Power of Post-its with Payson Hall

In this article, which originally appeared in the August 2006 issue of the Sticky ToolLook, Payson Hall talks about a helpful, inexpensive brainstorming and project management tool that most of us have close at hand: the sticky note.

When I first asked Payson Hall if he'd like to participate in an interview for the Sticky ToolLook, he told me that he isn't really "a tool guy." A consultant and instructor in the ways of project management, Payson joked that one of the most important tools in his arsenal is the common sticky note or Post-it.

That got me thinking about all the tools that live on our desktops—not our computer desktops, mind you, but rather the tops of our physical desks—and in our drawers and supply closets. I decided then to delve deeper into Payson's use of the small, re-adherable notes.

"Post-its serve a couple of purposes," he says. "When I'm teaching project management or coaching folks about project planning, they're a very helpful tool for brainstorming. You can pass the Post-its around, give people crayons, and say, 'What are the ideas for the to-dos?'"

The sticky notes cause a "natural gating" or rhythm to the brainstorming session, Payson explains. If a participant has a good idea, she writes it down on a sticky note. During the few seconds it takes her to write the idea down, other people have an opportunity to participate.

"Write everything down with a verb and a noun, and ask yourself, 'How would I know this was done?' It turns out that's a very helpful tool for task identification, where a 'task' is the basic building block of a project plan. The fancy name for this is a work-breakdown structure, but all it is is a hierarchical to-do list," Payson says.

The next step in Payson's process is to attach the sticky notes onto sheets of flipchart paper that have been hung on a wall. This serves two primary purposes: It gets ideas into a collected, printed format; and it is a memorable, persistent image with which the participants may interact.

"Some people are really great at brainstorming, but they're chaotic in their thinking. Some people are very structured and organized in their thinking—they get grumpy if you want to go in different directions," Payson says. "This actually lets both of those people play nicely together."

The small size of the sticky notes limits the investment participants have in each idea or task."No one I know can write so much information on a three-by-three-inch Post-it [that] it breaks their heart if we have to rewrite it," Payson says. "If you have people write things on 11 x 8.5 inch paper, there are people who will have open rebellion and revolt and get grumpy if you say, 'Tear that up, throw it away. I need to break this into three parts.'"

The end product of this stage is a "tapestry" of sticky notes, covering several sheets of flipchart paper and representing much of the project's necessary work. This segues nicely into the next step, which is to sequence the project using the same sticky notes with new sheets of flipchart paper. On the far left sheet is a start milestone. On the far right is a finish milestone, representing the end of the project. Participants tell the project's story by physically manipulating the tasks (or sticky notes) into place.

"Once you've got all the tasks identified and you've got the sequence, it is a relatively trivial matter to transcribe that into an electronic form using a tool like Microsoft Project," Payson says. "You can literally type that information, touch a button, and get a preliminary schedule."

Saving the software tool until this point is beneficial, Payson argues, because it keeps things collaborative. "Unfortunately, the way most people have been introduced to scheduling, their first step is to sit down at a computer and stare at Microsoft Project. The computer has one keyboard, one mouse, one driver—you can have a bunch of people arguing over your shoulder, but it's not really a collaborative effort, and it's very difficult to do with the single perspective," he says.

Payson's small-group sticky notes process is effective and quick, with each step—brainstorming, sequencing, and talking about duration of tasks-—taking about an hour. "In half a day, we could build a crude, preliminary schedule," he says. "It would be wrong, but it would be informative and instructive, and it would be good raw materials to refine."

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