When an unhappy customer e-mailed Ed Sullivan early one morning with complaints about how his company was being treated, Sullivan knew he had to respond quickly but carefully. A $6-million deal was on the line.
Sullivan is president of Hartford, Conn.-based IBC-IndustrialSupplyPlus, a $1.7-billion-a-year consortium of independent cutting tool and abrasives distributors. IBC has 85 members across the country, all small businesses. Banding together helps them compete against big competitors.
In response to the crisis, Sullivan did something that has become second nature recently. He fired up his HP Compaq Tablet PC and MindManager, a planning and brainstorming tool from Mindjet. Then he sat down with his management team to hammer out a response to the customer.
"MindManager helped us quickly capture and analyze all the factors and issues at play," Sullivan explains. "How did the situation effect us? How did it effect the customer? What were the possible outcome scenarios?"
"What happens if we change out the distributor for this contract? Do we have to give up the contract which was then in negotiations? And what were the different ways to resolve the situation?"
IBC was able to craft a response based on the analysis done in MindManager, and deliver it within an hour of receiving the initial e-mail. It saved the deal.
The customer was impressed both by the speed with which IBC responded it had not expected a response for at least 24 hours and also with the thoroughness of the analysis behind it, which Sullivan laid out using MindManager.
MindManager is one of those computer applications that some people just don't get. Others, and Sullivan is one, come to rely on it for much more than what they initially purchased it to do.
With the introduction earlier this year of MindManager 2002 for Tablet PC, the program has become potentially even more useful, and may well find new converts as a result.
MindManager works in part by forcing users to adopt structured, disciplined approaches to activities that are often marked by a lack of discipline and structure. They're activities that may even be perceived to benefit from a more free-form approach, especially in critical early phases when groups or individuals are being most creative.
MindManager replaces white boards, flip charts and notebooks and allows users to capture rough input and structure it on the fly, creating outlines or blueprints Mindjet calls them mind maps that can be used in the next phase of the activity.
Users create MindManager mind maps by first inputting a central idea, then adding branches and sub-branches that appear in the main working area arrayed as spokes around the main idea at the hub.
One key benefit is that MindManager eliminates the need to transcribe the often unstructured notes that typically come out of white boarding and flip charting sessions. The mind map generated can also be exported to applications such as Word or PowerPoint and used as the skeleton for creating finished product.
Sullivan started using MindManager late last year. Today all ten of the consortium's headquarters staff use it. "Everyone in the company is now trained," he says. "We had Mindjet came in to train us. Everyone uses it for different things."
Sullivan and his senior management team use it in virtually all brainstorming and planning sessions. One recently resulted in a complete reorganization of the company's departments.
One participant in the meeting uses his Tablet PC plugged into an overhead projector to input ideas and notes into MindManager. (The company has also moved en masse to tablet PCs since early this year.) The combination is very like a white board but with the crucial advantage that input is being saved in a computer as it's generated.
"One interesting thing we've found is that by putting everything up on the board in MindManager, it lets you look at things a little differently," Sullivan says. "So you start saying, 'Well, what would happen if we reorganized things this way?' It's a pretty interesting dynamic that's come out of these sessions."
The firm's legal person discovered "almost by accident" that he could import complex contract documents into MindManager and the program would automatically begin the process of analysis by breaking them into logical sections based on headings and document formatting.
Then in meetings, he and other IBC managers could go through section by section and annotate the document in MindManager with comments, questions, to-do actions and so on.
"It allowed us to pull that information up and analyze it much more quickly and then later go through it all with the customer," Sullivan says.
At IBC, MindManager has become "almost ubiquitous."
It's used for generating documents, such as press releases and brochures. The author or authors input ideas and notes into MindManager and use its organizational and analytical tools to generate an outline. They export this to Word and it lets them create finished documents much more quickly.
Sullivan and others in the company use the program for note taking in most situations anymore. "We rarely take notes on paper," he says.
This is one reason the tablet PC, with its powerful handwriting recognition technology, has been such a good fit with MindManager.
"When you go into a meeting, it's not very practical to sit down and type notes," Sullivan says. "People in the meeting don't want to hear you typing. With the tablet, you can hand write notes and then convert [to computer text] later. That's been a tremendous help."
If MindManager as a desktop or notebook application had a flaw, it was that in many the situations where the program could potentially be most effective, such as brainstorming sessions, the requirement to type notes was an impediment.
The tablet version of MindManager recaptures some of the spontaneity of white boarding and flip charting that comes with hand writing. But it retains the structure, discipline and organizational and analytical tools.
Sullivan didn't initially buy his HP Compaq tablet PC to help with MindManager. He originally bought it because he was looking for "something a little different" and because he liked the idea of the hand writing interface.
It has paid dividends on both counts. The tablet is often "an ice breaker" in customer meetings, he says. And the hand writing interface has been a great boon. "I tend to write faster than I type anyway," Sullivan notes.
Although, he did have to learn to write more neatly so that the Microsoft handwriting recognition technology would work optimally, using the pen "has become very comfortable," Sullivan says. "It's a natural implement."
And the natural fit between MindManager and the tablet has been an added bonus.
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