a Mind Map
Today, most vendors and users of mind-mapping tools have similarly disentangled Buzan’s exaggerations, but much of his best-practice advice has endured. Characteristics he put forward now provide the foundation of the traditional mind map.
- A radial-tree layout, rather than a top-down triangle.
- Color-coded and curvy branches.
- Concise keywords that define each node.
- Sub-items that are cross-linked across separate nodes, when appropriate.
- Images for visual interest and to make certain ideas stand out.
Below is a MindMeister map of a launch meeting that happens to include each of those hallmarks.
New Features to Meet Modern Work Needs
At the same time, mind maps have evolved to fit contemporary work demands. In addition to evergreen traits like visual variety, creators of mind-mapping software should support in-map file attachment, prioritize exportability to other tools and, ideally, include an in-tool communication feed to maximize collaboration, according to Burns. Matus said that presentation modes are also vital. Needless to say, users should also make sure that whatever tool they opt for integrates with their productivity suite of choice, be it Google Workspace, Microsoft 365 or another option.
Some mind-mapping tools have also begun incorporating other information diagrams. For example, brainstorming software XMind now supports Ishikawa (or fishbone) diagrams, which can be useful for analyzing cause and effect, and timeline graphs, which are tailored to project management, Anne Zhu, XMind marketing specialist, told Built In.
Others, like MindMeister, intentionally focus more directly on mind maps. “There’s an emergence of all-in-one whiteboarding tools, where mind mapping is just one feature of the broader, massive feature set, with flow charts or infographics … but the power of mind mapping is [it’s a] minimalist, straightforward tool that really helps you to expand your ideas,” said Matus.
Perhaps most important is the ability to transition from the conceptual environment of a mind-mapping tool to a task management framework — that is, to go from planning to action. In 2015, MindMeister launched MeisterTask, a Kanban-style board that integrates with the mind mapping app. Users can turn nodes, or topics, in mind maps into tasks and add them to the lean-board layout.
Late last year, Monday.com launched a mind map view, built on Thoughtflow, that was inspired by MeisterTask’s capability to turn action items into assigned tasks. By clicking on an icon in a mind map “node,” users can push those tasks into other views or ways of visualizing project flows. Those include timelines, calendars and Kanbans.
Unlike Monday and MindMeister, some mind-mapping tools place their “action” process-stage tables more natively within the “planning” mind map space. What works best may boil down to personal preference. But such considerations are emblematic of how conversations about getting the most out of mind maps have shifted since the days when Tony Buzan insisted that central ideas must be images, not words.
Examples of Mind Mapping at Work
The way professionals approach mind maps has evolved significantly since it was first championed as a memory and creativity hack. They’re still used to facilitate problem solving and idea generation, but mind maps now encompass broader territory. Here are a few examples.
Business Use Cases for Mind Mapping
- Project management
- Knowledge repositories
- Organization charting
- Note taking
Brainstorming for User Experience
Presenting — Internally or Externally
Milligan Partners, a Texas-based technology consultant, uses mind-mapping software to quickly communicate the overall thrust of a strategy. Managing partner Matt Milligan and his team often show potential clients a partially complete mind map and invite them to help fill in the missing elements. Most mind-mapping tools include a presentation mode feature, which lets users create slides from branches and topics, “but having the map itself as a visual aid is great because everything is right there on one page,” Milligan said.
Below is a presentation mind map that XMind created and shared with Built In, about Airbnb. Including images, links, notes and pertinent files will help make the presentation more engaging.
Onboarding New Employees
Julie Harrison, growth marketing lead at Corel, an Ottawa-based graphics and illustration software company, recommends mind mapping as a way to streamline and centralize onboarding. A 2019 blog post includes a map that Harrison created in MindManager for a then-new hire. The topic branches are goals, process overviews, current projects, team, resources and HR/administration.
MindMeister also uses its tool internally for the same purpose, creating maps with topic branches that cover details like general company information, role-specific information and a plan for the new employee’s first five months, which includes space for feedback.
“We create a knowledge base that also becomes a space to really get an overview of the person's onboarding journey,” said Matus.
Managing New Projects Across Departments
Along with onboarding, Matus makes a mind map for every new feature launch. The central topic is the feature name. From there, individual nodes branch out for each department involved (marketing, customer success, product and so on), with subtopics for each (such as promotional channels and creative assets required).
“Then we share it with each stakeholder … and asynchronously plan and brainstorm,” Matus said.
Sometimes the Best Mind Map Is an Outline
The fact that business-world mind mapping now often hews toward collaboration, and not just personal note taking, points to a key consideration to keep in mind: You may be sold on the technique, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone else will be. Communication is like currency, so “make sure to pay somebody in the currency they prefer,” said Burns.
He recalled working with four associates on customer success initiatives, which he often diagrammed as mind maps during formative stages. Two of the four stakeholders involved engaged with the maps, contributing subtopics and cross-links; the other two, however, rarely even checked the map. Meetings that were intended for brainstorming played more like rote status updates.
“It took me a minute to realize that they just didn’t like this,” said Burns. “The format wasn’t working for them. I didn’t take the time to level set … then choose whether to make a visualization or a more traditional bullet-point outline.”
One potential solution for this issue is to explore tools that come with an outline feature, which allows users to convert mind maps into bulleted or alphanumeric lists that still preserve the hierarchical relationships between topics and subtopics.
That said, if you find yourself objecting to mind maps because you’re a linear, linguistic type who sees information diagrams as the stuff of nonlinear, visual artists, reconsider that assumption.
“We get that pushback a lot, but mind mapping is for everybody,” Matus said. “You don’t need artistic talent to type, so you don’t have to feel embarrassed by your chicken scratch or terrible stick drawings. You can focus on the ideas.”