Thinking One Sticky Note at a Time.

I am going to take quite a contrarian point of view and say that brainstorming doesn’t really work. This appears to be the default way of generating ideas and potential solutions to problems across most organizations worldwide.

Typically, this means getting a cross-functional (i.e. people with different areas of expertise) group of individuals in a room. Nowadays, this is often virtually as well!

The initial problem statement or concept that requires solving or brainstorming is discussed, and then everyone works silently for anywhere between five to twenty-five minutes, generating ideas by writing them down in a few words on a sticky note, or the virtual equivalent in one of the many online whiteboarding tools.

There is often a facilitator present as well, a role that I have fulfilled on hundreds of occasions over the years. The facilitator will often remind the group to focus on quantity vs quality at this stage, and that no ideas will be judged negatively, it is just about getting whatever comes through your mind, regardless of practicality.

Once this exercise is done, each person then may quickly run through each of their ideas to the rest of the group. All these sticky notes are then grouped together and categorized based on group consensus.

As a final step, each member of the group may then get a certain amount of votes that they are able to distribute between the different ideas, and then the most voted solutions become the ones that are selected to be explored further.

At first, nothing may seem wrong with this approach. For years, I’ve actually sold this approach as part of a structured workshop to my consulting clients for thousands of dollars.

And yet, when I step back and look at how I have made some of the most important decisions both in my life and also in my own business, both at the strategic and product level, I have never employed this approach.

So I asked myself — why?

I am not going to completely invalidate the above approach with the sticky notes. It can generate some good ideas, creates interesting discussions, and often is good enough for the subject matter at hand. If you are working with clients as a consultant, the most important thing is not the precise methodology of any workshop that you have with them, but the fact that you listen extremely closely to everything that they have to say and that you ask deep, probing questions.

But, there are also some significant shortcomings. Deep thinking will almost always lead to better decision-making than superficial thinking, and yet the above approach encourages superficial thinking.

You can do meaningless calculations such as if you have ten participants in the workshop, and everyone brainstorms for 30 minutes, that is five hours of thinking into the problem. But, it is not five hours of one person thinking through the problem and potential solutions in a sequential manner, but ten separate 30-minute slots of thinking.

And, the facilitator will also be telling the group to shun deep thinking to just generate a volume of ideas, with the hope that something will stick.

I think we are starting to see the problem here. We are encouraging superficial thinking, or thinking one sticky note at a time, as per the title of this essay.

The other problem with this approach is that this approach works well for extroverted individuals, but not so well for introverts. I am an introvert, who has had to force myself to be more outgoing to ensure that I can achieve want I want to achieve in life, as dealing with groups of people is often inevitable.

I no longer have any fear or apprehension of speaking with groups or being candid, but for many introverts, this is not the case. This means that there is also the chance that some people hold back on some very good “out of the box” ideas, that they are too shy to share in case people will think the ideas are stupid, or perhaps the idea is clearly critical of current practices, and there is a more senior person in the room who they do not want to offend.

So we may actually get fewer ideas by encouraging everyone to openly share ideas right away, instead of allowing individuals private time to gestate with their ideas and come back with something that is more fully formed.

I have another annoyance with this method of generating ideas and deciding on what to do, which is that there are often a lot of ideas that are completely impractical, and obviously so clearly wrong. This is especially true when discussing potential technological solutions to problems, as it seems that when things are going to be coded as software instead of built in the real world, constraints do not apply.

This, of course, could not be further from the truth. If you are building some type of software, you’ll have just as many constraints as an engineer who is in charge of building a bridge.

And yet, I often see suggestions for software that are the equivalent of suggesting that a bridge is suspended across pillars that are 3km high. This would, of course, solve the noise problem of the traffic to the nearby residential area, but then the cost of building a bridge 3km in the sky would be incalculable, regardless if it is even possible in the first place.

Sticky notes have something in common with PowerPoint presentations as well. They are easy to create but difficult to digest. This is because a PowerPoint is often just a collection of bullet points, so it does not take much time to create, but the person who has to view the presentation, they have to do a lot of interpretation and thinking to build on top of these bullet points and get an accurate picture of the reality that the present is trying to create.

A similar problem occurs with sticky notes.

If we are brainstorming on behalf of a retail brand and someone puts as a solution “customer loyalty”, what does this actually mean? It is so broad that it means it could practically mean everything and anything, and in the end it actually means nothing.

So, enough with the criticisms, because I could likely write several thousand words on this topic alone. What’s the solution here? What’s the best approach?

Unsurprisingly, it is a method that encourages deep thinking and long-form written communication, with individuals spending more time working alone vs collaborating with others.

Enter the six-pager.

This is a presentation format that was popularized by Jeff Bezos of Amazon, but it can be an invaluable tool for any organization.

With visual presentations banned (unless strictly necessary), the six pager usage is (often) as follows:

  1. The key team member chairing the meeting (or most responsible for the work that the meeting focuses upon) will produce the six-page document ahead of the meeting.
  2. The document will be shared with all meeting attendees in advance, to allow them to familiarize themselves with the subject matter.
  3. The first 10-20 minutes of the meeting are spent in silence, as all attendees re-read the document in silence. The purpose of this is to focus everyone on the task at hand and proposed solutions.
  4. The chair of the meeting will then run through the document out loud, asking for and clarifying any input on each specified page/section. Leading to a discussion of the decision and largely the aim of a clear, agreed conclusion.

The success of the document is largely in the structure. One key mistake to avoid is to stuff the document full of bullet points, as then it can become a PowerPoint presentation disguised as a long-form document. Use bullet points when you are listing things, but make sure that you don’t use them to avoid going in-depth about a specific item.

It is important to note that creating a ‘one-size-fits-all’ template is not useful. Every problem varies, so every six-pager should be bespoke to accurately address the topic at hand.

The recommended sections include:

  1. Purpose of document: Briefly outline the reason for the meeting, with a recommended solution briefly concluding this section. This is usually a concise paragraph.
  2. Narrative: Describe the background, guidelines, and general framework for everyone to fully understand the problem. This should be told from the perspective of the target demographic/customer/user rather than the business decision-makers.
  3. Problem: Outline the details of the problem in detail. Be sure to keep this section focused, as deviations can throw the meeting off-topic and cloud decision-making with trivial matters.
  4. Solutions: Include multiple ways the problem could be solved. It is important to write this as matter-of-fact. Bias should be avoided, to allow everyone to truly view the scenario objectively.
  5. Recommendation: Following from the solutions, put forward the suggested route with rationale. If point 4 has been articulated well, then a general consensus may have already been reached or at least create  
  6. When possible add a plan of action assuming the proposed solution is agreed.

To support these 6 pages, appendices can be added with detailed tables, graphs, and data. However, the purpose of the six-pager is to lay out the information in the carefully thought-out text. The reader should be guided through the situation with all relevant background and information to the decision at hand.  Adding infographics into the middle of such a document would act as ‘noise’, and potentially derail the thinking process.

So, this is quite the opposite of thinking in sticky notes. There is a significant amount of upfront work for the presenter, and then this makes it much easier to digest because a lot of the thinking has been done and committed on paper.

These types of documents are also not easy or straightforward to make, they can easily take ten or more hours to write, and they will often go through a series of informal internal reviews before being sent out to the wider group.

This is actually a good thing because it acts as a filter.

This level of effort is only justified towards potential activities that have potential. Nobody wants to commit to spending a few working days writing a document that is going to go nowhere.

Of course, this does not mean that all the thinking is delegated to one person. During the writing of this document, the individual who is delegated to do the writing should be having discussions with other team members, doing their own research, and beginning to scope out potential solutions as well as the obvious dead-ends.

It is unlikely that most organizations will have the discipline to implement this type of practice, but those that are open to it and understand the value of deep work will be more likely to thrive. They will have more insightful and practical ideas, and, as a bonus, will have significantly fewer meetings.

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