Concept Mapping or “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”

There is a great quote regarding communications:

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” (George Bernard Shaw

What did he mean by this? People misunderstand each other more often than we would like. Sometimes, these misunderstandings are trivial, e.g. a PO can stand for Product Owner (IT department) or for Purchase Order (finance department). These problems are found quickly.

But often, the misunderstandings are more difficult to catch: people can use the same terms in a similar way but with differences. To stay in the example, one person might think a Product Owner conducts the testing, the other doesn’t. These two people might have a completely normal conversation about the POs and both believe that the other  is aligned to their own views – that is until the testing starts.

Concept Mapping supports communication.

What is Concept Mapping?

Concept Mapping is a visual thinking method to reduce this issue. It brings people to “truly” communicate with each other. It does this through alignment on terminology.  It is therefore the perfect method to start any new initiative, whether it is a project/agile initiative, a new team setup, an interest group, etc.

Concept Mapping is basically the reoccurring shared review of one or more concept maps.

Concept Map on Concept Mapping
Key concepts relevant for Concept Mapping

A Concept Map is basically a way to define terminology. Each term (or concept) will be defined not through a dictionary entry but instead through its relation to other concepts. The map above is a simple Concept Map. During a shared review, two or more group members can conduct a shared review of the map.

What is a Shared Review?

In the shared review the group members validate each sentence on the map together. Which sentences? Each of the lines forms a simple sentence. “Concept Mapping results in a Concept Map” is one of them on the concept map above. If you have a sentence “Product Owner conducts the testing” on the map, the group members can agree (potentially after some discussions) or  improve the map in order to have a correct Concept Map. Any changes should then we validated with the rest of the group, which might trigger more changes.

New team/group member can be brought quickly up to speed as run-through through the map(s) can layout the field to them. They will become effective faster.

With any shared review the map normally improves. If there is a different understanding, the review brings it into the open. In my experience, only a few iterations are enough to reach general consensus. Subsequent discussions will shorten significantly as communication uses a shared terminology.

Is Concept Mapping a “Silver Bullet”?

Of course, Concept Mapping isn’t a magic silver bullet. If a relationship between two terms was never discussed then it will most likely not be on the Concept Map and hence differences in opinion can survive. But if you ever find something then add it to the map and spread the new meaning throughout the  whole group – or spark the discussion if the best relation is not obvious to all.

Personal Experience

I have so far made really good experience with Concept Maps. Projects that used them went generally a lot smoother than the others. You can start with a small team and later include new groups more easily. Imaging a project with external IT development (through a vendor) where the developers are simply not part of the initiating group. They join later and need to understand the documentation provided. For them the knowledge transfer of the map is really efficient.

But the biggest value from my point of view is that you simply have important discussions earlier. Just now it happened that we found a major difference in understanding within a fresh department. Key people responsible for a key deliverable had a substantial difference. The difference persisted already for a few months – in spite of regular meetings within the the team and in spite of road map discussions for the deliverable. The wording used was compatible in many ways and allowed both sides to keep two consistent pictures alive. I created a first map by extracting key concept from one member of the group and then conducted a shared review with 4 members. We didn’t even get half way through the map. Instead the scope discussion went off and will continue for a few more meetings. This important scope misalignment would have become obvious latest during go live – with potential severe delays. As we found it earlier, the impact on the roadmap is much smaller.

Concept Mapping is simply the best method I found so far to ensure that all members of any group are “on the same page” and can communicate efficiently.

Closing Thoughts

I created Vithanco for Visual Thinking methods like Concept Mapping. Try it yourself in the Mac App Store. Vithanco has a dedicated Domain for Concept Maps.


What is more relevant: the Visual Thinking Process or the Visual Artefact?

Last week, I talked to a friend who is as well into Visual Thinking. He was disappointed about the fact that the resulting diagram might be of less importance than the process of creating the diagram/artefact.

Frustrated as he was, it triggered a thought process on my side. Yes, I believe that a good visual representation is supporting most communications. It helps to transfer ideas. It’s just the proverbial “a picture says more than a thousand words”. I personally like structured visuals. Vithanco creates graphs and graphs can represent reality very well. Graphs can amongst other use cases define terminology (Concept Maps), capture discussions (IBIS), or reflect a project planning (Benefit Breakdown Structure).

But are the resulting visuals/diagram not the main benefit? Does the process of creating the diagram deliver more value than the outcome, the diagram/artefact itself? And if so, is this good or bad?


Today, I used a concept map to align on terminology. You know, words can be deceiving. People use the same terms but they might have a different understanding of what the terms mean. To cut through a potentially long story (I might tell it another time), it turns out that key terms of our mission were very differently interpreted. The creation of the concept map surfaced all the differences.

We now use the shared process of creating the concept map to align on our mission, to questions what we do and how we should achieve our vision. The outcome (a diagram) will come handy to explain to everyone else what we do and how. But the creation of the map aligns ourselves. This is where we create the full benefit. We could have pulled in different directions for (many) months without knowing until some difference in scope of a term would have become obvious.

Or have you heard of Dialogue Mapping? It is a facilitation method to align people, especially suitable for wicked problems. Dialogue Mapping uses the IBIS notation and at the end of the facilitation there will be a visual representation of a group conversation. Dialogue Mapping however is a method that focuses on creating a shared understanding of the facets of the problem. While important for the facilitation, the diagram itself has only historic value after the meeting.

Last example: Theory of Constraints. Its creator – Goldratt – was a smart person that used diagrams to support his thinking. E.g., he used Current Reality Trees to identify the root cause of observable issues. I doubt that he would have ever thought that the diagram is the relevant outcome. To the contrary, he was interested in identifying the main constraint (bottleneck), because that is the leverage point he was looking for. Once the constraint was identified, he immediately switched gears and created the next diagram to help him thinking how to widen the bottleneck.


It’s easy to think that the visuals are the key outcome of Visual Thinking. I thought this myself for a long term. But somehow, even the term of “Visual Thinking” focuses on the process and “ignores” the visual artefacts. Yes, the artefact of Visual Thinking can be very relevant. But in most cases, the process to create them will be more important and will create the bigger benefits.

Bonus Thought

My friend was frustrated. But it took me less than a minute to be positive about his insight. An hour after our meeting I saw the situation in the light of a proverb I see regularly in the city I have chosen as my home.

One man's trash another man's treasure
Graffiti in Copenhagen