This is a guest post from Jeffrey Ritter, founder of the Ritter Academy
Many executives use checklists to keep track of information they must not forget. They are essential for life-and-death situations. But there is a better way that is more in tune with the nature of today’s work. Here are 7 reasons mind maps are much more efficient and effective than checklists for busy executives.
The power of checklists
In The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, the NYT bestseller by Atul Gawande, the author effectively shows the surprising power of the ordinary checklist at enabling surgeons and other professionals to manage the increasing complexity of doing their work. His engaging analysis emphasizes that any professional, despite effective training and practical experience, struggles to do everything right.
For surgeons, overlooking even routine tasks can have deadly consequences. The checklist, Gawande observes, enables a professional to avoid two categories of errors: errors of ignorance (not knowing a particular step or procedure is required) and errors of ineptitude (failing to perform a known step or procedure). Beginning with a 90 second checklist for a simple surgical room procedure that has reduced fatalities by 30%, Gawande examined a range of professional fields – disaster response, investment banking, skyscraper construction and business—and concluded that checklists not only drive the avoidance of errors, but provokes the professional to also focus on the times when the defined linear process needs to be varied in order to achieve the correct results.
Regardless of the professional discipline, Gawande concludes that the complexity of life, amplified by the impact of technology, requires the structure that a checklist can provide. “We may admit that errors and oversights occur—even devastating ones. But we [surgeons] believe our jobs are too complicated to reduce to a checklist.” His direct approach – that a checklist helps us to “get the stupid stuff right” – remains a compelling call to action for even the most educated professionals to think differently about how to implement tools that support them in performing their work.
But checklists aren’t enough for 21st century knowledge work
A checklist isn’t the only tool that can enable professionals to manage complexity, exercise, discipline, and avoid errors of ineptitude. In fact, I submit that checklists are a 20th century relic that are increasingly out of step with the needs of today’s work, despite Gawande’s convincing arguments for using them. In my experience, mind mapping is a much more effective technique.
I began working with mind mapping in 2004. It was immediately clear to me—a lawyer who had an enormous whiteboard on my office wall—that mapping worked even better as a professional tool. Mind maps enabled me to literally see and unfold the increasing complexity of all of the legal and technology variables that were confronting both me and my clients in building and managing information systems and complex processes (privacy compliance, e-commerce, website functionality, network security, and e-discovery).
Even then, checklists – a very common project management tool for lawyers—were proving inadequate to meet my needs and those of my clients to see the full picture and enable the team to move ahead on the project working, quite literally, on the same page.
7 ways mind maps kick butt compared to checklists
As I have gained experience in using mind maps to grow my business during the last 8 years, I have discovered 7 ways in which mind maps are vastly superior to old-fashioned checklists:
1. Mind maps enable you to identify and act on decision options that have multiple choices.
Checklists tend to force binary decisions – such as “yes/no”, “armed /unarmed” and “confirmed/unconfirmed.” While that type of structure is important in linear processes, mind maps enable you to provide multiple decision options that are much more appropriate for today’s type of work. In addition, checklists have limited branching or decision-tree functionality. Many types of information discovery and research applications require a more flexible approach, which mind mapping enables.
2. Mind maps show context and structure, as well as the relationships among different variables and topics that must be included in a process.
Each of us, to a different extent, remembers and recalls what we learn and the information we need to use, in visual form. We routinely share information in visual form, using blackboards or whiteboards, for example. Presenting process information in a visual format improves recall and improves our ability to communicate this information to others. After all, isn’t that the reason we often draw solutions on the back of paper napkins? Being able to remember better and share and communicate better means fewer mistakes.
3. Mind maps enable the individual checklists of all of your team members to be viewed together—and filtered, split up and delivered to each team member when appropriate.
Checklists enable consensus action only. A pilot and co-pilot must both agree a task is completed, a surgeon and a nurse must both confirm a clamp is properly presented, and so on. But even if you add a column for responsibility to a checklist to handle more complex projects, it’s challenging to see the responsibilities of each member and the relationships between them. Mind mapping software can present complex task data and relationships in an easy-to-understand, compact visual format.
4. Software-produced Mind maps are more useful as a shared project resource.
Software-produced mind maps can incorporate shapes, colors, font sizes, font colors, images, icons, markers and filters to create a visually effective resource. Even the basic checklist comes alive when presented in this non-linear format. The result is that all of the stakeholders in your project can engage it differently. People focus, they examine and test the relationships among the topics in a mind map. In doing so, they subtly begin to “own” its content and offer corrections, enhancements, additions and suggest changes. That is much deeper engagement than any checklist!
5. Mind maps unfold complexity to a level appropriate for each person.
On any project, different participants and stakeholders have different views. Senior management may only require a “global view”—the 20,000 foot fly-over of the planned process. But the worker bees need a more detailed analysis to ensure the process is properly executed at the task level. Nearly every checklist I have seen for a complex project defies the ability to provide different views.
Admittedly, process management tools do enable you to scale detail by “rolling-up” dates and deadlines, but even then, the visual presentation is largely linear, text-based and challenging to comprehend. By collapsing one or more levels of a mind map, you can easily provide a bigger-picture view to senior executives AND a detailed view to those people who are doing the work – all from the same visual document!
6. Mind maps can reveal why a process or task needs to be done.
Checklists demand compliance, and rarely if ever explain the “why” behind tasks and process steps. Mind maps can contain links to supporting information – in the form of attached documents, hypertext links and even the content of individual e-mail messages. These resources can provide project team members with the critical underlying “why” of processes, tasks or questions – without causing a lot of visual “clutter” in the process. Mind maps also give team members the ability to question specific steps, and make annotations, adaptations, comments or additions to the map. After all, this is what the training and experience of a professional represent – the ability to change direction intelligently.
7. Mind maps enable users to dynamically capture performance-related data and evidence.
As live data files, mind maps enable team members to input notes, findings, highlight inconsistencies, create reminders and capture facts with a variety of tools. All of that can then be exported into other formats and resources, such as text documents and spreadsheets, quickly and easily. Checklists tend to only record that the act described has, or has not, been performed.
Jeffrey Ritter is recognized as a pioneer in shaping the legal rules for cyberspace. He helps companies, lawyers and investigators do a better job of evaluating, building, and improving their digital assets via a mind map-based tool called RitterMaps. He is also the founder of the Ritter Academy, which teaches his visually-oriented e-discovery methods to legal professionals.