Skip to main content

Have you ever been mid-conversation with someone at work and pulled out a piece of paper or walked over to the nearest whiteboard to draw out the idea you’re trying to explain? If you’re a visual learner or thinker, the answer is probably yes. And the drawing you came up with is likely some version of an idea map.

Idea maps are helpful visual tools used in all kinds of contexts and for all kinds of purposes. For product managers, they’re a crucial means by which you can outline key product ideas, align stakeholders around your strategy, and understand customer flows and experiences.

So let’s dig into everything you need to know about idea maps, how to make them, and how they can support your product team!

What Are Idea Maps?

Idea maps are visual representations that bring structure information. They typically start with a central idea in the middle, with related ideas and subtopics branching out. Idea maps help you break down complex ideas and better analyze, comprehend, remember, and generate new ideas.

Product teams often leverage idea maps during brainstorming sessions to foster creative thinking and ideation. They can be used to create visual representations of the relationships between product and service offerings, customer experiences and journeys, and business objectives and directions.

Businesses may use idea maps to outline their organizational chart, workflows, and business processes and procedures. As a product manager, you might use idea maps for project planning, stakeholder alignment and communication, and developing new product strategies. The versatility of idea maps allows them to be customized to different use cases and applications.

3 Key Types of Idea Maps

There are lots of different types of idea maps, each tailored to specific kinds of thinking, planning, and problem-solving. Depending on the complexity of the information and the goals you’re trying to achieve, you might opt for a specific type of idea map or go for a more freeform approach.

Let’s explore three fundamental types of idea maps and what they’re best used for.

Stay in-the-know on all things product management including trends, how-tos, and insights - delivered right to your inbox.

Stay in-the-know on all things product management including trends, how-tos, and insights - delivered right to your inbox.

  • By submitting this form, you agree to receive our newsletter and occasional emails related to The Product Manager. You can unsubscribe at any time. For more details, please review our Privacy Policy. We're protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

1. Flowcharts

flowcharts show how things move from start to finish

Flowcharts are a type of idea map that illustrates how something moves from start to finish, often using arrows to indicate the flow of information. They’re especially useful in outlining the operational aspects of a project or system, making them indispensable in project planning, workflow management, and process documentation.

For Example:

When deploying a new software update, a flowchart can help your team visualize the testing process. This ensures that all stakeholders understand the steps involved and the criteria for progression at each stage.

2. Mind Maps

mind maps show how subtopics branch out from a central topic

Mind maps are centered around a single central topic from which related subtopics branch out. This type of idea map is ideal for brainstorming sessions, as it encourages a free flow of ideas and helps in drawing connections between concepts. Mind maps are particularly effective for note-taking, creative thinking, and memory retention, offering a dynamic way to capture and organize thoughts and ideas.

For Example:

During the initial planning phase of a new product launch, your team can start with the central idea of the problem you’re trying to solve. Team members can branch out into various approaches to problem-solving and tactics you might use.

3. Concept Maps

flowcharts show how multiple concepts connect to one another

Unlike mind maps, which organize ideas around a central theme, concept maps connect multiple ideas, showing the big picture and the relationships between concepts. They’re structured with nodes and connecting lines, each labeled with linking words or phrases to clarify the relationship between the nodes. This type of idea map is particularly useful for complex projects where understanding the interdependencies between different knowledge areas is crucial.

For Example:

If you’re trying to integrate a new technology into an existing system, creating a concept map allows you to visualize the integration. You can see how the new technology will interact with different parts of the existing system and identify potential issues or enhancements.

What Can You Use Idea Maps For?

Idea maps are a versatile tool that can be used in various stages of the idea development process, from inception to execution. These visual tools help product teams organize thoughts, explore relationships between key concepts, outline creative ideas, and prioritize actions efficiently. Here are some use cases for idea maps in your idea management process:

  • Idea generation: Your team can use idea maps to stimulate creative thinking and encourage the free association of ideas.
  • Brainstorming: During brainstorming sessions, idea maps serve as a focal point for team members to contribute and connect ideas around a key concept or problem to solve.
  • Process mapping: Flowcharts are ideal for delineating complex processes. They help with identifying bottlenecks and redundancies so you can optimize your workflows.
  • Customer journey mapping: Outlining the customer's journey is another good way to use flowcharts, which helps teams understand and improve the customer experience.
  • Project planning: Idea maps can break down project tasks and show dependencies and timelines, providing a clear path from project initiation to completion.
  • Stakeholder communication: A clear visual helps to communicate complex ideas to stakeholders, ensuring everyone is aligned on the project's goals and progress.

Clearly, idea maps can serve all kinds of purposes both for managing ideas on your product team but also for facilitating various business operations. These visual layouts of concepts are an invaluable tool for every product manager!

How to Create an Idea Map: 7 Essential Steps

How you build your idea map will depend on your objective, the number of participants creating the idea map, and the specific needs of your project or organization. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you craft and customize an idea map that perfectly outlines your concept:

  1. Clarify your objective: Start by defining the purpose of your idea map. Whether it's for project planning, brainstorming new products, or problem-solving, a clear objective will guide the structure and detail of your map.
  2. Align your team members: Ensure that all participants understand the goal of the idea mapping session. Alignment among team members is crucial for productive brainstorming and contributes to the efficacy of the resulting map.
  3. Decide on a structure: Choose the type of idea map that best suits your needs—be it a mind map, a flowchart, a concept map, or something more freeform. Each type serves different purposes and can be more effective depending on the context.
  4. Choose a platform: You might choose an online mind map maker, a mind mapping software, or an idea management tool to create your masterpiece. There are a ton of tools available with different features and functionalities, so be sure to do your research and explore which one is best suited. Perhaps you’ll prioritize a platform that has templates for mind maps, concept maps, or flowcharts. Or maybe a solution with a presentation mode would be best suited.
  5. Start with a central idea: Place the main idea or problem at the center of your map. This central topic will act as the anchor that all related ideas will branch out from.
  6. Branch out: Encourage team members to contribute ideas in real-time, which can then be arranged as nodes or branches stemming from the central idea. You can customize your idea map with color coding, specific node shapes, or arrows or line formats to connect ideas.
  7. Refine and share: Review your idea map and refine the subtopics and ideas. From here, you can establish action items to prioritize, share your idea map with key stakeholders, or keep it handy for relevant brainstorms and meetings. You might even save your structure as a mind map template for future use.

With these steps, you’ve effectively created your idea map! What you do with it is up to you, but having gone through the process will make your team that much more equipped for the next opportunity that calls for an idea map.

Key Benefits of Idea Mapping

These might already be obvious to you from everything outlined above, but as a helpful takeaway, here's a rundown of the key benefits of idea mapping:

  • Clarifying a concept for better alignment among team members
  • Auditing a workflow to automate and streamline parts of it
  • Facilitating creative thinking to generate new product ideas
  • Enhancing team collaboration during brainstorming sessions
  • Simplifying complex project management tasks
  • Improving information retention through visual learning aids
  • Supporting stakeholder communication with clear visual presentations

Subscribe For More Product Management Insights

If you’re always looking for new ways to improve as a product manager and guide your team to achieving success, you’ll definitely want to subscribe to our newsletter. We’ll be in touch with the latest tips, best practices, and expert insights in product management, helping you stay one step ahead and at the top of your game!

By Nora St-Aubin

Nora is a Technology Editor at Black & White Zebra. With 6 years of experience in research and content development in the B2B SaaS industry, she writes and edits in-depth content on software and industry trends within the digital product space. Nora's professional focus is on connecting product teams with tools and resources that optimize team performance and organizational alignment.