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Mind Mapping

Mind maps are used as an aid in organizing ideas and tasks, problem solving, and decision making. Lab managers can use mind mapping to design R&D projects to develop new products or process innovations and track progress of the work.

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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A Tool for Organizing Ideas and Tasks, Problem Solving, and Decision Making

Mind mapping is a powerful technique for quickly generating, capturing, and organizing ideas, tasks, and projects. It has also been called task mapping and idea mapping. Mind mapping uses a diagram that depicts ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea (Figure 1). Mind maps can incorporate visual cues such as colors and arrows, which activate more regions in the human brain, resulting in better memory than linear, text-heavy outlines and notes.1 For example, color can be used to highlight project milestone deadlines. Mind maps are used as an aid in organizing ideas and tasks, problem solving, and decision making. Besides using them in my consulting work on lab projects, I also use mind maps to organize large writing projects.

Using mind mapping

Lab managers can use mind mapping to design R&D projects to develop new products or process innovations and track progress of the work. Although the central box of Figure 1 is a brief description of the project name, the central box can also be used for the project charter: a statement of the scope and goals of the project. Additional “satellite” boxes not shown in Figure 1 can document assumptions and definitions of success.

Mind maps can also serve to indicate progress on various phases of the project. Should you need to reduce project costs or accelerate progress, mind maps can help you do so. Consider Figure 1, a simplified mind map of a product development project. If you need to reduce costs or accelerate progress, you might reduce the number of candidate methods of synthesizing a new product (the lower right of the mind map). Mind maps facilitate discussing changes in an R&D project with other project stakeholders: pilot plant and manufacturing plant managers, business managers, and others. The mind map facilitates team members’ and project stakeholders’ understanding of how a change in one phase of the project will impact other project activities.

Mind mapping can also be used to manage information. This can be internal information such as catalyst properties or external information such as competitors’ activities. When using project management software, hyperlinks can be used to connect to detailed technical information, project reports, minutes of meetings, memoranda, and other information.

Mind mapping can be used by instrument makers to define processes to troubleshoot and diagnose faulty lab equipment and to repair it. Plant managers can use it to anticipate and proactively respond to critical operational issues. People working in technical service can use mind maps to anticipate and proactively respond to commonly encountered customer service problems.

Lab managers and business managers can use mind maps to predict customer purchasing behavior, determine weaknesses of product/service offerings, and identify new innovations that meet customer needs.

Mind mapping can be used to monitor the external environment and translate issues into action. One can use mind maps to identify the competition, their technology, and the relative advantages and disadvantages of their technology and marketing strategies. One can also study technology and economic trends relevant to a project, the laboratory, or the organization as a whole. Mind maps can be used to consider political and regulatory issues, technology innovations, and social and cultural changes.

One can include links to computer files, information, and information sources in mind maps. For example, note the item “Intellectual Property” in Figure 1. This item can include a list of relevant patents that could be cited as prior art should you decide to file a patent application. You can include the URL addresses of such patents, which are located on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website. This category can also include inventors and their contributions, the status of patent applications in preparation, and external disclosures of information to customers or as conference presentations.

Some mind-mapping software packages include a notes section for each item in Figure 1. One can record more extensive and detailed information, such as discussed above in the notes section, to avoid making the mind map as shown in Figure 1 cluttered with detail and thus hard to understand.


The development of mind-mapping software has greatly reduced the difficulty of preparing mind maps while increasing their flexibility. Several commercial software packages have been designed for developing mind maps (Table 1). Although I paid $380 for Mindjet 6.0 at the behest of a corporate client, there are several other mind-mapping software programs available that are free, including FreeMind2 and XMIND, which runs on the Mac. FreeMind can be downloaded from Reference 1. User reviews indicate the software is quite good, and readers can experiment with it at no cost.2 There are also additional computer programs available for purchase, such as Buzan iMindMap.

Commercially available software uses automated techniques to create mind maps. Creating a visually appealing, useful mind map has nothing to do with your ability to draw.

One can also go a low-tech route to build mind maps. Mind mapping has been around for about thirty years, more than a decade before mind-mapping software became commercially available. One low-tech approach to developing mind maps is to use a whiteboard and Post-It® Notes on which the general organizational topics are written.3 If one uses Post-It Notes to capture ideas generated in a brainstorming session, these could be used as the basis to generate a mind map.

Mind maps generated using software are easier to modify during the course of the work than hardcopy mind maps generated using a low-tech approach. Another advantage of using mind-mapping software is that one can incorporate much more information legibly into a mind map. Legibility can be maintained by focusing on a particular portion of the mind map of current interest and then enlarging it. Also, projecting the image on the computer screen onto a wall screen, thus enlarging it, enhances legibility. The ability to project an enlarged image of the mind map onto a wall screen facilitates discussion of the project by a project team or for management presentations.

Explaining mind mapping to staff members

Using either software or the Post-It Note approach, topics can be repositioned on a mind map to provide the best structure of tasks for a project. Using an LCD projector, one can project a mind map onto a wall screen so a team can organize a project and revise the mind map as the project proceeds. The same is true with a Post-It notes/whiteboard approach, although the team will have to work close to the whiteboard.

Psychological scientist James Harter of Gallup, Inc. concludes from his survey research that one way managers can increase employee job satisfaction is to “clarify expectations for employees by helping employees see the ultimate outcomes the organization is working to achieve and how they play a role in achieving those outcomes.” Mind maps are one way to do this. Managers can use mind maps to explain to team members where they fit in the organization of a complex project or a department. Mind maps can provide team members with an understanding of how their work fits into and contributes to project goals and activities. When new team members join a project, lab managers can use mind maps to quickly explain a project and introduce the new team member to his or her role in the project. Because team members can clearly see how they contribute, they are more likely to buy into the project and be committed to its success.

Mind mapping will be new to most of your staff. Rather than just recommending or giving them a book on the subject, it is probably more effective to teach a workshop that includes a demonstration of building a mind map. The process of building a mind map that is projected onto a wall screen can be quite effective in demonstrating mind mapping and helping staff members understand the process. Doing so for a recently completed project may be more effective than demonstrating the process while developing a mind map for a new project because some of your staff members already will be familiar with the project in question. Although preparing such a workshop involves a substantial amount of work, it will also greatly enhance your own mastery of the mind-mapping process.

Lab managers could conduct such a training session with their team leaders who, in turn, demonstrate it to their team members. The objective isn’t necessarily to teach every staff member the concepts and use of the software in detail. Rather, it’s to familiarize them with the basics and how mind mapping can be used. It can be the managers and team leaders who actually use the software to build mind maps during team meetings. As team members contribute their thoughts and see the mind map take shape on the screen, they are included in the process, thus feeling empowered.

Mind mapping and meetings

Mind mapping can be used to organize and run meetings. The meeting agenda can be presented as a mind map projected onto a wall screen. A member of the group reasonably skilled in using the software can be designated the scribe and can record important points, actions, ideas, and deadlines on the mind map. Everyone at the meeting can literally see the results of the meeting taking shape before their eyes.

Before breaking up, the meeting attendees can review the results of the meeting and be sure that appropriate action items are assigned to specific individuals and that deadlines are set.

Mind mapping also can be used in conjunction with brainstorming sessions. One can use a mind map to record ideas as they are generated. Then, when one shifts to organizing the ideas, one can work with the mind map projected from a computer onto a wall screen. One can use the mind map to group similar ideas, designate individuals or teams to evaluate the ideas, and record deadlines on the mind map. The individuals or teams can use the mind map to develop their thoughts and later present them to the entire team or to the manager. Alternatively, one can use flip charts or a whiteboard.

Project documentation

Mind mapping can be used to organize the process of project documentation and track progress. It can be used in writing reports, plant operating procedures, emergency response procedures, and other complex documents by providing a structure for these documents. Some software permits mind map notes sections to be copied and pasted into word processing programs such as Microsoft Word.

Authors are beginning to use mind mapping. For example, I am using mind mapping to structure the book I am writing, Accelerating Innovation through Effective Laboratory Management. Mind mapping is more two-dimensional than the linear flow of a traditional outline. It helps one to see how discussions and concepts presented in different places in one’s text are related and helps writers expand on earlier discussions while eliminating unnecessary duplication. One of my consulting clients requires a mind map of a report to be included in the report introduction.

Final comments

There are several books on mind mapping provided in the reference list below.1 and 3-5 The partial list of mindmapping software in Table 1 provides a number of software options to choose from. Although the visual nature of mind mapping may initially make one uncomfortable, mind mapping doesn’t have to be a difficult subject.


  1. J. Nast, Idea Mapping: How to Access Your Hidden Brain Power, Learn Faster, Remember More, and Achieve Success in Business (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006).
  2. FreeMind – free mind-mapping software. Available at ( Talk:Main_Page).
  3. D. Straker, Rapid Problem Solving with Post-It Notes (New York: Da Capo Press, 1997).
  4. N. Margulies, Visual Thinking Tools for Mapping Your Ideas (Norwalk, CT: Crown House Publishing, 2005).
  5. T. Buzan and B. Buzan, Mind Map Book: Unlock Your Creativity, Boost Your Memory, Change Your Life (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Ltd., 2010).