Demystifying Mind Mapping

An Interview with Chuck Frey, author of Power Tips & Strategies for Mind Mapping Software
By Vern Burkhardt
Not often does one encounter a productivity tool that will support group brainstorming and creative thinking, organize complex information, help solve problems, support SWOT analysis, enhance memory, help make decisions, manage projects, support strategic planning, prepare for major meetings, take notes, write papers and presentations, manage “to do” lists, support process and quality improvement, assist teachers to structure their presentations and students to increase their learning, and facilitate individual ideation (generate new ideas). Visual mapping supported by mind mapping software may be a must tool for all knowledge workers who are increasingly inundated with data and information.

It was a pleasure to chat with Chuck Frey, who has, through interviews with respected thinkers in the field of visual mapping and extensive study of mind mapping software, become one of the foremost experts in this field. Chuck has published three eBooks but more on that later.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): Why do you think there is an almost frenetic increase in the focus in business and other organizations, including the media, on creativity and innovation?

Chuck Frey: I think organizations are finding that they’ve pretty much exhausted most other avenues to create value and bottom line profit. Things like re-engineering, total quality and lean thinking have run their course. They’re about as lean as they are going to get. Business processes are as optimized as much as they’re going to get, and companies are realizing that innovation is one of the few sources of sustainable competitive advantage. And when you talk about creating sustainable competitive advantage, if you create a new product it’s easy for another competitor to copy it. If you start looking at things like business model and service innovation, now you’ve got some “secret sauce” there—some new capabilities that are very hard to copy. And so it’s a much more sustainable advantage for your company.

VB: How does this fit in with increased competition world-wide?

Chuck Frey: I think it’s definitely related. As companies face more global competition there is cost pressure. You can’t just rely on some incremental increases in efficiency. You’ve got to look for new opportunities, new businesses, new product lines, new business models, new ways of going to market that are going to give you at least a ten times increase in efficiency in order to keep that bottom line growing.

VB: Young people coming into the workforce are very much accustomed to short timelines, the explosion in mobile devices, and the frenetic pace of business. How do you think that will play out in terms of meeting businesses needs for innovation and creativity—young people coming with a whole different set of skills, maybe more self-confidence, quick hand-eye coordination having played lots of video games—a different kind of worker?

Chuck Frey: I think it’s kind of a catch 22. On the one hand they bring a lot of hands-on knowledge of all these new technologies, which if companies can figure out how to leverage it, that’s great. It opens a lot of new opportunities. On the other hand, I’ve heard that a lot of young people also tend to require more hand holding and more reassurance that they’re doing well, more feedback than the typical manager is accustomed to giving. Trying to create meaningful career paths for them through corporations that are not accustomed to allowing people to move all that quickly may be challenging.

VB: What makes you a creative thinker and what most interests you about creativity, innovation and mind mapping?

Chuck Frey: About twenty years ago I began reading up on how people succeed, how to maximize your potential, and quickly figured out that strengthening your creativity was a primary way to do that. Around the same time I met a couple of very creative people in the Chicago area and started doing some free lance public-relations projects for them. That exposed me to a whole world of creative thinking techniques which I found to be fascinating. I started reading everything I could get my hands on.

As far as what interests me, I’m always open to new ideas, new ways of thinking about things. I don’t consider myself so much an original thinker, but rather an aggregator, an interpreter of what’s going on. That means I love talking to creative people and learning what they’re doing differently and why. And I look for what distinctions they have figured out.

Mind mapping fascinates me because it’s literally a better mouse trap, if you will—a superior way to represent information and ideas that helps you recognize new opportunities and solutions that aren’t evident if you look at things in a linear fashion. Because mind mapping works the way the brain does—by association—as a creative thinker it’s naturally a very attractive tool to me. As I use it more and more in the different roles of my life I am realizing what a very cool productivity tool it can be.

VB: Why don’t more people recognize that?

Chuck Frey: I don’t think it’s gotten enough exposure. It started out in the 1960s with a man named Tony Buzan. He came up with the idea of doing it on paper, and it kind of got a cult following. (Vern’s note: Tony Buzan has written many books, including Use Your Memory, Master Your Memory, Use Your Head, The Speed Reading Book and The Mind Map Book.)

I think a lot of people in business are very left brained, very logical, very step-by-step in their approach. Mind mapping tends to be totally different. They either reject it out of hand or consider it to be some wacky creative thing that they can’t quite get their minds around.

VB: Because it requires a lot of discipline?

Chuck Frey: It does, but it’s also more artistic. If you’re doing it on paper it’s a blank sheet of paper you can embellish in any way you want. That might be too undisciplined for people who are linear thinkers.

VB: And it takes time, doesn’t it.

Chuck Frey: It does, yes.

VB: I’m intrigued with your observations, and certainly my observation and personal experience in business is that we do attract linear thinkers as managers. Why is that the case when so much of success is related to innovation, creativity, and generation of new ideas? Is it that the old model and tradition of management was in fact supervision and structure, and perhaps even stability compared to today’s fast paced, fast moving, quick to market, rapid product development?

Chuck Frey: Definitely, I think partly it’s what has become management dogma, and partly what we’re doing in our school systems—filling people’s heads with stuff and seeing how efficiently how they can regurgitate it, as opposed to encouraging original thought and problem solving. A lot of what has become modern management is based on repeatability, structure, and scaling up to ever bigger sizes, which doesn’t really accommodate itself to creative thinking.

VB: I guess that’s what has been rewarded in the past, isn’t it? With longer life cycle times in business, there was enough stability to be able to maximize your return on investment over a longer period of time. Now you need to be quicker to market, faster on your feet. Would that be fair to say?

Chuck Frey: Yes. I agree.

VB: I’ve read a number of books and articles, including Think!, that talk about how our education systems are doing a disservice to youth. Is this something you are concerned about?

Chuck Frey: I am concerned about it, but I’m not sure how to address it. Though I think some magnet schools are starting to.

VB: Some of our readers may not be familiar with mind mapping and visual mapping software programs. Could you give me a “lay” person’s description?

Chuck Frey: It’s a method of representing ideas visually that was developed by a man named Tony Buzan. You begin with a central idea on a piece of paper or computer screen and you connect supporting ideas by lines or branches. Topics and subtopics are connected to each other visually. It works because it mirrors the way our brains think associatively.

About ten to fifteen years ago software developers started creating programs that could represent this form of visual thinking on computer screens. Initially they followed Tony Buzan’s rules of mind mapping but recently have begun to move beyond that. Now, besides topics of just a few words each, you can attach web links, files, and notes to your ideas. It becomes a visual database.

These days nearly every knowledge worker is suffering from the effects of information overload. Mind mapping software has emerged as a good way to manage work and ideas.

VB: How does that tie into the creative process? Especially compared to linear thinking?

Chuck Frey: On one level it helps you think things through more systematically and completely. Because you’re representing your ideas visually, it shows you the relationships between them. That can be quite powerful: it helps draw more ideas out of your mind; and it helps you visualize the white spaces between existing ideas, which may offer some of the most creative opportunities.

You can also use it as a very efficient way to quickly do a brain dump of your ideas and then re-arrange them until you’ve got a perfect representation of your thinking. There’s real creative power there.

VB: How do you use this information map in order to be more creative, imaginative and visionary?

Chuck Frey: Once you’ve set your objective you start adding tasks to it. The resulting visual map of your ideas helps you to think about them more thoroughly and gives you a reference you can look back to while working on the project. Once you have that record you can begin to actually do work based on them.

VB: So it becomes an integral part of your desktop computer?

Chuck Frey: Yes, definitely that is a great way to consider it.

VB: What attracted you to mind mapping such that you have become a recognized expert in the field?

Chuck Frey: I’m fascinated by what it allows you to do, and how efficiently it allows you to do it. As I think I mentioned, I think it’s a better mouse trap. And you don’t find a whole lot of those.

As far as becoming an expert, I’m always on the lookout for new opportunities where I can add value, and where I can help people find sources and learn about things. I soon discovered there wasn’t a single blog devoted just to mind mapping software. There were a number that covered it from time to time as part of a larger group of topics but there wasn’t a single go to source where you could find all the latest news, trends and best practices. So that’s what I decided to create. Over time, as you become a trusted resource to readers they begin to regard you as an expert in that area.

VB: And, of course, because you are ahead of the curve and adding more information all the time, including from people using your blog, it becomes a reality.

Chuck Frey: Yes, that’s true. And then people who come up with new related resources or software come to you to announce it to the world. They know that you’ve got the readers.

VB: Are you an independent reviewer of mind mapping software?

Chuck Frey: I always try to do that, yes. And I think that is part of the value I provide—I don’t have a particular slant, and am not in the pocket of any software vendor.

VB: You say mind mapping software represents a revolutionary tool that can take one’s creativity and information management skills to “the next level”. Could you expand on that?

Chuck Frey: Just look at what’s happening in the typical corporate environment today—because of lean and downsizing, almost everyone has too many projects on their plate and they are therefore forced to multitask. They end up getting overwhelmed by all the information they have to deal with. The average knowledge worker must be able to efficiently gather information, manipulate and distill it, and generate stuff from it such as reports, articles or whatever. Mind mapping software helps you to do that in a powerful way. It helps you reach clarity on business issues, make better decisions faster, and I think it gives you a more complete picture of your work, the potential opportunities and the ideas you need to be aware of.

I came across a quote in a new innovation book called Think Better by Tim Hurson. He says, and I am going to quote here, “Today the only significant economic differentiator for organizations is how well they can use this whole exponentially growing bank of information, how effectively they can sift through it, evaluate it, transform it into new knowledge and maximize its economic potential”. And he says, “If it’s not already, the ability to think better will soon become the most significant competitive advantage companies and individuals can claim”. And I’m behind that view one hundred percent, and that is what mind mapping enables you to do, essentially.

VB: You say that what’s needed is a new paradigm for managing ideas, information, data and knowledge—a tool that enables users to manipulate these assets with greater flexibility, and which helps them see new connections and possibilities. And you say that mind mapping software is increasing in popularity as such a tool. Do you see more and more interest in mind mapping?

Chuck Frey: Most definitely. I’ve already talked about the needs that are driving this. It’s just a matter of getting the word out and letting people know that these types of tools are there and what they can actually do for you.

There’s a company called Mindjet that has developed the leading mind mapping software called MindManager. They report that they are closing in on one million installed copies of their software. That sounds really impressive but it’s still only a drop in the bucket compared to the tens of millions or hundreds of millions of knowledge workers in the world today. So I think there are tremendous growth opportunities.

VB: When you are assessing mind mapping software, what do you look for—for example, ease of use, the functions it performs, support for collaboration, innovative approaches?

Chuck Frey: I try to put on my newbie hat, and step out of my knowledge base. I approach it as someone who has no familiarity with the concept. I start by looking at the overall interface: is it well designed; is it easy to understand; are the whole workspace, the toolbars and the commands well organized? Then I start creating a mind map with it and assess the actual experience of using the software: does it behave intuitively; is anything hard to find; are there unexpected or weird occurrences; or is anything confusing or unclear?

Then I walk my readers step-by-step through some of the newest and most notable features of the program and explain why those things are relevant and how they might be valuable in a business context.

VB: Do you have to be a computer geek to successfully use most mind mapping software or can the average knowledge worker use it?

Chuck Frey: Most of these programs are not that complex. It’s not like looking at a program like Photoshop where you could do just about anything with it if you only knew how. Fortunately most of these mind mapping programs are designed so that, at least at the basic level, you can begin creating maps “right out of the box”. Once you become proficient you can start digging deeper and find more advanced features with which to embellish and enhance your maps.

VB: Do you use MindManager?

Chuck Frey: Yes, I do.

VB: I gather most mind mapping software are commercial products. Do you have any comments about open source options?

Chuck Frey: To the best of my knowledge there is one open source mind mapping program called FreeMind. I’ve been keeping my eye on it for a while. I looked at it a few years ago and wasn’t all that impressed. But within the last year I took another look and wrote a review of it. It has evolved quite a bit over the last couple of years, has a lot of functionality and is fairly easy to use. I’ve actually been recommending it to my readers as a great way to introduce yourself to the world of mind mapping software. You can dip your toes in the water for free. If you find that works for you, and you reach the point where you need more functionality you can graduate to one of the commercial tools.

VB: In your eBook titled Power Tips & Strategies for Mind Mapping Software you say “Most executives who dare to try visual mapping software will find they can exponentially enhance their abilities to manage information, especially in roles where clarity of communication is important.” What is the key message you give in this book?

Chuck Frey: What I was trying to do was gather the best practices, tips and techniques for getting the most out of this software. Because it’s such a young genre of productivity software, a lot of these best practices are just starting to emerge. They tend to be concentrated in the heads of a handful of experts rather than being widely available on the web.

Some guys are starting to write about this software on their blogs but I discovered a lot more when I interviewed some of the experts about what they are doing, why they are doing it. I’ve also been surveying users of mind mapping software and I found there is a great deal of interest in how someone else has created a mind map and in learning about the thinking behind it.

For the latest edition of that eBook I solicited case histories about real world mind mapping from business users. They provided me not only with an image of their map, but also a detailed explanation of why they created it and how they used it in their work.

Some excellent repositories of mind maps have emerged recently on the web. They are excellent in and of themselves but if you want the thinking behind the map they don’t provide it. They just provide you with some inspiration in terms of what the map looks like, what it contains, and how it is arranged. But there’s a whole other level I was trying to get at: what are you doing and how does this work for you?

VB: So if someone really wants to optimize their personal use of mind mapping software they should be reading your eBook Power Tips?

Chuck Frey: It’s designed for someone who already has a mind mapping software program and wants to take it to the next level.

VB: The first edition of your book Mind Mapping Software: How to select the Perfect Program for Your Needs, published in 2006, was also an eBook. Why did you decide to issue your two books as eBooks rather than having a printed version?

Chuck Frey: The whole idea of online information publishing is growing really quickly. It’s fairly easy and inexpensive to publish an eBook. That could be a good thing or a bad thing. It lowers the cost of publishing and enables you to get to market with your information more quickly, but the downside is that there’s a lot of junk out there on the web.

So, from an author’s point of view I think it is critical that you know enough about your target audience to really understand their needs, their pain points, the problems they’re having, and the things they would like help in solving. That’s what you try to write to, those types of hot buttons.

VB: What, from an author’s point of view, are some of the pitfalls of publishing an eBook?

Chuck Frey: You are on your own for promotion and marketing. Finding the right audience for an eBook is an ongoing challenge.

VB: Who is your target audience?

Chuck Frey: I am currently working on targeting the large audience of people who need to be made aware of this software, and its value.

Readers who are interested in considering use of mind mapping software as a productivity tool will want to learn from the extensive research and knowledge Chuck Frey has acquired over the past twenty or more years. Power Tips & Strategies for Mind Mapping Software provides tips on how to use visual maps to clarify one’s thinking and planning. In this book he provides useful insights about actual mind maps that users of this tool have applied to strategic thinking, project planning, process improvement, and writing business proposals. This eBook comes with a rare money back offer—full refund within two months if you are not satisfied. Chuck has also just published a new e-book called The Mind Mapping Manifesto, which was written to help business people to understand how mind mapping software can help them to work more efficiently and creatively.

Chuck Frey has over twenty years experience in public relations, marketing, business strategy and information services. He has written a great deal about mind mapping software in the two books featured in this article and in many articles reviewing the visual mapping software programs that are available for purchase. He has a Mind Mapping Software Blog and maintains an extensive website called InnovationTools.

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