Friday, 13 December 2013

Looking Back and Forward Looking

It’s that time of year again (although no doubt most of you have been there already) – looking back on 2013: what worked well, the successes, what didn't go so well and what and how things could be improved on for 2014. Also, of course, forward planning for our strategic, operational and individual objectives for 2014. 

Most organisations and businesses are certainly looking forward and planning at all levels with the key aim and purpose of building on the successes of the past 12 months (even leveraging off aspects that may have presented difficulties and challenges) and looking to improve aims, objectives, performance, results, etc, in innovative and challenging ways. 

Of course many of our MindGenius users are already benefiting from the unique plethora of functionality and productivity-enhancing applications that MindGenius offers, not least in the review and forward-planning areas. 

As we approach year-end and plan towards the start of a new year, I want to to share some insights and tips on the range of use and applications that MindGenius provides, particularly in providing clarity and focus on the critical processes of Review and Planning. 

To do this, I've decided to look at each of the two critical aspects separately, list a few pointers on the application of MindGenius in each and then I have added an example map showing the main issues covered within a Strategic Review, covering both the Review and Planning stages… 

REVIEW: The Oxford Dictionaries definition of “Review” is: “ a formal assessment of something with the intention of instituting change if necessary”

PLAN: The Oxford Dictionaries definition of “Plan” is: “a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something”. 

Below is an example map showing an outline of a process for reviewing past performance around key aspects and criteria and then, in addition, including the forward-planning aspects as well…. 



Useful functionality within MindGenius and pointers for REVIEW are: 


  • ease of mapping a structure or template for any type of Review or Plan (together or separately), including the quick and intuitive “type and return” functionality of capturing all the input, data, facts, knowledge, etc. 
  • the ability to add context and meaning, clarity and focus to the whole exercise, or to individual parts, through easily and quickly building structure and hierarchy 
  • use of Map Explorer to navigate the map, focus on any part of the content to ensure comprehensive capture of information and/or aid in clarity and understanding of each topic 
  • the fact that documents, spreadsheets, other maps, websites (URLs), etc., can be attached to any branch, providing that easy access to, and retrieval of, related information and data 
  • using the Notes Editor area to add useful information and data, provide further necessary information or explanation and/or to reduce ambiguity (copying and pasting in from external sources if required) 
  • many and considerable benefits of visualisation through the mapping process and technique – reinforcing the topics, data and facts, as well as being focussed, engaging and collaborative 
  • use of Categories providing the ability to rank, rate or simply add a value or categorisation to any aspect (branch) of a map – with associated viewing and dynamic filtering capability to query, gain a particular view or perspective of your categorised information 
  • comprehensive export functionality to output maps into common MS Office formats (e.g. Word, PowerPoint, Project, etc) – great for pre-planning and pre-writing, for example, documents and reports, saving time and effort in document authoring


Useful functionality within MindGenius and pointers for PLANNING are: 


  • recognising and utilising the power and capability of MindGenius at the Review stage (above) to ensure a thorough understanding of the “current situation” before moving too quickly to solutions or action plans 
  • using MindGenius mapping to engage everyone in the “what do we need to do” and “where do we need to be” types of conversations – engaging, inclusive and collaborative 
  • each team and each individual mapping out their strategic, operational and individual objectives – aiming for that all important alignment and shared vision and direction 
  • using the Task Management capabilities to map out the “What”, “Who” and “When” to provide visibility, focus and clarity of tasks and actions required to deliver aims and objectives going forward 
  • the ability to quickly and effectively apply resources and timescales to a mapped action plan or mapped objectives 
  • effectively monitor and manage tasks and actions – from the basic but impactful visualisation of the maps and / or the functionality of synchronisation with MS Outlook, through to filtering capability on data such as resources, due dates, completion dates, progress status, priority, etc 
  • using MindGenius’ intuitive and highly visual mapping to engage stakeholders and all relevant resources to scope and plan Projects (e.g. WBS, etc) required to deliver the crucial business objectives 
  • utilise the integrated Gantt View to schedule the projects, including resources, timelines, interdependencies, constraints, etc, and then use a comprehensive range of functionality to monitor and control all tasks, activities and stages through to timely and effective conclusion 
  • letting the power and capability of the Project Report output within the Gantt view to provide both high-level and detailed information on each and every aspect of progress of all stages, tasks and activities throughout the Project 

The key themes and benefits accrued from the effective utilisation of MindGenius are implicit in all of the above, but proper adoption and use provide, at its basic level, visualisation focus and clarity. These are further enhanced and augmented by the overall time-saving and productivity benefits gained from working smarter with engagement, collaboration and visibility at every stage from “thinking things through” to “getting the right things done.”

Remember also, MindGenius Ltd provide an extensive range of tailored training and consultancy solutions for individuals and teams. If you need to gain a better understanding of how MindGenius can improve your current processes for Review and Planning, simply contact your Account Manager or email info@mindgenius.com and we can discuss your options. 

Finally I would just like to personally wish all Newsletter readers and MindGenius users all the very best as we end one year and look forward to a new one, we look forward to working and collaborating with you all in 2014.

Author Bio: Jamie MacDonald, Head of Client Development at MindGenius. Jamie is a highly experienced trainer, facilitator and coach with over 20 years’ experience in training, development, HRM and business improvement.

Management Consultant Uses MindGenius to Design Intelligent Business Software

Niall Strickland has been using MindGenius for more than 15 years and it consistently forms part of his toolkit for helping medium and small companies to improve their business performance. Not content with successfully using MindGenius within his business to deliver value to his clients, Niall continues to push out the boundaries in relation to how he can create value from MindGenius. 

About 18 months ago, Niall effectively used MindGenius to design new and highly innovative expert system software, which can be used by businesses to carry out a detailed health check on their business. 

Niall says “MindGenius was not only the catalyst for capturing the core idea behind the software design, but was also the tool used for creating the functional and technical specifications for the software”. Instead of providing the software development team in Germany with long text documents, Niall instead provided it with structured MindMaps that captured the very essence of what he was trying to create. “This worked exceptionally well,” according to Niall. “It not only set out the business case for the software product, identified its target market and delivery channels, but also gave the development team all it needed in order to create this state of the art business software product.” A collapsed version of his initial software design MindMap is shown below. 

Niall's initial software design map 

Niall believes that there are simply no limits to the application of MindGenius within both business and the education sector and he actively encourages his extended network to adopt it as the mind-mapping tool of choice. 

Niall has put together a video on how he and Tammy use MindGenius and "The Many Benefits of Using MindGenius MindMapping in Your Business." View the video here.

Screenshot of "How'sMyBusinessDoing"

“HowsMyBusinessDoing?”, does a detailed analysis of any business across 28 key measurement areas and automatically generates a 50+ page report which helps the business owners or managers to identify and focus on key areas of their business requiring attention. Business owners simply need to complete a confidential online survey about their business, which takes about 90 minutes, and the intelligent software engine automatically provides detailed feedback on what is working in the business and what is not. 

“HowsMyBusinessDoing effectively replaces the need to employ a management consultant to assess how your business is performing and all for less than $500,” according to Niall Strickland. "From a value standpoint, it is a tiny investment for a huge return." 

For more information on “How’sMyBusinessDoing?” click here, or here

Niall has also introduced MindGenius to his teenage daughter, Tammy, who has used it to generate tens of thousands of Euro from selling her MindMaps to secondary school students in Ireland

MindGenius Pathway to Success

The mantras ring out louder each passing day… 

“We need to get better at this!” 

“We must be more efficient in X Y Z!” 

“We must look at ways to be more productive!” 

“We need to be more creative and innovative!” …and there are more… 

In most day-to-day work situations we are usually tasked with or required to deliver an outcome – a tangible, value-adding deliverable. 

Whether we are senior managers / decision-makers, or any other member of staff at any level within the organisation, we all have one main “journey” or “pathway” in common – we are expected, and indeed in most cases paid, to think, prioritise, decide and deliver! 

Sometimes that journey or pathway is a quick and relatively easy task or activity where we can execute it fairly quickly and effortlessly. On other occasions, tasks, activities, objectives, projects, etc, can be more complex, multi-faceted and will require considerable time, effort and a large degree of careful planning, involvement, control and management. 

However, invariably it all boils down to “what is required and how best can I achieve this to guarantee maximum success?” 

At MindGenius we have many models and approaches for problem solving, planning, brainstorming, running meetings, executing projects, etc. Each one of these models is designed to deliver tangible, results-driven outcomes and deliverables. 

One such model is geared to act as a “Road Map” or “Pathway” to success. Regardless of size, complexity, timescales, etc, the pathway is mapped so that each stage is well thought through, the bases are covered, we tap into knowledge, experience and creativity, the overall efficiency of the process and the journey is maximised and we all have an outcome that meets or exceeds expectations. 

Such models are of course not new and there are many “variations on the theme”. However, the main issues and differentiators for us are: Do we execute it all successfully each time? Is the approach or process transferable? Can we guarantee success each and every time? Is all of this adding value and benefit and are we gaining in terms of increased productivity and efficiency? 

The starting premise is simple – every task, activity, objective, etc, has a starting point and an end point (e.g. “What is our “A” (starting position) and what is our “B” (end point)?). We then map a pathway that will enable us to fully understand each and every stage of that journey or “Pathway to Success” – whatever we deem or agree “success” should be. 

We sometimes refer to this in some of our consultancy assignments as a “Model of Excellence”. The example map is such a model, covering the above overview of the “Pathway to Success”… 




Whilst each and every instance is uniquely different, I have attempted to describe short “pointers” for each stage of the Pathway and whilst is appears to be a staged approach with separate identifiable stages, it should be noted that there are overlapping areas and dynamics that make this a very fluid model in its actual deployment… 

1. Aims / Objectives 

Before moving on to solution mode, starting to document the process, carry out any analysis, or kicking-off a project, we need to step back and agree the all-important statements that define and articulate the “What” it is we’re trying to achieve; and “Why” we’re doing this. A clear, shared and communicated sense of purpose ensures that those involved have a solid foundation before embarking on any journey or pathway to success / excellence. 

2. Success 

We need to take an in-depth look at the deliverables and outcomes – in terms of “what does success / excellence look like.” This could be a new process; corrective action as a result of error or failure; and/or driven by customer requirements. The “Pillars” or key elements and priority areas need to be identified and each looked at in terms of what excellence looks like for each. Putting it another way, as a question: “If you don’t have a feel for success / excellence in the key elements of your priority areas and their outcomes, what is the purpose?” 

3. Current Situation 

Now we have a clear focus on what we’re trying to achieve and where we initially see our “A” and “B” points being, we now need to “prove” the current situation around this problem, issue, corrective action, or whatever it is we’re trying to solve. We would typically use tools and techniques to paint a true picture of the positive and negative aspects of where we see the situation. We should leave no stone unturned and map out strengths, positives, weaknesses, areas for improvement, etc. Similar to the previous stages, it is vital that we have the facts and data of where we are in terms of what works well and what doesn't work well, before we can even start to think about possible solutions. 

4. Road Map 

This is the point where, having a clearer picture of the current situation “landscape”, we can begin to map out a “Road Map” that identifies the pathway, beginning at “A” and visualising the key stages to our desired point “B”. This in fact should be an emerging and boundary-free extension to the previous stage. This will be the “building blocks” towards a journey to success. This Pathway should ensure that all the key stages or “Pillars” are covered and is informed by the facts/data uncovered as part of analysing and understanding “current situation.” 

5. Obstacles 

The reality is that this area emerges organically out of the previous. As part of the practicalities of analysis and mapping the pathway (even just the discussions around current situation), obstacles and barriers to success (the “what’s stopping us”) emerge. The main point or lesson here is that obstacles need to be addressed, separately or organically as part of earlier interventions – we need to identify and have clarity and focus on any aspect, problem or barrier that delays or prevents progress in any of our key Pillars or stages. Not only that, but we need to systematically and relentlessly identify solutions that negate each and every one of them. 

6. Action Plan 

This is the “bringing it all together” part for me. We now need to be clear on the “deliverables” – the plan of action put in place to ensure that we actually take the right steps and do the right things to move from whatever our “A” starting position is to the “B” point where we all agree we need to be. Action-centred, specific, measurable, time-bound deliverables that are then communicated, monitored and managed through to completion. The Action Plan will visualise, document and commit everything that needs to be done to get to the successful position of “excellence.” 

7. Management and Review 

It almost goes without saying – with all our well-intended vision of where we need to be, the focus on success / excellence, a clear way-ahead, an extensive and thorough action plan: “How do we know we got there?” The best plans, the best intentions, all need that clarity on how we measure success. What are the success criteria? What are the key performance indicators? What do we need to measure? What and how do we monitor and control not just the outcome and results, but the progress towards that? The other important aspect here is that we need not only to measure the end objectives for the immediate Action Plan but put mechanisms in place to monitor, review and continually improve on an ongoing basis into the future.


Author Bio: Jamie MacDonald, Head of Client Development at MindGenius. Jamie is a highly experienced trainer, facilitator and coach with over 20 years’ experience in training, development, HRM and business improvement.

Short and Cost Effective Meetings Training with MindGenius

Take a bite out of MindGenius… With the first of our bite sized courses…MindGenius for Effective Meetings 

We all have to attend them and most of us could do with a technique to improve the output and success of meetings and if you are interested in your meetings being more effective and productive, this could be the course for you. 

Perhaps you've tried to use MindGenius in this scenario and weren't sure on the best way to do this, or perhaps you've never considered this use before. Used correctly, MindGenius helps bring clarity and focus to meetings, right from the planning stage through to execution, follow-up and close-out. 

Our short 30 minute online course, hosted by Head of Client Development Jamie Macdonald, will take you through the basics of using MindGenius to improve communication and collaboration, and ensure you are driving your tasks and projects forward with more effective meetings and costs just £50/€60/$80* per session. 

The first session is scheduled for Wednesday 27th November at 16:00 GMT +1, 11:00 EST

Let MindGenius be the catalyst for saving time, being more focussed, productive and enabling an action-centred approach for meeting management.

Book Now or Find out More

*VAT where applicable

Complete the Biggerplate Mind Mapping Survey and Win £200 Amazon Vouchers

As a company MindGenius are always interested in what our users are saying and Mind Mapping Library, Biggerplate, are currently running a survey. Complete the survey and you could win £200 (or equivalent in your currency) of Amazon vouchers. 

MindGenius are one of the sponsors of the survey which aims to gather a comprehensive picture of how people are using mind mapping around the world and it would be fantastic to have MindGenius users' opinions represented. 

Take part in the survey here. The survey should take no more than 10 minutes to complete and is open until the 20th of December 2013. A feedback report will be issued and distributed in the new year and the voucher winner will be drawn at random from all entries on this date and notified by email.


Remember you can also share your maps with other MindGenius users and the wider mind mapping community, on Biggerplate, as well as download maps from other users.

We would love to hear what you have to say so please get involved!

The Information Journey

Knowledge, Experience and Creativity – we all possess and use these attributes daily, usually without even overtly thinking about them. 

With tasks, problem solving, decision-making, planning, objective-setting, day-in, day-out we continue to apply and utilise our knowledge, experience and creativity to execute our roles and responsibilities.

At MindGenius we call that utilisation “The Information Journey” – the process of applying our individual or collective knowledge, experience and creativity to a task or challenge in order to take us from where we are now to where we need to be – all in the most productive and efficient manner possible.

One of the informal ways we describe this “Information Journey” is… “from thinking to doing”.

MindGenius Information Journey
Click on images for Full Screen View

I want to share some insights of what we see as the component parts of this “Information Journey” and examine how each phase or step in that journey enable us not only to utilise that inherent knowledge, experience and creativity that resides in all of us, but also look at how they enable and increase productivity and efficiency in the process.

Stage 1 - Capture 

The first kick-off stage where as individuals or in a group we are faced with a task, challenge, problem, plan, project, etc., and we need to think it through.
All our knowledge, ideas, information, and creativity is captured / mapped. This may be in a random, unstructured way (e.g. brainstorm) or a more structured approach could be adopted.


MindGenius enhances the thinking process and ensures this initial capture stage is engaging, inclusive and creative. Its easy and intuitive interface enables easy and quick capture of all ideas, knowledge and information and the visualisation effect helps increase understanding of complex topics and ideas.
Stage 2 - Analyse 

This stage builds on the mapping and visualisation of the information. Before moving on to “solution mode” we need to consider the information and aim to gain a better understanding of the knowledge, information, data, etc., captured.

At this stage we’re looking to make sense of the information, relationships, common themes, priorities and “pathways” through to decisions and outcomes.

MindGenius provides that ease of creating structures and relationships with simple navigation and the ability to easily move branches, providing structure and order.

Users can sort, group and filter on mapped information, providing a solid platform for prioritisation and informed decision-making.

Once again, the dynamics of visualisation enhances this part of the process.

Stage 3 - Decide

This stage is where we should now be in a position of knowing the facts, the data, the pros and cons, the details, and so on, surrounding the issue, task, etc. 


This stage flows naturally and seamlessly from the last in that “the way ahead” starts coming into view and should be clearer.

This is where we use the mapped information, knowledge and data to arrive at well-informed, fact-based priorities and decisions. We have a strong platform and solid base from which to move to the practicalities of our strategy, our plan of attack, our way forward. 

The way in which we apply MindGenius has kept the whole exercise together and provided the clarity and focus for decision-making, whilst retaining visibility and the necessary momentum throughout the whole process.


Once again, we cannot underestimate the visual aspect enabling not only clarity and focus but all-important consensus and agreement within the whole dynamics of the process.

Stage 4 - Act 

At this stage, everything should be lining up to move us to the critical output stage. All that knowledge, ideas and information is going to be effectively utilised.

Whatever it is we set out to plan and execute is now ready to be actioned, whether that was a set of actions from a meeting, a plan, a written report or document, a project plan, etc., we are now ready to “Go Do!”.

Conclusion
As a stand-alone process, the “Information Journey” that takes us from “thinking to doing” through Capture, Analyse, Decide and Act! is a logical, enabling, action-centred approach to tackle problems, tasks, objectives, issues, challenges, plans, strategies, projects, etc., through from initial thoughts to action and completion – all in a more productive and efficient way.

Clarity, visibility and focus are brought to the fore, ensuring we’re doing the right things and doing things right.

The MindGenius functionality and underpinning approaches and methodologies augment this process and further increase overall productivity and efficiency – a real enabling “way of working”.

Think how often you and your team go on an “Information Journey” each day, each week…. Are you getting the best out of MindGenius for maximum execution?

Download the Information Journey Map used above. 

MindGenius Ltd provide an extensive range of tailored training and consultancy solutions for individuals and teams. If you need to improve the way tasks or projects are planned, executed and managed the MindGenius way, contact your Account Manager or email info@mindgenius.com – we’d be happy to discuss your options.



Author Bio: Jamie MacDonald, Head of Client Development at MindGenius. Jamie is a highly experienced trainer, facilitator and coach with over 20 years’ experience in training, development, HRM and business improvement.

Local support now available in Australia and New Zealand

To help better support our customers in Australia and New Zealand, MindGenius mind mapping software are expanding their presence with the help of a new local team and the team have just announced a new Introduction to MindGenius webinar on 30th October at 11am AEST. 

The experienced team, under the command of Colin Cooper, have also launched a new website at www.mindgenius.com.au and are now offering local support, including live chat. 

Colin Cooper, CEO Australia and New Zealand Division, MindGenius Australia and New Zealand said: 

We are delighted to now be offering a dedicated local support team to all MindGenius users, where we will be able to assist you with mind mapping, project planning and business development. Our support team is here if you have any questions or need assistance. As part of our new services we will be offering dedicated webinars and training sessions to help enhance your MindGenius experience, myself and the team really look forward to working with you.” 

Derek Jack, Director, MindGenius said: “We have a growing user base in Australia and New Zealand and are pleased to now have the ability to offer localized help and support and work more effectively with our customers in the region.” 

Sign up for the next webinar now.

Project Manager Today Review MindGenius 5

"A software application specifically developed to overcome business issues using mind mapping principles," is how Steve Cotterell at Project Manager Today describes MindGenius 5. 

Steve has produced a thorough review of the latest edition of MindGenius mind mapping software, focusing on how MindGenius is “more of a brainstorming and planning tool than a simple mind mapper.” 

He found the new Project Report function particularly impressive: "This comprehensive report is beautifully simple to prepare. It shows the overall complete percentage and then details section by section; milestone, phase and task progress information with a RAG status and comments where entered." 

The review is relevant for everyone who uses MindGenius for tasks and projects, not just people who have “Project Manager” as their job title as Steve walks through the functionality in MindGenius that helps with managing tasks and projects. 

To read the full review, click here, or pick up the October edition of Project Manager Today.

MindGenius Resource Centric Map

10, 2, 6...

First, let me state that we are new parents. Not really "new" parents, but rather parents of a newborn son.  My wife and I have lots of children and have been parents for many years, but that newborn schedule always takes some (read…lots!) getting used to no matter how many times you've been through it.  You go through the very early phase of letting the baby dictate the schedule.  Basically…it’s, “Feed me every two hours or else!”  Then, eventually you – as the very sleep deprived parent – try to gain control by attempting to force a feeding schedule as this new little addition starts to eat more and more.  That’s where we are right now – working on that 10, 2, 6 schedule.  Meaning a feeding every four hours with a schedule of 10am, 2pm, 6pm, 10pm, 2am, 6am, 10am….etc.  10-2-6.  That way, eventually (hopefully!) they’ll give up that 2am feeding and you’ll get to sort of sleep through the night.  Eventually.


The early schedule develops

So, where the heck am I going with this discussion of my current ‘new parent’ experiences?  Well, I liken this to our early project schedule.  We begin with a draft schedule of some sort – and that may just be a series of key dates emailed to us from the project sponsor or some account manager who closed the deal.  Or it may be an actual draft schedule that someone – not a project manager and not you for certain – put together based on what they think they know about the project.  Or better yet, it’s a collection of relevant tasks, milestones, deliverables that you have managed to put together with the help of other key resources – possibly your project team if they are fully assembled at this point – through the use a good organizing/planning tool like mind mapping software.  It may be rough, and it certainly isn’t going to be detailed enough to be really usable and it won’t have you sleeping through the night (you’ll be in the same boat as me with my now 7 week old infant son).  But it’s a start – something to work from.

Building out the detail

Next, we work from the statement of work (SOW)…assuming one exists…and identify the true key dates, deliverables and milestones because all of those have to be in that project schedule.  The next step – for me, at least – is always to reach in to my private stash of good, successful project templates and find one that is closest to the type of project and tasks that I’m about to manage.  Starting from scratch is fine, but if you can find a good template that’s worked for you in the past, then you’re less likely to let some key step or task or review or signoff step fall through the cracks.  You need it all in the schedule.  The more detail the better – although there is such a thing as going overboard.  I once had a schedule with 9,354 tasks for a huge government project I was managing.  I’m not sure it was overboard…it was a very large project…but I finally got smart and assigned various portions of it to the proper functional area managers on the project and relied on them to do their own updates before having my staff pull it all together for the weekly project client call.  It kept me – and my staff - from going insane.

Summary

The key is to go from chaos to organization.  Get from allowing the baby to manage your schedule to you managing the baby’s schedule.  It’s ok to not have all the detail at the very beginning.  Or to have it all accurate with every task correct and in the right place.  Do your best, but expect it to change.  As the engagement progresses you’ll build more detail into the schedule, if necessary, and some tasks or even phases may have to be rearranged.  Be prepared to be flexible, but do manage the project schedule closely because it still needs to be detailed enough to drive the management of the progress of the project.

Brad Egeland is an IT veteran of 27 years having worked as an application developer, manager, project & program manager, consultant and business strategist and is the author of BradEgeland.com

5 Signs Your Project is in Trouble – Part 2

In Part 1 of this two part series on five signs that the project you are managing may be in trouble, we covered the first two items on my personal list of five. These were…



  • Poor client communication – this may be a sign that your client is becoming dissatisfied with the project manager and team or something involving the project.
  • New resources are being assigned – new resources are being assigned to your project from within the organization…and you didn’t request them.  This could be a sign that senior leadership is concerned with the health of the project and are taking their own measures to fix things….be concerned.
  • Many change orders – may be a sign that requirements were ill-defined and you’re going to continue down this painful path.

In this Part 2, I’ll go into detail on my final three top signs that our project may be in trouble:  the budget is constantly off, the client is disengaged, and the project is experiencing many change orders.  Let’s look at each of these in more detail…



Budget is constantly out of alignment

If you can’t seem to keep the project budget on track, that’s a big sign that your project is in trouble – at least in trouble of being deemed somewhat of a failure.  From my experience, an overage of 10% is often correctable…and it is usually within the ‘acceptable range’ when evaluating success at the end of the project.  But when the budget starts approaching 20%, 30%, 50% or beyond over budget…then you know you have real problems and it’s basically going to be impossible to correct it.  They key is to be monitoring the project budget every week throughout the engagement to ensure you never are too far out of alignment.  The earlier you can raise the flag and let everyone know there are financial issues on the project, the sooner you can take corrective action and the more likely you are to be able to rein the budget back in.


Poor client sponsor engagement

This one sounds similar but is very different from poor client communication.  Problems with communication can mean your client is upset with the project manager or team.  Poor engagement means they have lost interest or involvement in the project.  And that one is more scary. The poor engagement may be a sign that the project has lost most or all of its importance and priority with the customer...meaning the next step may be a cutoff of funding and a swift cancellation for the project.  

And finally, if your project sponsor becomes less involved or disappears because other work priorities are taking all of his time then where does that leave this project?  And what happens when you need access to him for weekly status call participation or for that quick decision that needs made on a moment’s notice?  A disengaged customer – while it may sound like a luxury to not have them breathing down your neck – is actually a bad thing and can cast a shadow of uncertainty over the entire project engagement.


Abundance of change orders

No one likes change orders – except maybe the execs in your organization because change orders often add revenue to the project.  Change orders usually mean more revenue for the delivery organization and possibly even an increased profit margin.  However, historically they are not something the client is fond of.  If your project begins to experience lots of change orders, then it may be a very clear sign that you started work on the project too early with requirements that were not fully defined.  Is it time to revisit scope – possibly even go back to mind mapping software - and see what was omitted and discuss what other changes may be needed in order to truly meet your customer’s needs?  A never-ending stream of change orders have frustrated more than one customer in the PM world enough to just cancel the project outright.  I’ve seen it  happen, so address the gaps as soon as possible.


Call for response

How about our readers?  What signs have you noticed to be indicators that your project may be in trouble?  What actions did you take to try to correct the situation?  How successful were  your actions?


Brad Egeland is an IT veteran of 27 years having worked as an application developer, manager, project & program manager, consultant and business strategist and is the author of BradEgeland.com

5 Signs Your Project is in Trouble – Part 1

Projects fail for so many reasons and the likelihood for true project success has routinely been documented as being less than 50%. While we can't generate a list that is comprehensive enough to encompass all possible signs, causes, and reasons for our many project failures - there aren't enough minutes in the day to do that - we can focus on and be aware of some of the more common signs that our projects are headed south. 


Over my 20+ years of managing technical projects and playing various roles in project management offices, I've seen - and experienced - my fair share of project issues, near failures and, yes, failures.  As a result, I've mentally compiled my own signs that a project is in trouble - mostly so I can be aware and take timely, corrective action or advise colleagues when I see it in projects being led by others.  For me, it comes down to a list of five signs or categories.  In the first instalment of this two part series, let’s look at the first two signs on my list:  poor client communication and new resources being added to your project…

Poor client communication

Whenever client communication goes south it’s a huge cause for concern for me.  To me, the first thing that comes to mind is that the customer’s satisfaction level has decreased and they are planning a response of some sort that may not involve a discussion with the actual project leader – you may soon get called into the CEO’s office and that’s never fun.

If you notice that communication with the client has dropped off significantly, take immediate action to engage the project sponsor and discuss the situation.  Be direct…is there a problem, an issue, are they upset about something?  It may just be that they are temporarily busy or experiencing some sort of re-org or change internally that doesn’t affect this project, only your project sponsor’s immediately availability for project involvement.  That’s ok…you can work around that.  But if there are real issues on the project side with how the project is going, make it clear that you want to discuss it with them and try to address any issues as quickly as possible.

New resources are being assigned

This one is scary because it starts to happen without your knowledge.  I’ve not had this one happen to me, but I’ve seen it happen to colleagues and it’s definitely a sign that there is some uncertainty concerning the project at a high level.  Either your executive management has concerns or your customer has concerns and has gone around you to voice them to your senior leadership…or both.  But either way it’s a bad sign for you and shows that there is some concern about your leadership of the project.  You must take action fast – the wrong action is to do nothing.  Immediately ask why and be ready to respond with your list of project issues and project status and how you’re currently pro-actively attacking any concerns on the project.  Sit down with your team and use a tool like mind mapping software to map out the issues on the project in a visual manner so you have something to show your executive team. Your executive management may be completely unaware that you are working pro-actively on whatever might be ailing the project and this will be a great time – and your only chance – to let them know that you are ‘on it’.

In Part 2 of this two part series, we’ll examine my next three signs that your project may be in trouble and potential actions to take in each case.

Brad Egeland is an IT veteran of 27 years having worked as an application developer, manager, project & program manager, consultant and business strategist and is the author of BradEgeland.com

Prioritizing Requirements for the Project – Part 2

In Part 1, we began to look at a workable five step scenario for setting up a requirements prioritization process, prioritizing project requirements and then managing those requirements with the help of the assigned priorities throughout the course of the project engagement.  We examined the first two steps in the five-step process.  In Part 2 we’ll examine the final three steps and I welcome your thoughts and feedback on if you find prioritization helpful or necessary and how you go about prioritizing requirements if you do incorporate that as part of your process. 


Resolve inconsistencies.  Once everyone has had a chance to do their prioritization, resolve the differences.  Start by throwing all of the requirements that everyone has ranked the same into the appropriate bucket.  That is, if everyone prioritizes requirement A as a 1, it’s definitely a 1.  Then, move to building a consensus on the requirements that different people prioritize differently.  Get the stakeholders together, and show them the requirements that they agreed on and then the ones that they ranked differently.  Often, people will find agreement after some informal discussion.  If not, note who is disagreeing.  When you are managing development of a product for a particular customer, that customer’s prioritization should usually carry the most weight in the discussion.

If a strong disagreement continues over a particular requirement’s priority, put the requirement in the higher class to stop the debate.  If you have a single holdout insisting that requirement D is a 1 while everyone else thinks it’s a 2, go ahead and put it in class 1, with a note to put it behind the other priority 1’s in the schedule.  Keep the process simple and speedy.  At this stage of your product, you don’t know enough to find a perfectly optimized solution anyway.

Create a priority-based project schedule.  After you have a set of priorities, use them to create priority-based development schedules.  Show everyone where work begins and ends on each requirement.  This information helps you define intermediate products or “releases” containing the high-priority requirement implementations.  These schedules will also help your developers synchronize work on particular requirements.

Maintain the priorities throughout the engagement. Throughout the development effort, you must maintain the priorities.  You don’t finish with prioritization until you finish the last version of the product or implement the last phase of the project.  Revisit them as the team – with the customer as needed.  Go back to what you laid out in your mind mapping software and see where adjustments may need to be made along the way.  You may find that tradeoffs will have to be made along the way during design and development of the solution to make sure that the priorities are still driving the effort on a realistic overall project schedule for the solution.  When the customer brings new requirements (and they always do) that require deferring some old requirements, you will need to work with the team and customer to review and re-assess the priorities given to key requirements to be sure that the most important requirements are kept on the critical path and the lesser prioritized functionalities are the ones pushed out or potentially discarded altogether.  

Summary

That’s my five-step process for prioritizing project requirements.  I admit that I don’t use it on every project – just the ones where I feel…and the team feels…that it will be helpful.  Any lengthy project really needs this type of process incorporated and complex projects that run the risk of several change orders, potential scope issues, or very tight budgets that are going to be difficult to keep on track are all candidates for this type of oversight.

How about our readers – do you use a process to prioritize requirements?  Do you do it for all projects or just a select few?  Please share your thoughts and experiences.



Brad Egeland is an IT veteran of 27 years having worked as an application developer, manager, project & program manager, consultant and business strategist and is the author of BradEgeland.com

Using Mind Mapping To Get Paid For Financial Planning Shadow Work

Mind Mapping Software is being extensively used in the Financial Planning industry to help identify client goals, values and objectives, capture, structure and document financial data, and to improve the entire client engagement process.  Michael Kitces is a high profile expert and commentator in the Financial Planning industry and he explains below how using mind mapping creates an opportunity to create a more genuinely differentiated experience from the competition, and can lead to a far more engaging client experience.

The article below is an excerpt of a full article that can be found at Michael's blog.

As financial planners seek out differentiation in an increasingly crowded environment, a new trend is emerging towards the use of more interactive software tools to provide a more engaging client experience. While many of these new approaches revolve around the use of financial planning software live with clients - replete with quick data entry support and sliders for clients to manipulate the goals and see immediate impact - the reality is that even the old-fashioned data gathering meeting represents an opportunity to use technology to better engage new clients, and the tool of choice appears to be the mind map.

Although mind mapping has been used in other business contexts - from keeping personal thoughts organized to creative team brainstorming meetings - the tool may be especially appealing for financial planning, as it not only visually captures a lot of client information that is otherwise hard to see all at once, but it does so in a manner that provides a tangible deliverable to what others is some of the most intangible "shadow work" that we do for clients. Whether as a way to justify fee increases, or simply to increase the firm's value proposition, adopting mind mapping becomes an appealing way to create perceived value for work that is ultimately useful for clients but also time-intensive and often unrecognized.

However, the mind mapping tool doesn't have to be used in a purely business context. It can also be effective as a way to complete the data gathering process in a financial planning context. For instance, imagine the template below on a large monitor in your conference room, visible to both the planner and the (new) client. Ultimately, the branches below simply represent areas in which the planner might ask typical discovery questions, from technical areas like tax and investments to more personal questions around communication issues, the family's estate plan, or their goals for family education.

 
As the conversation progresses with the client, the information from the client's answers is not merely scribbled down by the planner on a yellow pad for only the planner to see; it fills out the mind map with the client directly engaged in the process in a more build-a-plan oriented experience. Imagine it from the client's perspective - the client actually get to see his/her financial life take shape in the form of a mind map before their very eyes!

A key aspect for the value of mind mapping in financial planning...Read the full article, including information on how to get training for Financial Planners at http://www.kitces.com/blog/Using-Mind-Mapping-To-Get-Paid-For-Financial-Planning-Shadow-Work/

MindGenius 5.1 Now Available to Download

MindGenius Ltd are pleased to announce the release of Version 5.1 of their mind mapping software, MindGenius. This release is a maintenance release and a free update for all MindGenius Version 5 customers and can be downloaded from: www.mindgenius.com/Support/Downloads.aspx.

We have also taken the opportunity to include some small enhancements in this release including the ability to multi-select tasks in the Gantt View, copy & paste MS Excel cells directly as map branches, the addition of Categories to the left hand Properties Pane and added some new templates to the WBS and Schools sections of the Templates Pane.

If you are an existing V5 customer, simply download the latest trial version of MindGenius from www.mindgenius.com/Support/Downloads.aspx. This will automatically update your installation. There is no need to uninstall earlier versions of MindGenius 5 and your product will still be activated.

If you are new to Version 5, visit www.mindgenius.com/Business-Download.aspx to download a free trial. Even if you have downloaded a trial of previous versions of MindGenius, this will give you another 30 day free trial version. Visit the MindGenius website for additional information on features included in MindGenius 5.

Tasks – Staying On Track

It’s what we all do… regardless of our title, job role or where we’re placed in our business or organisation, the productivity and efficiency of the day-to-day business depends on everyone taking responsibility to ensure that everything they are tasked to do is done to the best of their ability and on time.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And, of course there’s a lot more to it than this rather simplistic view.

So why is it then, if it’s such a simple concept, that we continually come across missed deadlines, uncompleted tasks, lack of clarity on priorities, ownership and timescales, etc, etc…..

But firstly, back to basics…

Let’s first consider the definition of “Task”. The most common themes are “a piece of work assigned or done as part of one’s duties” and “a piece of work to be done or undertaken”. In project management, a “Task” is “an activity that needs to be accomplished within a defined period of time or by a deadline”.

“Task Management” is widely defined as “the process of managing tasks through its life cycle”; also “a formalised process for achieving an identified result”. I particularly like this one: “a cohesive, clear and visible approach to ensuring important activities are accomplished to achieve individual and team goals and objectives”.

You could probably come up with other variations. We may all have different phrasing and our own way of describing Tasks and Task Management, but I am sure you’ll agree that it’s all about the essence of all of the above.

Also worth emphasising is that effective task management results in individuals, teams, and indeed whole organisations, achieving objectives, goals and targets.

All the more reason that we should take task management, in all its forms, seriously and adopt a “cohesive, clear and visible approach” to plan, prioritise, assign, perform and complete all tasks required to deliver our organisational objectives.

I have created a MindGenius map of what I see as being an overview of the key elements of Task Management.

Within a business environment, effective task management is very much dependent on a variety of dynamics and a mix of individual skills, knowledge, expertise; as well as, within a team or organisational context, clear and effective communication, collaboration, etc.

However, in terms of a process or model, key aspects may be, for example:
  • Plan – Create a task list, be clear on the specific objectives for each and visualise them (e.g. map) to aid clarity, focus and understanding
  • Categorise – For lists of multiple tasks it may be helpful and provide further focus if tasks are categorised or grouped (e.g. nature of task / activity)
  • Prioritise – For multiple tasks, it is invariably a case of “first things first”, so decisions have to be made on order, sequence and priority. Parameters such as complexity, importance, urgency, etc, may need to be considered
  • Ownership – for multiple tasks requiring contribution from more than one person, effective communication of the allocation and ownership of tasks is crucial
  • Timescales – linked in with ownership and responsibility for tasks is the agreement of timescales for each task – particularly crucial in the multiple task and potentially complex interactions required within projects
  • Perform / Execute – the stage of “doing it”. Requiring all tasks to start on time, keep momentum, adhere to urgency and deadline and be monitored and managed through to completion – as effectively and painlessly as possible! Within all of this having the ability and flexibility to adapt to any necessary change
  • Completion – ensuring all tasks are monitored and managed through to a completion – on time, on budget and fulfilling all the criteria and objectives outlined at the outset
MindGenius enables effective task management – each task identified, clarified, visualised, right through to the easy-to-use functionality that keeps all your tasks monitored and managed through to completion. From brainstorming individual or group tasks, mapping out action plans at meetings, through to mapping a project work breakdown structure, MindGenius effortlessly enables the process outlined above to become alive, visible, non-complicated and totally manageable.

MindGenius Ltd provide an extensive range of tailored training and consultancy solutions for individuals and teams. If you need to improve the way tasks or projects are planned, executed and managed the MindGenius way, contact your Account Manager or email info@mindgenius.com – we’d be happy to discuss your options.

What process do you follow for task management? How does MindGenius fit into that process?

Author Bio: Jamie MacDonald, Head of Client Development at MindGenius. Jamie is a highly experienced trainer, facilitator and coach with over 20 years’ experience in training, development, HRM and business improvement.

Effective Business Report Writing

So you've been asked to produce a report. How do you react? Where do you start? What are they looking for? What will you say? What message will you put across? So much to tell, how will you condense it? What will you use? Where is the information? How will you pull it all together? What are the bear traps to avoid?
 
All this before you even start to consider the information that needs to go into the report!!! And the most common response is "How long can you put this chore off for?"
 
Usual Sequence of Events
How do you normally get started? Recognise this? First you open Microsoft Word . Then you start typing. You start with a burst of enthusiasm, but soon slow down. You tinker with bits of text, wondering to yourself if it wouldn't look better larger, bolder or in italics. You try a different font, thinking that might make the report look better. You insert a picture, telling yourself it will use up space and make your report look meatier.
 
Before you know it Procrastination sets in. Quickly followed by Frustration, Confusion, Self-Doubt and Utter Dissatisfaction with what you've produced, Plus a desire to completely rewrite the report from scratch.
 
If you haven't got a headache already, you soon will have. Three possible consequences arise:
 
  1. The report takes you a long time to complete and you miss the deadline.
  2. You feel so frustrated and de-motivated that you don't write it at all.
  3. You write your report, but your approach is totally haphazard and your content is off the mark. You don't like it and they won't like it.
 
And whether you are writing the report for your course tutor, your boss, or a prospective client, none of the above are going to help your career, are they? For most people report writing is a necessary evil, yet if you adopt some simple actions you can reduce the headache of report writing. You will generate better reports, quicker, with less effort.

Here are 14 simple steps that will make report writing much easier for you.
  1. Be focused - What is the report to be about? A surprisingly simple question that is often difficult to answer. If you can answer it, you will not only know the objectives you have to achieve, you will be focused and the report will be much easier to write. If you can't - you will fail.
  2. Know your target audience - Who wants the report and why? Who will read the report and what are they looking for? What will happen as a result of the report? What are they going to do with the information they are looking for? If you can put yourself in the shoes of the report's intended audience you will know the messages they are looking for and the best way to impart that information.
  3. Scope the report - What should the report contain/cover? What should it Not cover? Know the boundaries of your report subject matter. That way you will not waste time researching and writing beyond the scope of the report. You will also be able to identify and address gaps and omissions in the report before it is published. You will also be able to incorporate appropriate disclaimers, caveats and assumptions in the report to manage your audience's expectations.
  4. Size the report - How long can the report be? What is expected? Are there limitations on the size of the report (No of words/pages, size of electronic files)? You need to have a good feeling for the size of the report so you can gauge how much information and content you have to gather/collate and the level of detail that you can enter into. Sometimes it's harder to write a short report than a long one because of the need to summarise and decide on what to keep in and what to leave out.
  5. Know what you want to say - Look before you leap - applies to a report as well as a wall. What messages are you trying to get over? If your messages are important, be overt with them. Don't leave it to chance that the reader will be able to discern them. Clearly understand these first before you start writing. Your writing must support, explain and emphasis your key messages.
  6. Outline your report - Create a blueprint or a basic outline of the report that you wish to generate. Create the skeleton of your report. Think through your message structure. Decide how best to structure your writing to support your key messages and points of view. This allows you to break down the report writing task into manageable tasks whilst keeping you on the right track and maintaining your focus.
  7. Gather and collate information - What do you already know? What information already exists? What information is to hand? Align your information to your outline. What information is missing? Are there gaps? What areas do you require to research further? Pull all the relevant information together and understand what it is telling you. Does it support your key messages? Are your assumptions still valid?
  8. Decide on style before you start - Are you going to adopt an active or passive writing style? Are you going to use formal or informal language? Is there a standard you have to follow? Make these decisions up front. It is easier to get the format correct from the start rather than having to go through and make amendments to the layout as you go along.
  9. Pre write - Although you have broken the report up into manageable chunks it is still important that you think about what you want to say and how it should be structured before you start writing. List down the key messages you wish to get across and brainstorm your thoughts on them. Preferably use single words. Don't worry about grammar and the 'glue' words at this time. Focus on content and structure. Once you have done this you will be clear in your own mind what you want to say and how you want to say it. Writing it then becomes much easier.
  10. Capture the reader's interest - You will not be able to control how your readers read your report. Some will skim, some will skip about. You need to capture their interest. Use highlighted paragraph headings, bullet points and break up the report into meaningful, but small chunks, so the reader can identify areas of specific interest. Your outline will help you to do this.
  11. Make good use of graphics - A picture paints a thousand words. Make judicious use of graphics (graphs, diagrams, pictures). Not only does it brighten up what may otherwise be acres of boring typeface, graphics can powerfully put over a complex concept/scenarios in a simple and reader friendly way.
  12. Repeat your key messages - Tell them what you are about to tell them then remind them of what you've told them. It's a proven fact that people tend to remember more of the first and last things they are told. It is also true that busy people don't have the time to wade their way through screeds of text. So cut to the chase. Provide an Executive Summary at the start and a Conclusion at the end.
  13. Check the report - Does the report meet the objectives? Are the key messages clear and supported by the content of the report? Is the report consistent in content and style throughout? Perform a spell check and grammar check. Carefully proof read. Spell checks don't highlight wrong words that are spelt correctly.
  14. Bounce the report off of others before releasing it - Avoid the motherhood trap. People find it difficult to be truly critical of their own work. Let someone else look at the report and comment on it. Tell them what the objectives of the report are and who the target audience is and let them get on with it. Discuss their comments with them and understand the reasoning behind the comments. Don't get defensive. Make changes as appropriate then check the report before distributing it.

But all the above steps are the rare application of good common sense. Have we just replaced one chore with multiple chores? You haven't been given an answer, you've been given an approach. A proven, excellent approach. It's still down to you. You have to use your intellect to implement these steps.

Solution: You can use paper and pencil or your existing software applications. However most software applications focus on excellence in delivery format. The key elements of a report are its content and structure.

What help can we give you to develop excellence in the content and structure of your report? MindGenius can help you quickly:
  • Become focused
  • Identify your target audience
  • cope and size the report
  • Identify what you want to say
  • Outline your report
  • Gather and collate information
  • Pre write
  • Make decisions
  • Check your report
  • Walk others through your report
  • Transfer report contents into the output format of your choice
Have you tried using MindGenius for report writing?