As mind mapping grows in importance as a key tool for business, it's not surprising that people are starting to emerge who coach executives on how to use it effectively. Kyle McFarlin is a visual strategy expert. Through his consultancy, Visual Strategist, he advises entrepreneurs, C-level (CEO, CFO, CMO, etc.) executives and work teams on strategies for effective use of visual maps. Kyle also authors The Underlying Blog, which is heavily focused on mind mapping issues. I recently interviewed him about his role, the common mind mapping challenges his clients face and the unique set of "dashboard" maps he has created to help others organize their work and their lives:
Frey: Your title is "visual strategy expert." What does a visual strategist do?
McFarlin: A visual strategy expert provides coaching services to individuals and organizations looking to use maps as persistent execution tools. I mainly coach entrepreneurs and executives. Occasionally, I coach people who want to use visual tools to achieve balance in life as well. There are four main areas of coaching that I’m focused upon:
How to live in your maps. This is a minority of mappers, yet a passionate one. How to use visual maps as tools for execution. I'm also there for you if you're trying to do strategic planning, negotiations and maintain client relationships. In addition, I'm a Gyronix Certified Trainer. As a Gyronix Certified Trainer, I teach MindManager, the visual mapping tool, and ResultsManager, a tool to create Project Dashboards from multiple visual maps. ResultsManager is an implementation tool for David Allen's Getting Things Done. So I have some experience talking about the 2 minute rule.
Frey: What are the most common kinds of problem-solving things you do for your clients?
McFarlin: One common problem I see is that maps seem to breed like rabbits for most people. They have too many maps, or else they have just a few very large maps with everything under the sun stored in them. A lot of what I do is helping people identify the maps worth keeping, and those worth archiving. Of those worth keeping, I help them make decisions about which ones should be consolidated, and which others should be divided into sub-maps.
I also serve as a business advisor to some of my clients. They come to me because they feel like their business activities are out of control. I'll often work with a client to put the essentials of their business into one "dashboard" map.
The third thing I do is help clients to align their files and folders with their maps.
Frey: What do you wish more businesspeople understood about mind mapping software?
McFarlin: First, that it goes beyond creativity. Creativity is essential. But they need to realize these maps can be persistent business resources for driving their strategy and operations.
Secondly, that visual maps aren’t just for "far out" creative types. Businesspeople see a spider-looking thing and think it's far out. At its core, a mind map is just a radial outline. It gives creative people the linear structure they need to become efficient, which means that a lot of people who used to float in the organization can become very proficient at execution – at getting things done very efficiently. Likewise, people who are linear thinkers get a nice, easy to navigate structure to be creative within.
Lastly, people need to be aware that mapping compliments your current productivity tools. There is a school of thought that mind mapping replaces traditional thinking, but in fact it enhances it - because you get both the right and left sides of peoples' brains engaged for the price you've always been paying. You get the text like you would in any outliner. But you also get the images for the creative people. That, by the way, is a feature which is sorely lacking in most collaborative and note-taking tools.
Frey: What prompted you to create the Visual Strategist Solution (VSS) template set? How can people benefit from it?
McFarlin: It was partly selfish, because I wanted to consult at a higher level, and I got tired of answering the same basic questions over and over, which means I was never able to get around to having some higher value-added discussions with most of my clients. Seriously, I got tired of being "Bob the Builder" – helping my clients to set up their mapping system from scratch – and I wanted to talk as if buildings were already there.
It was partly timing. In mid-2007 I was courted by a number of organizations for potential employment. So to an extent, I was thinking that this would be my swan song, my last big idea before I went to work for an organization. Then I put the templates out, and for the past 6 months I've consistently had business find me, without any need to sell it. It really bore out the theory that if you give away some great content, people will recognize your authority in the field and will want to work with you.
Another reason I created the templates was I wanted them for myself. I knew that a great way to reconcile all of the best practices I had floating around my head in one place would be to create something that was a high enough quality to show others. Also, I created the VSS template set from the framework of my own personal files and folders, which I've been honing for the better part of 10 years.
The templates are designed to be used with MindManager for Windows. You can also utilize them with ResultManager (an add-in program for MindManager that enables you to implement David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology), yet it's not required. People who use MindManager with Microsoft Outlook will experience a robust environment for embedding their Contact, Task, Calendar and E-mail map parts.
Frey: What is the benefit of aligning your files and folders with your core maps? What's the downside if you don't do this?
McFarlin: If someone takes the time to use the folder structure which accompanies the VSS template set, they get the added benefit of having a visual overlay of their Files & Folders within the relevant VSS map.
For example, if I'm in my Life Operating System map, and I want to see the files and folders that support it, all I have to do is Shift+F5 to refresh the MindManager map's File Explorer map part. This displays the files and folders that I utilize in conjunction with this part of my map. Why is that important. Because it eliminates a great deal of the manual hyperlinking people had to do before they started using the VSS Templates.
For ResultManager users, it's essential because it gives them automatic hyperlinking to maps, which used to be tedious because you had to handle the hyperlink for each individual map.
The main downside to not using the VSS folder framework is you miss out on the benefits of using an extremely simple, ultra-elegant filing system that represents best practices derived from tens of thousands of hours of work and consulting. In addition, most people have filing systems that afford them no peace of mind, because they tend to be extremely disorganized. Based on what I’ve seen from consulting with my clients, I estimate that at least 9 out of 10 people have digital filing systems that have evolved accidentally overtime, not from any kind of higher level thinking and planning.
Also, ResultsManager users are stuck manually hyperlinking if they don't use the folder framework. And any ResultsManager user will tell you that manually managing your hyperlinks is about as cool as a trip to the dentist knowing a drill is waiting for you.
Frey: What's next for the world of mind mapping software? What trends are you keeping your eyes on?
McFarlin: Wallace Tait is right: Mind mapping must join forces with concept mapping and flow charting to provide users with the flexibility they need. I think the software companies which embrace his foresight will prosper. Also, I'm watching virtual reality very closely: Second Life and the Croquet Project are at the top of my list, because of the opportunities to potentially map your ideas and knowledge and manipulate them in 3-D space.