Bear with me while I talk about…me. I’m a busy guy. I work for 63 attorneys scattered across Virginia in four offices. I manage an administrative department that is responsible for the accounting, human resource, IT, library and marketing functions within a dynamic and growing firm. I volunteer for two professional organizations. I am responsible for, or contribute to, numerous projects and am constantly bombarded with new information, most of which is relevant to my work but some of which is meaningless chatter. Of late, either because of old age or information overload (or both), I’ve started losing the ability to see my total landscape and to keep track of projects and who is doing what. Mere to-do lists no longer do the job. I need help.
Okay, it’s your turn. You’re a busy lawyer, handling multiple clients. You manage numerous matters as they migrate from intake to resolution. You collaborate with colleagues, comb through enormous piles of data and research, and try to stay on top of copious deadlines. You are feeling a bit overwhelmed and noticing a growing flood of articles about legal project management. You need help, too.
ANCIENT PROCESS, NEW TOOL
Could a process purportedly developed in the third century, coupled with 21st century technology, be our salvation? It just might be so! I’m referring to a software and Web-based mind-mapping tool by Mindjet. With the release of the latest version of Mindjet, the company by the same name has delivered an easy-to-use tool that brings clarity to thought, collaboration to brainstorming and a visual framework to project management.
Don’t let a term like mind mapping cause you to hastily turn the page. It simply refers to the process of visually organizing information, ideas, projects and tasks so that you can see both detail and the big picture at once. You likely have used a whiteboard for this purpose, and if so, you’re already trained to use Mindjet. After downloading the software, it’s incredibly easy to put to use. For example, without reading a user’s manual or hours of trial and error, I used the software to quickly build an organizational chart that reflected staff/attorney reporting relationships across multiple floors and practice areas. By doing so, I could easily visualize current ratios and identify existing support capacity.
As a user of Microsoft Office, you will feel right at home. The program’s features and tools are clearly presented in a cleanly designed ribbon. As you hover over the various commands, helpful comments are presented in pop-up boxes. Start with a blank map or select from several categories of predesigned templates. Templates provide a kick start to the mapping process. However, given the simplicity of the program, you may find it stimulating to start with a clean palette and work through your own thoughts and ideas. After adding a central theme, you build your map by adding branches known as Topics or Subtopics. Unconnected ideas can be added as Floating Topics. Drag-and-drop functionality makes it easy to rearrange map elements. So, as you think through an issue or brainstorm a project, ideas entered as topics can be promoted, demoted, connected or disconnected with ease.
NOT YOUR MOTHER’S WHITEBOARD
Once you begin using the software, you will quickly see how it moves well beyond the capabilities of the traditional whiteboard. Unlike a whiteboard, you can attach documents, images, notes and hyperlinks to entries. Ideas can be easily transformed into tasks with start dates, due dates, assigned resources, etc. Using preset and custom markers, ideas and tasks can be prioritized, allowing for sorting as your map develops. As a practical example, consider the use of Mindjet as a case-mapping tool. Facts related to specific matters can be listed as they are identified and later prioritized based on relevancy. If a particular fact requires investigation, it could be marked as a task. As legal research is developed, a hyperlink to the source could be attached or the actual finding itself as a locally stored and attached document. Using the program’s collaborative features, a paralegal or associate could be added as a resource and the research delegated via an assigned task. Progress on a particular task can be updated using preset markers displaying percentage completed. Topics or tasks with start and due dates can be viewed, along with progress noted on a Gantt timeline.
As with a whiteboard, you can use Mindjet to communicate complex ideas or processes. Users have a high degree of control over the appearance of their maps, allowing for emphasis on key concepts. You can select from predesigned themes or customize most elements, including topic shape/color, font style/color, background, etc., and elements can be enhanced with a wide selection of canned images and icons. Once your map is complete, you can easily create slides from its branches by using the Slides feature. You can use the resulting slides to share your thoughts, ideas, project plan, etc., in print or in a slide show, using the Slide Show feature. The Walk Through tool allows you to step through a full-screen view of your map, expanding and collapsing topics as you go. Practical applications extend beyond the law office, from explaining a litigation plan to a client to making a jury presentation in court.
FROM WHITEBOARD TO DASHBOARD
Mindjet’s ability to dynamically link with Microsoft Office, particularly Outlook, moves the program from a virtual whiteboard to a project management dashboard. By simply right-clicking on a map topic, it can be sent to Outlook as a linked task or appointment. Update an item in Mindjet and it is updated in Outlook. Update the same item in Outlook and it is updated in Mindjet. A really powerful feature of the program is the ability to add Outlook queries to your maps. A selection of prewritten but easily customizable queries is provided, and creating your own is easy. Query results are added to your map as individual topics. Linked items, created manually or with queries, display special icons indicating the type of Outlook items to which they are linked.
Mindjet also links to Excel, allowing you to insert a spreadsheet range into a map. As with Outlook items, the link is dynamic, so that the data in your map updates as changes are made within the spreadsheet. Spreadsheet data, either from an external Excel file or Mindjet’s built-in spreadsheet tool, can be quickly displayed in a chart using the program’s charting feature.
Additional Microsoft Office integrations include the ability to export maps as Word files and slides within a map as a PowerPoint presentation. The program also integrates with Microsoft Sharepoint, but I did not evaluate that feature for this column.
Mindjet’s collaborative strengths are supported by its online feature, which allows for map and task sharing as well as online map creation and editing. Utilizing the provided cloud-based storage and free tablet and smartphone apps, you can create new maps and work with existing maps while away from your desk. The iPad app is well designed and fairly intuitive. The iPhone app works well but likely is better used to view existing maps given the smaller screen size.
The current version of Mindjet brings together several products under one title, adding simplicity to plan selection and pricing. As a new user, you have the option of subscribing to Mindjet for Individuals or Mindjet for Web for $15 per month or to Mindjet for Business, which includes all of the Mindjet Web features, for $30 per month. To access most of the features referenced in this column, you will need to opt for the latter.
Can’t see the forest for the trees? Need help seeing the big picture? Mindjet can bring clarity to your overcrowded landscape, help you to organize and communicate your thoughts and ideas, and aggregate varied information to support more efficient and productive project management. A reasonably priced subscription will deliver solid desktop, Web-based and mobile platforms, giving you access to Mindjet’s easy-to-use tools whenever you need them.