Mind-Mapping

I clearly remember that one of the things I usually felt throughout my student years (high-school and college mostly) was that somehow the notes I took weren’t quite effective. At times it felt that I almost had to write down everything word for word so I didn’t loose any valuable piece of information – everything seemed important and I had a hard time identifying key concepts and ideas and jotting down just the relevant pieces of information that allowed me, later on, to mentally rebuild the whole idea. I eventually toyed with the idea of learning shorthand, but fortunately I eventually found out about mind-mapping.

I have been using mind-mapping regularly for several years and it immediately felt a very natural and easy way to persist information in a way that I could trace it’s flow from one idea to the next, allowing me to recall information at a much deeper level. At the same time, note taking required much less granular notes.

Today, after some years of practice, I find that mind-mapping not only helps me effectively with note taking, it also helps with creative problem solving. I use it for solo and team brainstorming sessions, whenever I am exploring any new subject.

Creating a mind-map is quite simple:

  1. Get a clean sheet of paper (I usually use plain white paper – no lined or squared paper) and write the topic you’re exploring in the center of the page inside a large circle. This helps clearly identify the subject;
  2. As you explore the subject, write notes on lines that originate from the circle;
  3. As you explore deeper, draw new lines linked to the line with the note that originated the new ideas. This way it’s very easy to persist a line of thinking (and remember it later on);

I have seen mind-maps where there are few notes and each branch is just a heading/subheading organization with the final branches (the ones furthest from the main topic) representing the facts, but I prefer a more free-form where each branch represents an idea. I usually take a lot of notes as I explore the topic further and further.

Having used mind-mapping for a number of years now, I find it an indispensable tool for note taking whether I’m exploring possible solutions to a specific problem or whether I’m just studying any given subject.

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SQ3R

 For those of us who have to consume large amounts of technical/professional information and really absorb it, SQ3R is a reading and study system that enhances information retention and absorption.

The name of this system, SQ3R, is an acronym for it’s five stage process:

  • Survey
  • Question
  • Read
  • Recite
  • Review

SQ3R helps you create a mental framework that you can use to fit the information you read and to further enrich it with new facts from additional sources.

  • Survey – Survey the document by scanning it’s contents, gathering the necessary information to focus on topics and help set study goals.
    1. Read the title, introduction, summary or a chapter’s first paragraph(s). This helps to orient yourself to how this chapter is organized and to understand the topic’s key points.
    2. Go through each boldface heading and subheading. This will help you to create a mental structure the topic.
    3. Check all graphics and captions closely. They’re there to emphasize certain points and provide rich additional information.
    4. Check reading aids and any footnotes. Emphasized text (italics, bold font, etc.) is typically introduced to catch the reader’s attention or to provide clarification.
  • Question – During this stage, you should note any questions on the subjects contained in the document. I suggest surveying the document again, this time making a note of any questions that you have while scanning each section. These questions become study goals and they will become information you’ll actively search later on while going through each section in detail.
  • Read – Read each section thoroughly, keeping your questions in mind. Try to find the answers and identify if you need additional ones. Mind Mapping can probably help to make sense of and correlate all the information.
  • Recall/Recite – In the recall (or recite) stage, you should go through what you read and try to answer the questions you noted before. I suggest doing this for every section, chapter or topic. It’s in this stage that you consolidate knowledge, so refrain from moving on until you can recall the core information.
  • Review – Reviewing all the collected information is the final step of the process. In this stage you can review the collected information, go through any particular chapter, expand your own notes, or discuss the topics with colleagues and other experts. An excellent way to consolidate information is to present or teach it to someone else.

The image below presents the SQ3R system as a workflow of tasks, the way I have been applying it.

SQ3R_v2

Decision Process

Before making a decision, first decide on how to decide.

We often tend to forget many of the tools or frameworks available to us when we have to make decisions. We end up procrastinating decisions just because we haven’t defined what the decision making process is.

I was recently reminded of this point as I sat in a meeting where no one could reach a decision because it had to be consensual, so everyone ended up discussing small and irrelevant details that added absolutely nothing to the topic at hand and consensus was reached only after a lengthy and mostly unproductive discussion. Have you ever been on a meeting like this?

After the meeting I had to ask myself why was it necessary for the decision to be consensual? Was it that relevant for everyone involved? I don’t think so. Was there any other way to make a decision and move on? I believe there was.

Situations like this often happen because there is no clear understanding about how decisions are to be made. So, before you have to make a decision first decide on how you’re going to decide. There are basically four ways to make a decision:

Commanding – Having all the information you need you make the decision yourself and communicate what it is. You find this decision making process in law enforcement and in the military, for instance.

Consulting – You need additional information so you consult whomever you need to get it. After having all the information the responsibility of making the decision is still yours and yours alone.

Consensus – The topic is relevant to everyone involved so everyone has to agree before moving forward. This model is usually the most time consuming of the four.

Voting – The quintessential democratic method. Everyone votes on the topic and a decision is reached based on the ballot (there are many ways to tally the votes).

Leading Creative Teams

I deal with highly intelligent, motivated and creative individuals on a daily basis. Leading teams of creative individuals is both a privilege and a responsibility. Generally speaking, creative and intelligent individuals are used to question status quo and typically find creative ways around organizational obstacles, so I am constantly reminded of an insightful quote I read in an article in the Harvard Business Review:

Leading teams of creative, intelligent individuals requires an atmosphere where rules and norms are plainly and universally accepted. 

It has been my experience that for leadership to be accepted you have to create an atmosphere where the team members are valued individually, and feel committed with the overall goals. I believe that for rules and norms to be universally accepted, it’s important to communicate and get agreement on shared objectives.

I also think that creative and intelligent people need a fair amount of leeway in how to reach a given objective. However, it’s still up to the leader to set the goals and define the boundaries of the playing field.

Experience

In a previous post I mentioned the speech J.K. Rowling gave at the Harvard annual Alumni meeting. In her address, Rowling talks about the virtues of failure. It reminded me of a quote I heard once (I keep a little black book of quotes I find particularly insightful):

Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.

Here’s my interpretation. A goal is a destination. Experience is the path that leads you to your goals. By following this path you gain experience and even if you end up not reaching your goal, there are still lessons to be learned from simply trying.

Failure And Hope

I accidentally stumbled upon this video of J. K. Rowling giving a wonderful speech at the annual Harvard Alumni Association meeting.

The address is heartfelt and inspirational, with an unlikely (for the event) but important theme – that failure is as much a part of life as is success.

A Year Of Self-Improvement

Based on J.D. Meier’s 30 day improvement sprints, here are some of the self-improvement areas I’m planning for 2009 (not in any particular order):

Speed Reading. Lately, I’ve been quite interested in developing my reading abilities, so I’ve started reading books and doing some exercises on speed reading. I’ll try to improve my speed reading abilities with greater retention of information and comprehension of the material read.

Crucial Conversations. Time to review and improve my crucial conversations skills. I think I’ll re-read the book, and review the audio files that I keep on my MP3 player for some "easy listening".

Blogging/Writing. I really enjoy blogging and writing. However, it’s not something that comes out easily and, over the years, I have had feedback that my writing skills have become more and more "telegraphic". I’m hoping that focusing on my writing skills will also help develop other communication skills.

Coaching. In the past year I’ve had a chance to work with a career coach and found the experience rewarding and valuable. I have found great personal fulfillment in mentoring others as well, so I’m planning on learning how to become a better mentor and a career and business coach to my mentees.

Running. Although I have a sedentary job (sitting at the computer all day long), I have always been a relatively active person. However, in the past couple of years I haven’t trained as regularly as I wish I had. Running is something I really enjoy doing and one of the few things I don’t even mind doing at the local gym. If I have some music or some podcasts I wish to listen to, I can run a few miles easily. My ultimate goal is to resume my workout and build it into a routine, incorporating it into my daily activities.

Japanese. I’ve always had a "knack" for foreign languages and I’ve always had a deep interest in the Japanese culture. So, about five years ago I started learning Japanese. Unfortunately the class schedule became incompatible with my other responsibilities and I had to stop attending. I managed to keep self-teaching it but have to focus in order to get to a different level.

Iaido. This is the centuries old traditional Japanese swordsmanship art. Even today, iaido follows the traditional rites of a bygone era. Like any koryu (traditional martial art), the study of iaido (and, ultimately, budo) is a life-long, often elusive pursuit. This year, I want to focus and really push myself to a higher level of practice.

Presentation Skills. I have to admit how envious I am of all great public communicators. Those people who can make complex topics accessible to laymen and have the ability to really connect with the audience. In my job I also have to do some public speaking. Although I am aware that I’m not bad (at least according to the feedback stats I get from my sessions), I’m also aware that I’m not great. So,  even though I’ve had a couple of presentation skills training, I think I really need to focus on this topic to be able to go from good to great.

Networking. Increase my influence by extending my network. I’m an I type (MBTI), so networking is not something that I do naturally and with ease. However, I do recognize the importance networking bears in a career, especially when your ability to achieve results also depends on your ability to influence others either directly or indirectly.

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