Using mind maps to start planning a project

As you might have read earlier, I recently started a new team that has been chartered with building a suite of new products from scratch. The business folks have been working in the domain for a long time and have built similar products before. Despite that, requirements for the new products have not all been nailed down yet, making this project somewhat of an ideal situation to start a new team. We’re using Agile (Scrum with XP practices) methods, and I’m infusing several ideas from Lean Software Development into the mix.

I used a new tool to kick-ff the high-level planning sessions this time. I’ve been using mind maps (FreeMind, Mindjet Manager, and NovaMind) for a while now: for various things – keeping track of to-dos, planning my personal projects, thinking about high-level goals, brainstorming and brain-dumping, and so on and so forth. I’ve always felt that such an intuitive tool might make for a great way to facilitate work sessions, especially when the work at hand is fairly high-level. An example might be – early stages of planning.

In my opinion, using the tool turned out to be quite a good idea. The first meeting lasted three hours (including coffee and a 10 minute break), and had about 12 participants with me facilitating using a whiteboard and sticky flip-charts. I ended up with several mind-maps including one for the overall project layout, one for training requirements, and another that detailed a particular module. The whole team was able to participate in building it as it was merely a form of a brainstorming exercise, with some extra structure.

Here’s a mock-up of one of these mind maps that got produced at this session –


One possible next step is to pick up the area which needs to be worked on first (actually this will probably be more than one – for example, the architecture-spike and config-management piece will need to be done in the beginning regardless of what else gets picked up) and continue to drill-down into its details. When sufficient granularity has been achieved, the leaf nodes of the mind map can be translated into backlog items (or phrase-level user-stories). Of course, this will mean that the brainstorming will need to be done with an eye towards this end goal – and all the guidelines around writing good user-story phrases will need to be kept in mind.

Overall, it was a good exercise – it was interactive and fun. More importantly, it was a visual way of representing the project and its potential scope – and was a great start at arriving at a shared mental-model of the system. Having all members of the team present (developers, QA, BA, and sponsors) helped a lot as well.

Note: I didn’t use the actual software in the meeting, instead, I chose to draw on the whiteboard and one of the participants (the sponsor!) volunteered to scribe. This let the session be more about the content than about formating and word-smithing. I later converted the notes to soft-copies using FreeMind.

3 thoughts on “Using mind maps to start planning a project

  1. this is an excellent idea; works effectively.
    Another tool option is the recent, “now-in-private-beta” rails app MindMeister ( – you can import freemind and mindjet maps as well. It is very easy to get started and collaborate.

  2. I agree, excellent tools for meetings – I use NovaMind all the time. The quality of the output, responsiveness of the company, power of NovaMind. Sure, there are a couple of things I would like to see improved, but overall it is by far the best Mind Mapping software I have seen.

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