I was turned on to FreeMind by Dan North and I have to say it has been some time since I have been so impressed with a piece of software (commercial or open source). It just works in an intuitive and immediate way. Once installed I was happily brainstorming away on ideas that have been sitting in my mental todo list for quite a while.
On my current project the team is not co-located and this causes problems with team retrospectives. Working on a whiteboard does sort of work as long as the contents is regularly read out to everyone. Web cams might be an option but even over a fast link it is difficult to get sufficient quality for text to be readable. I have strongly resisted using a software tool and desktop sharing during retrospectives because I feel a lot is lost in the process of capturing the teams thoughts.
But I think FreeMind is different - speed of entry is key to capturing information quickly and FreeMind seems to have the right keystrokes for the right commands (Mac and Windows versions). Ok it helps if you are a keyboard junkie rather than a cat chasing mice! Spreadsheets and Word processors would allow similar capture speeds but then you are left with lists and headings and to be honest the results are fairly boring and require time to clean up and format into anything presentable.
Mind Maps are different. They more closely match the organic data collection process of a retrospective. The HTML export option should help those of us using Wikis to manage project documentation.
For the first retrospective we used NetMeeting to share a single desktop to the remote teams. One person was designated as the scribe - initially a new team member of the team but someone outside the team would have been better.
The results were impressive. I was able to keep up with the conversation, summarise the discussion and contribute occasionally. The cool part was when it came to adding actions to the items. The actions naturally entered as child nodes on the mind map to the issue and could be flagged with a simple icon.
The really cool part was after a quick export to .jpg file and an upload the results of the retrospective were on the project wiki for all to see.
Tools support but do not make a retrospective
Although I have dwelled a lot on how FreeMind has helped run retrospectives for distributed teams it is important not to let the tool drive the process. For co-located teams I am still a big fan of index cards for rapid collection of raw opinion.
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