How Visual Mapping Improves Every Stage of a Project

by | Oct 7, 2016

Visual mapping is awesome and people like the basic idea but aren’t quite sure how it can help them with the problems they’ve got right now. Let’s address this and look at some of the key benefits of visual mapping by considering how it can help at each stage of a typical project. First though, we should confirm what we mean by visual mapping. Essentially, it’s a diagrammatic representation of the who (stakeholders), why (objectives and requirements), how (services) and technology (applications, hardware and data) of a project showing the relationships and dependencies between all of these things …

1. Project conception and initiation

People typically come to the start of projects with all kinds of crazy ideas on what the project is about and what the project should be about. These ideas are informed by a whole bunch of personal emotional baggage, business insight and organisational politics but for want of a better word, let’s call these ideas assumptions.

“Many of the barriers to effective collaboration arise from unshared, unexamined, unproved assumptions.” ~ from the foreword by Tom Poppendieck to Impact Mapping: Making a big impact with software products and projects by Gojko Adzic

Visual mapping closes the assumption gap by making them visible so that they can be discussed, questioned and refined so that everybody is starting from approximately the same understanding of the context of the project. This reduces the risk of assumptions making an ass out of u and me.

2. Project definition and planning

Project skateholders have a lot of domain specific business knowledge and technical people have a lot of specialist technical skills and experience. The challenge is that typically these two groups think in different ways. communicate using different terminology and often sit in different parts of the building. Simple visualization (using a lowest common denominator of concepts that everybody can understand) is a great way to bring people together and get them working together.

“Good teams love to have brainstorming discussions with smart thought leaders from across the company. Bad teams get offended when someone outside their team dares to suggest they do something.” ~ Jeff Patton with Peter Economy – User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story, Build the Right Product

Visual mapping gives project managers and business analysts a great way to Increase collaboration and understanding on a project. It’s particularly important in the project definition and planning stage where you need to be able to bring together knowledge from different perspectives to create a holistic definition of the scope of a project.

3. Project launch or execution

Teams can work very well together if they all share the same overall objectives and see how their work contributes to the overall objective.

“… from my experience very few people working on delivery know the actual expected business outcome. These are sometimes drafted in a vision document, but more frequently exist only at the back of senior stakeholders’ minds.Even when they are communicated, business goals are often defined in vague terms.” ~ Gojko Adzic, Impact Mapping: Making a big impact with software products and projects

Visual mapping is a great tool to get teams to focus around shared objectives. It can also be used to quickly on-board new team members so they can see how their role and deliverables fit into the overall project.

4. Project performance and control

Projects change and evolve. Modern project methodologies such as the current variants of agile explicitly recognize this and use iteration to adapt as the business requirements become clearer. Often though, these methodologies can lose the big picture or the context – imagine hundreds of user stories creating a confusing picture – and so can introduce a danger of failing to deliver to the overall objectives of the project.

” … we often start work together by talking about their biggest challenges … the one I hear most is “bad requirements.” … We waste lots of time and money building what the document describes, only to find out later that what actually solves the intended problem is something very different … Documents usually describe what we need, but not why we need it. If the person building software could simply speak with someone who understood the users who will be using the software and why they’ll be using it … Without talking, we just never know about it.” ~ Jeff Patton with Peter Economy – User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story, Build the Right Product

Visual mapping provides a reality check on the project to keep everyone honest. It can be used at project milestones or project board review meetings to monitor and control scope against initial objectives. Yes, the map can evolve over time to show how the solution components are changing but the basic scope and objectives should not change after the start of the project launch phase.

5. Project close

Benefit realisation is a challenge for many projects. Visual mapping can improve benefit realisation with better documentation, better handovers and better reviews.

  • Better documentation: nobody likes writing documentation, nobody likes reading documentation. Most documentation is poorly written and out of date. Visual mapping can act as a navigation aid to access documentation. Each node of the diagram can be a hyperlink off to more detailed information stored in document repositories.
  • Better handovers: better documentation leads to better handovers and visual maps can be updated throughout the lifetime of the project to ensure that they are current. A more DevOps style approach would also have everybody working more closely together earlier in the project, using the visual map as a reference point.
  • Better reviews: What gets measured gets done. KPIs can be used to track benefit realization but KPIs viewed in isolation only tell part of the story. It’s important to understand the context of KPIs and see how they relate to the organisation. If KPIs are tied to objectives in the visual map then it’s easy to understand dependencies and relationships and so easy to analyse problems and consider where improvements need to be made.

Whiteboards are a good place to start with this kind of visual thinking but they don’t get you very far – unless you like carrying around the same whiteboard with you everywhere that you go. Basically, you need something that you can create quickly, update easily and share electronically. Have you looked at Hubscope yet? It’s a great tool for helping you to run through the above steps. Click the button below to give it a try.

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Image credits:

  1. Donkey by zenjazzygeek is used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license and has been cropped to fit the blog template
A simple methodology for visual project mapping
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