The undervalued art of note taking

Taking notes is probably one of the simplest things any of us does on a regular basis. Even though it’s something we have all been done since grade school, it’s still one of the most important things we do. This may be because I’m starting to forget more things or maybe it’s the only way I can be sure to remember to do what I said I’d do in meetings. Either way, I’ve come to really rely on note taking to recall everything that occurred in meetings that was important to me and to validate that my understanding of what transpired in the meeting is the same as the other participants. If you look at the way most of us spend our daily lives, much of it is spent in meetings. I don’t have a problem with this because there is a high degree of interaction and complimentary skills that are required to get tasking done in today’s environment. As you try to solve larger and more complex problems, you often need to draw on more diverse skill sets and meetings are a great way, if held correctly, to bring all those voices to the table and ensure that everyone is on the same page. Without them, you end up with the situation that plagues a lot of projects which is that engineers are doing one thing, the requirements folks are doing another thing, the project manager is relegated to a bean counter role, and nobody is talking to each other.

So to avoid this situation the first step is to get everyone in the same room, on a conference call, or a video conference and start working together. That’s a great start but often times what happens at the close of that meeting is that everyone walks away with their own opinions of what occurred and what the actions items are. This doesn’t effectively move the team forward towards their goal. It’s just essentially reporting out on silos. So I want to focus in on note taking as a key skill in ensuring that meetings can be a little bit more effective. As you’re getting yourself into the mind set to effectively participate in a meeting, you have to understand that your note taking can’t be so copious that you’re not able to think and participate in the meeting and be able to move the conversation forward. If that’s the type of record you’re looking for and you’ve got an important or complex enough project, it can be very helpful to have a facilitated meeting to ensure that different facets of a problem are brought out across different groups of people. In conjunction with that, having somebody who is skilled in taking notes that will allow everybody to freely participate in the meeting and ensure that there’s an accurate record of what transpired will help effectiveness. Now I don’t believe that that circumstance means that the individual participants in the meeting shouldn’t take their own notes, it just means that you’ll be able to have somebody whose focus is solely on the note taking.

Now in terms of taking your own notes I’m a big believer in less is more. I know I like to be participatory, so I try to focus in on just key words. With this system I sometimes end up just having a couple of different lists. I also do a lot of free association where I’ll put something in a bubble and ill associate other key words to it which really captures the overall big ideas of a meeting without spending too much time with my pen to paper. Another thing I really try to do, and this may be somewhat part of the business I’m in, is make sure I get someone’s complete name so I can look them up later to get a reminder of what they said or so I can make sure I’m getting the right face with the right name . I try to make sure that I list any specific technologies, specific organizations, or any proper noun types to ensure they’re captured and then I use bubbles and lines to connect those to relevant ideas. Often what I end up with at the end of the day is a mess that looks a little bit like hieroglyphics but it’s easily understood by myself because it’s based on the associations I’ve been making in my head. It’s essentially kind of a personal shorthand that I’ve developed over a very long time but I think it’s pretty easily reproducible.

There are a lot of folks who’ve done thinking around brainstorming concepts like Tony Buzan who popularized the concept of mind mapping. I try to leverage those concepts and it helps me pull together the meeting afterwards. Now ideally what will happen right after that meeting is I will walk out with that sheet of paper and within the next half hour when its freshest, but certainly before I leave for the day, I will capture the important points of the meeting and summarize it, take any action items and who’s responsible for them and summarize those, and send it out to all meeting participants. This action is something that is an important executive function at the end of a meeting and a lot of times it ends up being passed off to an assistant or a note taker. I don’t think that’s the right way to go. In fact, there’s some really good examples of executives in academic works where they’ve done a lot of surveying of management and how they run meetings. One of the things that you’ll note is that when the summary of meetings and the handing out of action items comes from an executive in the room, there’s a higher level of buy in. It’s just like many other things where the fact that it comes from the executive ensures that it gets done. You could say that in an organization that runs well it shouldn’t be like that but I think it’s just the way it is.

One of the most important parts of meetings is the outcomes. So as an executive, if you don’t have time to summarize the most important points and provide tasking I think you’re misallocating your time. To me, it is the most critically important thing you can do coming out of those meetings and it shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes if you’ve done a decent job of note taking going into it. If you’re really pressed for time I don’t have a problem taking somebody else’s notes and approving the summary or cutting and pasting from it and checking the action items; but I really believe that message needs to come from the executive and it needs to have been read by them as well. So if you’re going to have meetings it’s important to get something out of them. It’s my belief that one way of ensuring that is to take good notes, reformulate those notes at the end of the meeting into to something that gives substance to the parties that are involved, and sums up any action items and who’s involved. Otherwise why are we having meetings? I’ve visited this topic a few other times in my blog in The Morning Meeting and The 3 P’s to Meeting Success. I’m curious to hear from everyone on this topic because this is an area that I believe is critical to success and I’d love to hear what other areas you guys think are crucial as well.

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Dick Davies

Great post on an underrated, most important skill. Best thing I read was if the leader hasn’t time to stress the main action points at the end of the meeting, he’s misallocated his time. Yay!

Joshua Millsapps

Dick – I wish I could remember the HBR article I read that covered this extensively, but there was a case study done around effective CEOs and one of the gentleman was very introverted but followed this practice with his senior executive team to effectively lead his company for more than 15 years without saying many words. He just ran effective meetings.

Janina Rey Echols Harrison

People actually get upset with my note taking. Some don’t want everything written down. Sometimes people ask me to take notes because I am thorough. The best thing about that is that the notes are always skewed to my benefit and I tell them that from the outset. My father always said write it down, no one can remember everything, all the time, so if it is important, write it down just to make sure you get it done.

My theory on forgetting things is that most of us have so many activities in addition to work that as new information comes in, it pushes other information to the farther reaches where we have to do data mining to retrieve it. We will remember eventually, but it is buried right then. This is why most people ‘cram’ before a test or presentation, to refresh the data they will need immediately.

I keep a phone log as part of my note taking and can refer to conversations, dates, and times (only if it is time sensitive do I log the time) if something comes up. I also note when tasks were completed if it came from a phone call. You will have a hard time trying to throw me under the bus. (We all know someone who tries to point the finger at someone else to take the heat off of themselves.)

Scott Kearby

If I am running a meeting, I will often take notes on a whiteboard as we discuss whatever issues are at hand, that helps to keep everyone aligned & prevents my notes from being different than your notes. I typically ask if my notes are accurately reflecting the groups ideas/decisions/questions, if not then we revise them on the spot. When the meeting ends, I take a photo of the notes on my phone & then send it to all the other attendees so they can have a record, especially if they have been tasked with some action to move things along.

Jay Johnson

There was a recent HBR post where the author basically said, “If you’re writing notes with a pen, you’re wasting everyone’s time. Use a tablet/iPad or get out!” That’s completely wrong in my opinion.