The quickest way to create a mental model for a new problem domain.
Mind mapping is a simple and powerful method to create mental models about any subject.
I move between different projects a lot as a part of my consultancy work, As a result, I’m often faced with new organisations, systems, businesses and people and I have to come up to speed fast.
Whenever I start a new project, one of the first things anyone new has to do is understand a bit about the problem domain. I’m trying to understand how the organisation fits together, what are the systems and business processes like, who are the key people and what are the issues facing them. Getting this knowledge normally involves a bunch of reading, watching videos, conversations with people and thinking about what I’m seeing, reading and hearing.
There are many modelling and mapping techniques that exist for specific types of information. Where you are dealing with a single form of information, you should use an appropriate technique for that information, for example, business process maps for activities or database models for data structures, but when you’re starting from scratch with a new subject matter, you need a method that allows you to collate and organise whatever form of information you happen to stumble across in your research.
So the question that faces me is how best to assimilate this disparate information? If I can quickly get a grip on the problem domain, it means I can begin to form my ideas about what is to be done and begin to have meaningful conversations with my clients; and this means that I’m beginning to add value to their business as soon as possible (just like I said I would!)
Over the years, I have yet to find a better way of doing this than simple mind-mapping. All it takes is a big piece of paper, ideally A3 or bigger, and a pen.
So, how does mind-mapping work?
Just start with a simple node with the problem domain written on it and add as many categories as you think you’ll need; categories could be things like systems, people, legal aspects, competitors and anything else that occurs. Then, adding spokes from your categories, add short notes or sub-categories. Soon you’ll have a mind map and, in my experience, you’ll begin to create a mental picture of the problem domain.
Why paper? Well, I’ve tried electronic tools and, unless you’re collaborating on a map (in which case you’re doing a different exercise to that which I’m describing here), I find that the information doesn’t “stick” as well when it’s created on a screen. In recent years, I’ve started using a large roll of wallpaper lining paper and I cut a big piece that covers my entire desk; that way I’m not constrained by the edges.
Once you have a picture of the problem domain, it’s easy to add new information that you find by adding new spokes to expand your notes. More importantly, new information will fit into your mental picture of the problem domain and you’ll find it easier to assimilate new information.
I find that, having created a mind map, my ability to recall information in conversations is better than if I’ve simple made linear notes; there’s something about the visual aspects of the map that help my memory to recall things that I’ve found out.
After a while, as you understand the problem domain better, you’ll probably find that you become less reliant on the mind map and will forget to add new things. This is fine, it just means that you are now assimilating new information into your mental mind map, rather than the paper one on the desk in front of you.
Anyway, here’s an example of a mind map I put together to understand a new industry I was working on a month or so ago… As you can see, it doesn’t have to be anything pretty!
So, next time you have to understand something new, reach for a pen or pencil and a big sheet of paper and just create a picture as you learn. With a bit of luck, you’ll find this powerful, yet deceptively simple technique will help you as much as it helps me!
One final tip. Never throw your mind maps away. Either keep the paper or take a photo and file it somewhere sensible so you can find it again. I find that if I return to work on something I’ve worked on before, the ability to pull out an old mind map and quickly reorient myself with it has proven useful over and over again.