Power of the Post-It®

From organising thoughts in a cohesive way to honouring all voices on a team, Post-it® notes may be the unconventional approach that can bring you the solutions you never knew you needed, says Amy Lafko

A client once said to me: ‘Amy, we just can’t get the team to open up. We have a pretty good idea about the issues they’re experiencing but when we try to bring it up in the staff meeting, we hear crickets.’

Have you ever had a similar situation? Maybe, like my client, it is silence about the issues or disagreeing about the best solution to a problem. Whatever the situation, I offer you the Power of the Post-it®.

In addition to this quick history, the official story of the Post-it® can be found on the 3M website. While researching adhesives, 3M researcher Dr Spencer Silver discovered an adhesive that was slightly tacky but lacked the firm hold 3M was looking for.

While another researcher might have just scrapped it and moved on, Dr Silver chose to see this as a ‘solution without a problem’. He was willing to accept that while he didn’t solve the original problem, he could have potentially solved another. Dr Silver refused to see this as failure, simply as one iteration along the learning process.

Art Fry, a colleague at 3M, had a problem without a solution. The scraps of paper he used for bookmarks in his hymnal didn’t stay in place. While not wanting to mar the hymnal, he needed something to hold the bookmarks in place. And so, after a little bit of collaboration, the adhesive finally had a purpose.

Failing to achieve the goal of a strong adhesive is actually the first lesson that we can learn from these little yellow pieces of paper. Let’s examine other lessons from the Power of the Post-it® as a valuable tool offering more solutions than you even realised.

Low tack + low risk = low fear

The client’s difficulty getting their team to open up in meetings is something many leaders have experienced, and the sticky squares became part of the solution. Before starting our meeting to discuss what wasn’t working for the team, I gave all team members Post-it® notes.

Rather than again starting a meeting by asking people to vocalise their frustrations, we gave them a lower risk method of writing one issue per square. In the past, this team was silent when prompted to ‘speak up’. However, with the power of the Post-it®s, people were scribbling furiously because they were more comfortable with the anonymity and privacy of writing. After all their thoughts were written out, the team stuck their Post-it®s on the wall.

Here is the differentiator in using stickie notes. Before we started the discussion, the ideas were already out in the open for everyone to see. Suddenly there wasn’t pressure to ‘speak up’ because the idea was already out there. They didn’t need to hide in silence, and they no longer needed to be anonymous since their thoughts were visible to all.

People said to themselves, ‘the thought is already out there, so I might as well just continue the conversation’. Willing to expand on their ideas and provide details, the conversation started flowing easily. My client was shocked and said: ‘We’ve been trying to get people to talk for months.’

Surface the quiet voices

Post-it® notes create space for quieter voices or those who need more time to put their thoughts together. It opens up a new avenue of communication that may be more comfortable for some members of the team. Like the example with my client, quiet team meetings can be transformed by adding these simple sticky sheets.

Calm the overeager voices

I use Post-it®s because I like to talk a lot… sometimes too much. I’m quick to jump in during a conversation. I like to get the process moving, I’ve always got ideas on how to solve problems and I’m ready to share every one of them. As a leader, part of my job is coach and develop others. It is hard for people to develop decision making skills and creative problem solving if someone is always jumping ahead of them.

Someone suggested that instead of saying everything out loud right away, I write my thoughts on a Post-it® during the meeting- one thought per square. Then I was to wait, letting other people share their thoughts first. After everyone shared, I looked at my pile of notes. Typically, I only found one or two notes that hadn’t been shared by others. I now could share those without taking away someone else’s opportunity to contribute. More importantly, I was creating space for people to develop new skills in critical thinking and problem solving.

The road to success is iterative

As the history of the Post-it® note teaches us, nothing is perfect on the first try. Life is an iterative process. Since you can move these squares around without damaging the surface, it provides the freedom to try things in more than one configuration. People have the freedom to say, ‘I can always change my mind, move the thought somewhere else,’ and there is no permanent harm.

Process planning or review

The mobility and re-usability of the Post-it® can change the way we conduct process planning. Designing a whole process and mapping it out in an effective way becomes easier when you simply move the sticky square versus having to start with a clean sheet of paper. And yes, there are all sorts of software to create process maps. They don’t take the place of the experience of physically moving the square and the dialogue it creates. Watching one person create a map is passive for the rest of the group. Sticky notes create active engagement for all.

With a client needing to redesign their workflow, we pulled out the colourful sticky squares and got to work. Everyone wrote their steps of the process onto one square per step. Each type of step was a different colour. If one person or machine did multiple steps, we could note that too. Once all the Post-it®s were laid out in order, we could more easily see the bottlenecks, the gaps and where one person was overloaded while someone else had nothing to do. We could see redundancies and gaps. That information was priceless. Because the map was made with sticky squares, we could move them around to create a better flow before doing it in real life.

Brainstorming and thought organisation

For groups, brainstorming- divergent thinking about the possibilities is incredibly valuable. This isn’t an easy activity for everyone, and as you read in the last section, sticky squares are a less intimidating way for some people share their ideas. The power of the Post-it® extends beyond getting the ideas out into the open. Good decision making requires not only divergent thinking for all of the possibilities but convergent thinking to determine the best of the possibilities.

Of course, regular pieces of paper can also be used to write down thoughts. But then what? Collect the paper and transfer the results to a flip chart or another document? That’s too time consuming. The sticky squares can simply be placed onto a wall with the option to reorganise at any time. That move-ability means that similar items can be grouped together, revealing themes. One theme may become so apparent that the convergent thinking has already happened, and the winning idea is clear because it is repeated on so many squares.

Even in settings where you may be the only one mapping out ideas for a project, book, etc., using Post-it® can streamline the process. Don’t underestimate the power of writing all ideas down and physically taking a step back to see the big picture. Post-it®s allow thoughts to be clearly seen collectively and individually while having the flexibility of changing its position.

When I was writing my book, I used one sticky square for each thought, idea, story and lesson. Because they were movable, I wasn’t focused on getting the thoughts in the right order, I was focused on getting out all of the great ideas in my head. Once they were out, I could now begin the sorting process. Moving ideas around so that they would make sense to the reader.

In creating a low adhesive sticky note that doesn’t damage the surface, Dr Stephen Silver and Art Fry created even more solutions than they realised. Post-it®s may have started out as a mistake, but they are far from it. From organising thoughts in a cohesive way to honouring all voices on a team, Post-it® notes may be the unconventional approach that can bring you the solutions you never knew you needed.

Amy Lafko is Founder of Cairn Consulting Solutions, a leadership and organisational design expert, speaker, author, and advisor.

Formerly a leader in healthcare operations, she brings real-world lessons and inspirational ideas to a variety of industries to help
orga­nisations grow their people so they can grow their business. Amy earned her MSPT from Ithaca College, and her MBA from Loyola University of MD.

Visit www.cairncs.com for more information.

Visit www.thepeoplefirstbook.com to sign up for the newsletter and pre-order the book which is available on 24 August through all major online bookstores.

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