Since the dawn of time (or, at least, since the dawn of temporary glue), people have been using the venerable sticky note to help get things done. From the product manager brainstorming ideas to the group facilitator ranking preferences to the spouse leaving a friendly “reminder” to take the trash out, these handy, easily-moved, inexpensive magic papers have helped thousands accomplish a plethora of tasks.

Don’t believe me? Check out this board, full of sticky notes, used to organize the merger of two major airlines over a multi-year project:

In my history as a product manager, a start-up CEO, a business consultant and a project manager, I have used sticky notes for:

  • Strategy development
  • Project planning
  • Project execution
  • Procurement tracking
  • Quality Assurance processes
  • Portfolio management
  • Root cause analysis
  • Brainstorming project risks
  • Data modeling for Business Intelligence applications
  • Affinity Diagramming 
  • Lean Value Stream Mapping

Why are sticky notes so effective, particularly for our interests, for brainstorming and projects?

  1. They are flexible: you can move them around easily.
  2. You can use them for collaboration: you can give everyone in the room a pad of sticky notes and have them create their own ideas before sharing with the group, thus preventing the vocal minority from dominating the session.
  3. People are visual, and sticky notes allow people to get a quick “at a glance” view as to what’s going on.
  4. You can put them on a white board and then draw lines between the sticky notes or clusters of sticky notes.
  5. They assist with the creative process. You learn how you want to do something as you arrange the notes, group them together and spot relationships between different things.
  6. You can create dependencies (e.g. can’t do “x” until “y” is done) by how you arrange them.
  7. You can use different colors or sizes to mean different things.

“Never underestimate the power of breaking down your ideas into discrete pieces and then being able to organize them any way you want.”

Many years ago, I was hired by a consumer products company to help them improve productivity. I interviewed key staff and then used sticky notes to list out all of the undesirable things that were occurring at this company such as too much inventory of some items, not enough of other items, unhappy customers due to late orders, quality issues from suppliers, high costs from customer returns, etc.  Next, I listed the company policies and behaviors that were in place. These were things like how much inventory was ordered at one time and the number of new products introduced each quarter. Next, I grouped the “effects” (the undesirable things) with their potential causes. While accurately linking cause to effect in this context requires some experience or knowledge of supply-chain systems, the sticky notes were a magical aid to my thinking.

“One man’s magic is another man’s engineering” Robert A. Heinlein

There was something about this process of writing things on little notes and arranging them on a big whiteboard that helped me think more clearly and to be more confident in my conclusions about what levers could be pulled to help the company improve productivity. I was able to ‘see’ the cause-and-effect relationships and ‘discover’ how the practice of ordering large quantities of long lead time products from China, combined with the rapidly changing demand from customers due to style and trend changes was causing major inventory issues. If I had seen this issue hundreds of times before, this might have been a no-brainer, and I know many consultants today that would be able to solve this problem in their heads. At the time however, I was relatively new to supply-chain work and the sticky notes allowed me to formatively develop my analysis. 

We’ll talk more about the value of the sticky note concept and how to use them effectively in future posts.

In the meantime, you may want to check out a new, cloud-based, visual project management tool called Cardsmith as a way to take the sticky-note concept digital. Sign up here for early access.