How to make your planning day succeed: The process
In the previous articles in this series, I outlined the advantages that mind mapping software brings to strategic planning and described how you could use it to prepare for your next planning workshop.
In the final article in the series I’ll discuss how you can use a mind map to run the strategic planning day itself. If you haven’t done so already it would be useful to read the previous four articles in the series and at least the last two on preparation and programming for the planning workshop.
As with the previous article, I’m using examples and terminology drawn from MindManager but most of the major mind mapping software programs offer similar features.
1. Start with the big picture
In the previous article, I described how to set the agenda for the day using a mind map. In summary, I suggested creating a series of main topics to represent each session as a sequence of questions, starting with a short session addressing a basic issue such as why the organization exists or why a new project should be created. This forms a basis for drilling down into specific and possibly more contentious issues.
Not only is this a logical way to start the process, it’s also helpful in introducing the attendees to how mind mapping works and how you will be using it during the workshop. Before you get underway, however, you will need to do the usual introductions and explanations – and as part of that you need to briefly explain the mind mapping process to everyone.
Even if some of the participants have had some experience with mind mapping software before, few of them are likely to be familiar with its use to guide a workshop. At this point you should also give everyone an overview by displaying the whole map at least down to first sub-topic level.
2. Map the first branch or topic…
After the introduction, highlight or show only the first branch (if it has only a couple of topics) or just the first topic only. Then start the discussion and call for comments.
You (or the scribe if you are using one) can then add the responses as sub-topics in real time. Try to encourage participants to keep their comments brief so you can add them verbatim, but where this isn’t possible try to summarize them as faithfully as possible.
As more comments are added, you can think about grouping the expanding number of sub-topics. Whether and to what extent you do this will depend on the session and the responses, but you will often find that a framework will suggest itself. You can also add icons or tags either using a system which you have created beforehand or by adding them on the fly (see the previous article for more details).
Inevitably, however, you will receive some comments that just don’t fit the current topic. One way to handle this is to record these responses as sub-topics but “park” them instead of attaching them to the main map. To do this create a “parked ideas” floating topic and attach the off-topic comments to this.
As you go through the day, you can add-these sub-topics back into the map by attaching them to more appropriate topics. This will reassure participants that all their comments are being recorded – while at the same time providing a subtle cue that it is best to stay, literally, on topic.
3. …And then repeat
After the first session, you can move onto the more complex issues which will form the core of the workshop. The process is the same, though you will probably have to work faster as the participants become more familiar and comfortable with it. You will also need to ensure that the nature of the comments evolves to match the direction of the workshop.
As you start each session, you should emphasise the amount of time allocated to it – and as the facilitator, it’s your responsibility to keep to this limit. This can become harder than you think as participants become more involved with the process, but the timer feature discussed in the previous article can be used to assist with this.
Don’t forget to save the map frequently throughout the day and at least at the end of each session – and if possible, back it up as well. Try to set aside time during the planned refreshment and lunch breaks to consolidate and tidy up the map. You can also either print out the map as a progress summary or email it to participants.
4. Actions – who needs them?
Assuming that consensus is reached in the first part of the day on the key issues the organization faces, most strategic planning workshops then will move on to explore the potential responses.
This is usually a two-part process. The first step is identifying the range of initiatives which could be undertaken to deal with these issues and also to meet the organization’s objectives and implement its projects.
Since this can result in an overwhelming list, the second step is perhaps even more important. This involves scoping and prioritizing these actions, identifying how soon they need to be completed and allocating the resources required to implement them.This is where the task management features offered in most mind mapping software come into their own. Virtually all programs offer icons to show task priorities and progress to completion, along with fields for each task’s start and due dates and duration. Many programs also have a resource field and one to show the effort required to complete each task.
These facilities make it easy to involve the workshop participants in classifying the tasks they’ve identified. Priority icons can be added quickly along with the resources (usually staff resources) required for each task. Many programs also offer the ability to count, say, the number of high priority actions, or how many activities have been allocated to a specific staff member. This makes it easier to deal with situations where there is a major imbalance by moving tasks to different categories or resources.
In classifying the workshop outcomes, it’s important not to get bogged down in detail. Don’t forget that the workshop is meant to be strategic rather than detailed in focus. This is why I suggest making use of the priority icons and resource fields but avoiding – at least during the workshop itself – the task start date, due date and duration or effort fields.
A better alternative is to create two simple sets of tags to be added to each task in the workshop session. The first set should offer only two or three choices revolving around the magnitude of the task and the intensity of work involved. The second set should provide a similarly broad timeframe network, classifying whether the task is short-term (to be completed over the next 12 months, for example), medium-term (the following year) or long-term (more than two years out).
After the workshop, these fields can be retained in the final documentation, or the facilitator and/or the organization’s management team can fine-tune the results and add in details such as the effort required and detailed implementation dates.
5. How to handle breakout sessions
If they are used properly and sparingly, simultaneous breakout sessions involving small groups of participants can bring a lot of benefits to a planning day, but they also represent a practical challenge.
Generally speaking, these sessions are used in two ways:
- For established work teams to respond to specific aspects of the organisation’s strategic plan which are relevant to their operational area; or
- For randomly selected participants to form small groups which can discuss and come up with solutions to either the same or a range of key issues.
Usually each group is either allocated a scribe to record proceedings, or they appoint one themselves from among the participants. The scribe often takes notes on a flipchart which then forms the basis for the group’s report back to the full group.
Unfortunately, this approach encapsulates a lot of the problems with the traditional strategic planning process which I identified in the first article in this series. It also adds a lot of time to the day, as the scribes take turns to report on the outcomes from each group – and when the day is over the facilitator must contend with not one but two, three, four or more different sets of handwritten notes.
Mind mapping offers some interesting alternatives to streamline this process, depending on the technology available and the expertise of the scribes. The first is to turn each small group session into its own mini-mind mapping exercise; each group is allocated a relevant topic or branch from the main map after it is exported or copied and pasted to form a new map. The scribe conducts the breakout session using this map in the same way the facilitator conducts the main session. After the breakout session is completed, the mini-maps are transferred by wi-fi or a USB drive back to the facilitator, who then incorporates these maps back into the main map.
While this is the ideal approach, a major limitation is that each breakout group requires an additional laptop loaded with the mind mapping software program, along with a scribe who has at least basic knowledge of the software being used. This may be beyond the scope of many smaller organizations, but there is a slightly lower-tech solution.
This involves the scribe simply typing the group comments into a text document which is transferred to the facilitator’s PC (via wi-fi or with a USB drive) at the end of the breakout session. Virtually all mind mapping software programs allow the pasting of copied text or the importing of Word files, which means the facilitator can easily incorporate this feedback into the main map. This approach still needs scribes who know how to type and devices for them to type on, but any basic laptop or tablet with word processing software would be sufficient. More importantly, it does not require multiple copies of the mind mapping software, or for the scribes to know how to use it.
An interesting variation of this approach (which I haven’t tried yet) is to use Twitter to send comments from the breakout groups to the facilitator in real time during the session. Hashtags could be set up for each group’s comments and each topic being considered, allowing the facilitator to find, copy, paste and allocate these comments to relevant branches in the main map as the tweets are generated.
This approach requires each scribe to have access to a device with a Twitter account and wi-fi access, but just about any phone, tablet or computer will do. This approach can also be used to obtain feedback from large groups during plenary sessions.
Whatever approach is selected the opportunity for each scribe to make a brief verbal report to the full meeting could be retained. Alternatively, the facilitator could summarize each group’s comments as they are added to the map.
An important point to remember: these approaches all add various combinations of technology and software to the mix, so you should test them thoroughly before the big day. This includes the quality and reliability of the wi-fi setup at the venue; check in particular that a reasonably strong wi-fi signal is available throughout the venue, including any separate meeting rooms you might be using for the breakout sessions.
6. At the end of the day
As the planning workshop concludes, you can use the map to run through the key points and summarize the outcomes, as well as areas that will need follow-up. This should be done at a fairly broad level – after all, the participants don’t want to feel as if they are repeating the whole exercise – but the map provides an effective way to do this by allowing you to zoom in quickly on the key topics.
You can also provide participants with a draft map, either printed or emailed, which summarizes the key outcomes, but it is important to make it clear to everyone that this is not the final strategic plan. Turning these outcomes into a detailed plan is usually the homework of the facilitator, depending on the arrangement with the organization.
7. What happens next?
The first step to take after the workshop is to prepare the final version of the mind map. Ultimately, you will need to export this as a text-based outcomes report for further editing in whatever format the organization uses, but most mind mapping software programs give you the capacity to add material as comments to the map. Whether you do this at this stage or add further comments after export is up to you, but another thing you can incorporate in the final document is an image of the map, at least down to the main sub-topic level.
Assuming that it falls to you as the facilitator to complete the strategic plan, the final workshop map is a great place to start. As noted earlier most mind mapping software programs provide a range of tools for task and project management. After the workshop, you can use these tools to start to flesh out the plan by adding in more detail about priorities, timelines and resources.
As with the outcomes report, you can choose the point at which you export the plan to form a text-based document. Just remember that the outcome is meant to be a strategic plan, which is not the same as a detailed work program.
Mind maps are however the gift which keeps on giving. The final strategic planning map also provides a great basis for creating such a work program which can be managed through most mind mapping applications or alternatively exported to specialized project management software.
In this series, I’ve attempted to provide a comprehensive overview of how mind maps can be used to support strategic planning in your organization. My take-home message is that mind maps are very flexible tools and you don’t have to follow every step I’ve outlined in these articles to incorporate them into your organization’s planning process.
On the other hand, it’s also important to realize that they are not a panacea. You will still face the task of planning, managing and reporting your strategic planning day, which let’s face it is rarely a fun occasion. What mind mapping can do, however, is make the task easier by providing a more engaging and meaningful experience for all participants in the planning process.
To learn more about the benefits of mind mapping software for strategic planning, check out my new e-course.