Portable Recording Devices

It’s always a staple at our workshops, the stack of rectangular Post-it notes at the center of each round table. We brace ourselves for the inevitable participant groans; they’ve been to workshops with sticky notes before and the association is not always positive. We urge people to give it another try. Our methodology makes good use of the Post-it notes, it won’t be a waste of time.

We often refer to them as portable recording devices, just to put in perspective why we stick to using them. It’s one of the easiest, fastest ways to get a group of people to put their thoughts together and then sort them out, collectively. Quickly, a group can organize a wall of hundreds of Post-it notes, revealing major themes but keeping the granularity intact within the resulting categories.


You can capture anything you want on Post-it notes – objectives, stakeholders, problems, ideas, action steps – and then move them around to put them in order. KI most often uses sticky notes to record all the sub-problems inherent in a complex challenge. We invite participants to note the problems down as questions – one thought per Post-it – and add them to the a challenge wall. We might invite some outside speakers, provocateurs, to address the group and speak about one element of a problem or give a stakeholder point of view, and we make time for the participants talk to each other at tables about what they’ve heard and what they know, reminding them to note down interesting questions on the Post-its and add them to the wall. There may be a few skeptical people in the group, but once they start noting down the questions, one by one, they usually give in to the practice and play along.

In the end, a chaotic wall makes some people uncomfortable, but once they start to cluster the Post-its into categories, the end results is a shared understanding – by the entire group – of the landscape of the problem. Some participants, given the multi-disciplinary nature of our events, may have grasped certain components of the problem, but this method allows us to look at the range of problems and questions embedded within the entire challenge, so everyone can see its breadth. It also allows us to stand back and double-check: is there anything we haven’t considered?

Later, we use these portable recording devices to get feedback for participant sub-groups. After working up their first ideas, they present them to the larger group and we can collect a vast amount of constructive and actionable peer feedback in a very short time, without the discussion or grandstanding that steals time from the meeting and punctures the emerging ideas too early in their fragile development. We repeat this process as time permits, to yield anonymous peer feedback that can be used to enhance each idea. This way, the participants give input to each project as it emerges, not just their own.

We like to think of ourselves as technologically agile, bringing in virtual and digital tools to help us keep our methodology versatile. We can and do use electronic versions of Post-it notes, in our virtual meeting space as well as with project management tools like Symphonical. After each KI event, we debrief and discuss whether there’s a way to use less paper and to be more digital. Up until now, however, nothing high-tech quite replaces the high-touch quality of putting people side-by-side with the assignment of re-aligning Post-it notes on a wall. In an odd way, the tactile, hands-on quality of the activity helps us to get our heads around the project and makes for the most efficient way to notate and then re-organize, in a group setting, key pieces of data we don’t want to lose.

That may change soon: Post-its have gone digital. Post-it maker 3M is in a partnership with Evernote that lets you turn your paper stickies into digital notes that can be saved, shared or viewed from anywhere. Evernote says the digitized Post-its are searchable in its cloud-based platform. This might be something KI needs to look into. We do use a lot of Post-its, as noted by one participant when he reached the very last sticky.


We’re always looking for a mechanism for our live events that combines the ease and hands-on feeling of Post-it notes with the efficiency of technology, although you could argue that the Post-it notes are a welcome break from the computer screens we have our eyes attached to for so much of our time. But until we sort out the best way to bridge the analog and digital tools within our methodology, we’ll take any teasing in stride and hand out those Post-it note pads and Sharpie pens … because they work.


Know Further:

More about the 3M Evernote collaboration here and here. If you have the new iPhone operating system, here’s how to use the Evernote Post-it note Camera. Of course lots of digital stickies already exist: the digital Post-it note, digital stickies, Hottnotes and TKB Stickynotes to name a few. Here’s a cool digital Post-it note generator and let’s not forget the point of it all: to make meetings effective by capturing everything.