Starting with a Mind Map
There are many ways to start planning a project: The possibly worst way is to start with the schedule, since you will quickly get lost in details. The most organized way is a work breakdown structure (WBS), but if you are still in the conception phase, why not simply start with a mind map?
I remember my own first steps in project management: You get one of these typical project management tools such as Microsoft Project and the first thing you see is a schedule (also called a GANTT chart) beside an activity list and there you go. You will automatically be tempted to start drawing activities and make estimations of durations and efforts before even knowing exactly what you want to achieve. My suggestion: Try to withstand the temptation and go back one step.
The first thing we have to define is the content of the project, i.e., what goals we want to achieve. If you are a very structured guy you may want to directly proceed to creating an activity list or a work breakdown structure (I will explain what this is all about in one of my next posts), but if you are like the rest of us, you may want to start with something which is a little bit more dynamic in nature: A mind map.
You probably already know what a mind map is, but for those he don't: You are starting with a central element (which in this case happens to be your project itself) and start to add "branches" around this element, i.e., breaking the central topic up into more manageable pieces (which in turn can again be broken up into more branches, etc). So basically, you are using the good old divide and conquer approach.
The major advantage of a mind map over a more structured approach in this project phase is that it is more dynamic:
- You can freely position your topics on the mind map while still having the association with the parent topic - this stimulates the creative process while at the same time making sure that you don't loose your focus
- You can make cross-references using links between your topics which helps you to identify and resolve dependencies between topics without being distracted by a schedule
Personally, I always start with the project name itself and then add my major goals on the first level. If I want to make sure that I also keep my not-goals in mind I add them in a box somewhere at a corner of the map. Then I break the major goals down into smaller sub goals, potentially adding notes and links until I feel comfortable with a first version.
Then my personal "trick": I at least allow one night of sleep pass until I again look at the mind map. This way, my brain has some time to order my thoughts "internally" and I am sure that even my subconscious is comfortable with the project map ;-). What are your experiences with this creative part of project planning?