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A few days ago, I had an unsettling dream. I’d facilitated an in-person workshop and captured insights using sticky notes and loose leaves of paper. When I came back to the room to synthesize, I found my mom holding the sticky notes and paper. She’d helpfully taken them off the wall to clean up the space. But now, I found it impossible to synthesize. While the stickies and paper still had the words we’d captured during the workshop, they weren’t the same.
You may be tempted to analyze my dream. (If so, I’d love to hear what you think it means.) I’m only sharing it because it reminded me that context is essential to understanding. If you’ve ever taken stickies off the wall after a workshop, you’ll know they lose potency on their own. They’re the same words on the same pieces of paper; you could still flip through them and read them all. But something important is missing. What is it?
Sticky notes can convey information on several levels. The most obvious is in the words written in each note. That’s perhaps the most literal level. But there’s more. You’ll likely see notes next to other notes that change their implied meanings.
Imagine walking into a room and seeing a single sticky note that says MARK. As with many other words, “mark” can have several meanings: it could refer to a name, but it could also refer to a line or a symbol (such as a mark on a page) or a grade, or a target. Which one is it? Without more context, it’s hard to know.
Now, imagine additional notes besides MARK that say DEVON, SANDRA, ILEANA, JONATHAN, and JAMAL. Those other stickies change the original note’s meaning: it’s now likely that MARK refers to somebody’s name and that he’s related to the people whose names appear in the other notes. So, while MARK gives you essential information, it doesn’t tell the whole story. It can only do that when surrounded by other notes.
We can take this further since the placement of notes relative to each other also matters: they might mean different things if they’re next to each other in a row, on top of each other in a column, etc. For example, if you see MARK pasted above and centered over a row containing DEVON, SANDRA, ILEANA, JONATHAN, and JAMAL, you might assume you’re looking at a hierarchy. Perhaps Mark is being tapped to manage the others. Or, if the names are listed vertically in a column, you might be looking at the results of a ranking exercise. These are very different contexts.
We don’t usually capture these additional levels of meaning explicitly. Everyone who was in the room when the stickies were pasted on the wall knows they’re looking at the new marketing team or whatever. But unless somebody takes the trouble to synthesize on the fly, the meaning will be lost once the workshop is over. The set on the wall jogs the memories of people who were there — “Ah, yes, this is where we discussed the new marketing team” — but it’s meaningless to anybody else. And even if you were there, the notes lose much of their ability to remind us once we pluck them from their original context.
It’s a tricky challenge since you must eventually clear the space. One obvious approach is to photograph the walls before taking the stickies down and erasing the whiteboards. That is, indeed, better than nothing — but it’s still not ideal. The memory of the discussion fades with time, even with the visual prompts, and photos are less effective reminders than the room itself. And heaven help you make sense of these photos if you weren’t in the room to begin with.
Once, at the start of a project, I was handed a folder full of photos of walls covered in sticky notes from previous workshops. The expectation was they’d give me all the context I needed to get rolling. They didn’t. At the time, I blamed myself for not understanding what I was looking at, but now I know better: such photos are only meaningful to people who were there.
So how do you capture what happened in a workshop so it’s usable and understandable? The only approach I’ve found to work is to make time immediately after the workshop to synthesize what happened and put it into formats that can be shared with others — especially people who weren’t there. While photos can help, this is best done in the room itself, with the stickies and whiteboards intact. And it’s even better to do it with someone else who was also part of the workshop since they can fill in details you may have missed.
It’s been over two years since most of us participated in in-person workshops. But I’m sure we’ll have opportunities to be in such situations in the future. And I’ve found these issues also apply to virtual “whiteboard” apps such as Miro and Mural. I’ve often been invited to such “spaces” that were used to capture ideas during workshops and invariably struggle to understand what I’m looking at. It’s expectable: parsing much of the notes’ meaning relies on contexts that aren’t available outside the meeting.
Whether real or virtual, meeting rooms are shared thinking spaces. They extend our minds by offloading aspects of our cognition to the environment. As such, they can be incredibly powerful. But the remainders of our thought processes (i.e., the stickies and marks on the wall) are just that — remainders. We can’t expect them to serve the additional purpose of carrying meaning outside the room. It’s up to us to turn these thinking aids into understandable and actionable artifacts — and to do it as soon as possible.