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MIND map to project success

July 01, 2019
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Planning research activities for design and innovation projects can be overwhelming at times, especially when entering a new market or segment.

It can seem like the questions and unknowns are endless. Oftentimes, decisions about where to dedicate the most resources or where to begin can be arbitrary – based on one person’s gut or a sponsor or stakeholder far removed from the project. This can slow down work and often lead to activities and “insights” that aren’t necessarily accruing value to the effort.

Most design processes start with empathy or insights and jump right into design research methods – forgetting to acknowledge how crucial framing and scoping can be. A sentence or two may be given to framing or planning, leaving many to believe that it’s simple and fast. I’m not going to dig into all of the considerations that need to go into framing and scoping (e.g. drafting a problem statement, identifying measures for success, considering roadblocks, etc.) and instead focus on one decision making tool that can help in the framing process and throughout the design process – a MIND map.

Yes, there are already “mind” maps in the world of design (a super helpful tool!) but this one is different – MIND stands for Most Important Next Decision and is a simple 2x2 and decision-making framework for breaking down a problem, business model or process into more discrete pieces that you can prioritize for next steps. Assumptions, hypothesis or questions are sorted based on how critical and unknown they are so that the most critical unknowns (what will fall into the top-right quadrant) are prioritized for research (primary and/or secondary) or experiments.

Before you get people in a room, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Do this with the core team that will be leading and making decisions throughout the project.
  • Your team may need at least one (maybe a couple) hours to complete a first pass of this activity.
  • While the output of the 2x2 and some decisions are the main goals, the process of the team relating and debating points of view helps identify areas of alignment and misalignment.
  • Have one person be the facilitator – someone who is not a decider and (hopefully) less likely to bias where sticky notes go.
  • Just like any 2x2, you should “try it on” in a few different ways. For example, the word “critical” can be subjective, so you may want to see if the 2x2 changes if you define “critical” based on development timeline or just a general “heat” associated with the question or assumption.
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Start with defining and then sorting your unknowns

1.  Give the team five minutes to privately and silently write down on sticky notes what they believe are all of the big questions or assumptions related to the design effort. These should be questions related to the effort that could be answered via research or experiments. The team may instead decide that the information type is assumptions about a concept or business model. Pick one approach (questions or assumptions) so the stickies are consistent. And as always, one idea per sticky – and use black markers you can read from far away!

2.  Invite one person to share all of his/her stickies and ideas and post them on the wall – not yet sorting them. Go around the room to see where others had similar or different ideas until you have a full and consolidated list. If needed, re-write the stickies so their meanings are clear and they represent a single statement, not a combination of assumptions or questions. This could take 30-45 minutes if it’s your first pass.

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3.  Draw the vertical y-axis only (not the x-axis yet!) down the center of a white board or flip chart. This is your knowledge line. Label the top “unknowns” and the bottom “knowns.

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4.  Choose one sticky that had some “energy” around it and put that in the middle – the rest of the stickies will be sorted above or below that based on how known (near the bottom) or unknown (near the top) it is.

5.  Tips for thinking about how “known” something is: Do we have research on this already? How old or new is it? Do we believe it? Has the world changed enough that it may not still be valid?

6.  After all the ideas are sorted, read through each one from top to bottom and confirm that the order seems about right.

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Next, sort the unknowns based on how critical they are

7.  Add your x-axis through the middle of the unknowns is where the ideas naturally sort between what is more known to unknown. Close enough is good enough here and if everything really is unknown, then use your best judgement to find a midpoint. This is the criticality line. Label the left “not critical” and the right “very critical”.

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8. Start moving your stickies to the left and right of this line (without moving their vertical position) based on the importance of the question or assumption.

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The upper right quadrant represents your highest-risk questions or assumptions – the things you need to research or question first. The next step in this process is to design a research and/or testing problem that answers those questions and helps them move off of the MIND map. Inevitably though, new questions and assumptions will come up so treat the MIND map as a living and dynamic document that helps drive alignment and decision making not just at the beginning of a project or at a single point of time, but throughout the effort.

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