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.

 

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