Monday, October 26, 2009

A compelling interview with the founder of Mindsystems


I seem to be pleasantly and very willingly diverted into conducting interviews of late. It’s a very enjoyable experience, as it places the interviewer and interviewee in a very intellectually intimate position of acceptance and trust.

John England the founder of Mindsystems is the consummate professional. I have known John for a relatively short span of time, and in this period he has indeed enabled me to glean much from his illustrious past relating to his careers. John has worn a few hats, and has performed his tasks with great success to the nth degree of professionalism. His initial business success has enabled both him and his team to create a strong Mindsystems presence within the business management arena.

Mindsystems have developed a new concept called “Method Neutral”. Once you get your head around this, you’ll receive an “aha” moment for sure; I know I did; so read on and receive yours.


... Tell us about your involvement and work at Mindsystems?

I am the executive director and founder of Mindsystems which means that I've relinquished much of the day to day running of the company to other managers far more competent than I. Seriously though; this means that I can spend my time in more innovative and entrepreneurial ways than I was able to in the past.

My major focus these days falls into three distinct yet overlapping areas: making new industry contacts, focusing on developing Amode .and constantly researching new trends in information handling.

... Give us a brief history of the organization?

I spent 16 years in the Royal Navy and in the late 70s was posted to the Australian Navy as an exchange officer and training assessment expert in their Educational Research Unit at HMAS CERBERUS ... that is how I discovered one of the world's best kept secrets: Australia. In 1983 I left the Navy with the intention of returning to Australia. Initially I had a couple of jobs as the National Training Manager of multinational companies, but at the same time started a part-time business importing computer-based training into Australia. After a couple of years, a major Australian university started using our company name and as I decided discretion was the better part of valour, we came to a financial arrangement to relinquish the name. At that point "Teamlink Australia" came into existence and soon gained an Australia wide reputation for excellence in corporate training and consulting in areas such as management, leadership, communication plus team development and selection.

While in the Royal Navy I did a full-time Master's degree at Sussex University and there met a young lecturer by the name of Tony Buzan, later to become world-famous as the father of mind mapping. So it is perhaps understandable, that I have always been extremely interested in visual techniques in general and mind mapping in particular. However paper mapping caused me considerable frustration as my mind tended to function far more quickly than I could draw. I was therefore delighted when I spotted a piece of software on the Internet called "MindMan" written by a young German engineer, Mike Jetter. This was the first translation into English and the help files were extremely entertaining, but not in the way intended by the authors! I was so happy to see the arrival of this innovative software that I offered to put the help files into more formal English. That started a long-term association with the now internationally recognized company "Mindjet" and their MindManager software.

I used MindManager extensively in the training and consultancy, and this led to one of those "blinding flashes of the obvious". I suddenly realized that the exceptionally good living I was making was solely dependent on my ability to stand in front of corporate clients. I had tried creating links with other consultants, but soon came to realize that most consultants are terrified of someone stealing their intellectual property. This is something I have never been able to understand as, while you must protect intellectual property, I have always found it to be of considerable advantage to be open in sharing with other people. This is a principle I have applied through my business career and it has reaped handsome rewards. So, I was faced with the issue that I could not really "multiply myself" so what was I to do?

I had to do something that either multiplied me as an individual or did not depend on me standing in front of clients. This was in the early 90s, and I decided to start selling "MindMan" as it was called then on this newfangled thing called “the Internet”. All my friends and business colleagues thought I was crazy. This business grew and grew and eventually 3 years ago we changed the name of the company from Teamlink Australia to Mindsystems, as we felt is this more represented what we were about.


... Tell me about the “Method Neutral” approach you now take to software design

Method Neutral is described as "multiple modes of information expressed within a flexible workspace". We developed the Method Neutral concept in response to our frustration towards the "one size fits all" approach of many software companies. For example there are those that would have you believe that the mind map is the centre of the universe. I would suggest that the true centre of the universe is not mapping (or any other particular technique) but rather the information itself. Now please do not misunderstand me, I am a great fan of mind mapping, but in its place. Let me give you an example of what I mean: without a doubt mind mapping is superb when it comes to the initial scoping of an idea or project or for generating a creative approach to a situation. However the situation changes dramatically as the map grows and becomes larger. It is quite easy to reach a point where the information is hidden behind the technique of mind mapping. Quite simply large maps are very difficult to manage even when filtering techniques are applied to the map.

This led us to the Method Neutral approach to software development. To restate what I said earlier, we believe that information handling software should be designed with the clear intention of making information the centre of the universe, not the presentation technique: hence the concept of Method Neutral.


... You recently developed a new information management product called Amode; tell us about it and what it can do for us?


Mindsystems Amode was developed from our existing product KnowledgeLink Pro V5. This product itself was developed because of the significant difficulties people experience with converting large mind maps into more practical applications such as reports and the difficulty of merging multiple maps having similar concepts. However, Amode is light years ahead of the original product in that it has over 60 improvements and a completely new interface. Amode V1 was launched in May 2009 and received a very enthusiastic reception. We are now well into the development of Version 2.

The really significant part of the development was an almost fanatical application of Method Neutral. Another principle which was kept in mind was the model of Chaos Theory. This theory does not really say that the world is in chaos, but rather we are surrounded by a great deal of data and information in random and constant motion and that from time to time patterns (emerging trends) form. Thus Amode is designed to handle information in a neutral way and make the identification of patterns simple and straightforward. What is so important about these patterns ... well two things: First the identification of "knowledge" and second the identification of emerging commercial trends ... in fact staying ahead of the curve! The graphic below expresses what I mean:


There are some subtleties in this model, one of which is a fundamental fact that “knowledge” is by its very nature “transitory”. This perhaps goes against conventional wisdom, but it seems to me that as the circumstances change (Data changes and new patterns emerge) what could be seen as knowledge today may not be so tomorrow. If you disagree, simply look back at the debates designed to support the theory that the sun revolves around the Earth! Copernicus was almost banished as a heretic for suggesting otherwise.

I think perhaps I should say something about the name we chose for the product "Amode". The idea is simple: the information is presented in a neutral format and the user is offered a choice of "modes" in which to view and manipulate the information. At this point there is the option of the familiar tree mode, a calendar mode, the Gantt mode and the unique Briefcase mode. We have currently commenced the second phase of Amode development and I can assure you there will be some very interesting visual modes added to the repertory. One very important feature is that the user can switch between these modes with a single mouse click; in fact I would describe the general direction of Amode development as "turnkey".


... Method Neutral, IMO, as a new concept and definition shall undoubtedly impact the information management arena; how will it impact information handling?

You're quite right in saying that this concept and its definition of information handling are set to have a big impact on people's perception of the way in which information should be handled and its importance in the systems approach.

Firstly let's consider what we mean by "systems approach". We could get very complex, and academic, about such a definition but in reality it comes down to doing things in a systematic manner. This implies that there is definable process in everything we do, which is fine providing the process does not get in the way of the information. I have previously talked about the importance of mind mapping in projects scoping and creativity, but I've also talked about the actual process of mapping eventually acting as a shield or constraint to a user where the information is hidden. The Method Neutral approach is not restricted to software development, but the way in which organizations tackle information handling, meaning the existence of the information will be transparent while allowing instant (one click) choices of the best way to present that information dependent on the circumstances.

On reflection it seems to me that there are only two major factors in both personal and business development namely “information” and “process” ... both of which Amode was born to handle! For example the day starts with a process in that most of us have an exact routine for getting ourselves ready for work. So it is for most aspects of business and once we have identified and documented a process we can logically examine it and possibly improve it. You do not have to be a “process expert” to do this with Amode.

At the risk of being boring I would once again point out that definition of Method Neutral which is "multiple modes of information expressed within a flexible workspace". I have been amazed at people's reaction to this simple concept in that almost everyone seems to have one of those "Aha" moments when they suddenly "get" the critical concept that the information is the centre of the universe and not the presentation technique. I fully appreciate that we will meet considerable opposition from those entrenched in a particular visual presentation process, be that as it may, our experience and people's reaction to this concept leads me to believe that it will be the way of the future for information handling.


... List the environments where Mindsystems Amode is being used?


That is a difficult question for two reasons, firstly Amode has been on the market to date for six months, and secondly because its use is only limited by imagination. The global answer to this is that everything we do in life is controlled by process as I mentioned previously. The interesting thing is that most people hardly vary from their normal daily routines and while this may sound inflexible it also means that it brings a measure of continuity and statistical certainty to many events. So does this mean when we apply the concept of "process" to industry and business that we create an inflexible environment? The answer is a definite" no"; providing you build flexibility into the process. In other words, process can imply inflexibility, but only when the process is imperfectly constructed. Of course there are certain processes in which you do not enable flexibility, examples such as dealing with compliance requirements regarding safety, quality, environment and taxation.

So, what is the connection between process and Amode? The connection is that Amode is arguably the best tool ever produced for constructing process in a simple to understand and logical manner. These processes are seen in such things as the “Amode Solution” which consists of a number of related or discrete projects. One of the aims of the original design process was to allow a number of projects (or processes) to be worked on simultaneously while being manipulated in a single workspace. Amode achieves this very effectively.


In the short time Amode has been commercially available; multiple licenses have been sold to groups varying from a tertiary institution in California to a major defense contractor in Australia. Naturally, as we are in the early adoption stage, most sales go to farsighted individuals who are prepared to take a chance, or are intrigued by a new approach to an everyday situation. Most of you will be familiar with Geoffrey Moore's famous book "Inside the Tornado". The simple fact is that our original product, KnowledgeLink, was used mainly by innovators, and there are clear indications that this relationship between KnowledgeLink and Amode has enabled us to move directly to the early adopters. Moore's model shows that Amode is approaching what he calls "the chasm" which lies between early adopters and the early majority. This is, of course, a very dangerous period for a software company and we need to tread with great care.


... What are the capabilities of your product?

Mindsystems Amode allows you to work in a logical and structured way.

Mindsystems Amode combines visual planning, information handling, project management & multi-task management all in one tightly integrated application. Over 60 new features as compared to the original KnowledgeLink Pro!

Mindsystems Amode key benefits are:

• Manage & organize information visually
• Robust Information Handling System
• MS Office® / Open Office Integration
• MS Project and MS Outlook Integration
• MindManager integration
• Full Project Management, Gantt Charting
• Powerful Filtering & Searching
• Alarms, Notes, Embed Attachments
• Work in groups in real time

Above all Amode allows the user to focus on Information and Process in an uninterrupted, elegant and intuitive manner.



... How do you differentiate Mindsystems Amode from the other leading visual mapping tools?

An interesting question Wallace! The short answer is that Amode uses the Method Neutral, where as the others do not. It really is as simple as that. Let's be clear that I am not "knocking" other visual mapping tools: however I am saying that to my knowledge Amode is the only application which allows your information to be the constant focus without adding unwanted distractions. I repeat what I said previously and that is that the information itself must always be clearly visible and there must be the ability to switch to whichever presentation mode is appropriate with a single click of the mouse. As time goes on we will enable additional visual interfaces to Amode, but never at the expense of information clarity.


... How do you view the benefits of using Mindsystems Amode?

The benefits of using Amode can be summed up with five words: process, organization, control, efficiency and time-saving.

Process and time-saving, while being separate issues, are still intimately linked. This is well illustrated by an incredibly powerful feature in Amode and that is the "Template". I know the concept of a template does not sound very exciting but in Amode whole projects and solutions may be pre-prepared and stored for instant use. When you couple this feature with an extensive ability for Version Control, you will understand that every project you start is in fact a flying start.

Organization and control are similarly separate but related. The combination of the presentation modes, a calendar, and extensive project management features means that time and resources (not forgetting cost) can easily and accurately be controlled.

However the major benefit of using Amode is a little more subtle in that it imposes a system based discipline on the user which aids clarity of thought and creativity. The whole interface has been designed to recognize that much of our daily and business life leans towards a left brained activity while recognizing that; engaging the right brain also brings maximum effectiveness and productivity. Another major benefit is that, getting into the habit of defining process has the inherent benefits of gradual quality improvement in that shortfalls and inconsistencies in process frequently become very obvious.


... What do you see in the field of visual mapping as trends going forward?

Another very good question Wallace and one which I know is dear to your heart. I believe we have come to a fork in the visual mapping highway. One group will vehemently defend the pure visual approach (of which mind mapping is a perfect example) while others accept the inevitable conclusion that must be drawn when considering and using the Method Neutral approach.

I make no apology for repeating that I am a great supporter of visual techniques, particularly mind mapping. However I believe the visual techniques themselves have a critical place, but only in specific circumstances. That does not mean that one visual technique is the correct one in all situations. This is the real strength of Method Neutral, in that it recognizes, unadulterated clarity of information is paramount at all times, so that the appropriate visual presentation technique should be used, but only, repeated "when appropriate".

Anyone who has tried to create extensive information databases using techniques such as mind mapping knows the inherent difficulties. To continue down that path where information and knowledge databasing is unimportant seems to me to be irrational. I am sure you have heard the definition of insanity: "doing what did not work in the past and expecting a different outcome"

So in summary: we certainly need a range of visual techniques to display our information, however to display the information, not to manage it. We need a neutral approach to information handling. So there will be two paths: those who "get it" and those who don't!


... What are your customers saying about Mindsystems Amode?


Here are a couple of examples:

• For a leading Australian Planning Expert:

“It is rare for me to write to a software vendor in congratulations for a product, but I must thank you for developing Amode. I am a long term loyal user of Mindjet MindManager used in conjunction with GyroQ and other add-ons such as KnowledgeLink (which I use rarely) but I cannot overstate how excited I am by Amode. I will continue to use MindManager as well but there is something about the Amode interface and functionality that grips me. I have been using it non-stop for personal productivity and strategy planning in my role as a financial planner.”

• Sandie Terry (Director of IT, Franklin County, VA)

“I just want to applaud you on Amode!!! What a fabulous product!!! I have been a faithful user of Mind Manager for a few years now – even participated in v8 beta. So, when I ran across information on Amode I was intrigued and downloaded the trial. At first I was a bit lost and thought -- this is too complex. However, I took a little time to scan the user guide and within about 3 days I became totally dependent on this information manager! I am a Technology Director for local government and manage many projects at a time and Amode is FANTASTIC support for those efforts!! THANK YOU for an excellent software tool!!!!”


... What can we expect from further development of Mindsystems Amode?

As you can appreciate this is definitely "a commercial in confidence" area and I am not prepared to go into detail. Shall we just say that a number of extremely interesting visual interfaces will be added to Amode without compromising the Method Neutral approach.


... Where should a potential user of Mindsystems Amode purchase the software and what’s the cost?

The Mindsystems website is http://www.mindsystems.com.au and a direct link to the Amode micro site is http://www.mindsystems.com.au/products/amode/index.php and the blog and community forums can be found at http://www.methodneutral.com.

Mindsystems Amode currently costs:

$181.23 USD

$187.06 CAD

€122.76 EUR

£114.56 GBP

¥16,309 JPY

$220.00 AUD inc Tax for Australian customers

Educational and volume discounts are also available.

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