Grab that Marker and Get Writing

We often attend collaborative meetings where teams need to make decisions. People share ideas, voice opinions, raise objections, identify risks, consider options… and rarely capture anything in writing.

When you express a thought in a meeting, do your words sometimes get ignored, or later, forgotten? When someone speaks passionately about an idea, do they sometimes silence other people from speaking about theirs? If another person is talking to you and your mind is already preparing a counterargument, haven’t you missed out on parts of their idea?

I (Gil) often sit in meetings as the coach. For the first few minutes other people are speaking, so I observe and listen. And too often, I can just see good ideas and contributions evaporate into thin air. So when I hear someone make a valuable statement, I’ll grab a marker, go the whiteboard and say, “Hold on, let me capture that.” I add one more thing that came up before. Then I say, “There was something else before that…” and look at the attendees in anticipation.

At that point, the energy in the room changes. People bring back some ideas. Usually, someone will have a whole list of good things to add, so I just give them another marker and say, “Come here, write that down.”

This is a turning point in the meeting. The participants now have a common visual anchor that’s not the table they sit around. Their energy is higher; more people talk. They feel good because their input is recognized. If I hear vague ideas (such as, “we should communicate more!”) or vague references (“management”) we still write them down, and then expand on them.

There’s very little art or science to capturing. Use a whiteboard, a flipchart, sticky notes, or type in a Word document and project it. Make it simple, not pretty. Just listen and write legibly and in BIG LETTERS so everyone can read. Don’t paraphrase anything, so the attendees still own their contributions (rather than you, the person who wrote them down). You capture input uniformly, regardless of who spoke or how fervently they spoke. If the input is long-winded, ask, “Could you just give me the headline on that?”

There is one important caveat, though: don’t judge what you write. You can still be a contributing participant, just don’t abuse “the power of the pen” by colouring the words with your approval or disapproval.

So far, we’ve looked at the value of visibly collecting contributions and opinions. There’s greater value in the next step: manipulating that data. Draw circles and arrows, or underline with colours. Take votes and decide collaboratively which ideas survive. Look for trends, patterns, clusters, similarities, and exceptions. Evaluate them in light of the question you came together to answer.

If you’re familiar with the concept of meeting minutes, this is not it. Capturing, or “scribing,” is meant to make the meeting effective and collaborative. Nevertheless, the captured information can be good material to base minutes on.

Try this in your next meeting. Set a timer for five minutes. The timer’s expired and still no word has been captured? Just pick up a marker and head to the whiteboard.

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