I can see you, Gorilla: Note Taking – not Notebook Use

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Photo By Nattavut

The program team meeting was progressing. Progressing might be a strong word, maybe it was crawling along like a drunk slug in an ice storm. I looked down at my screen, scrolling through several pages of data in silence before half looking up again. “According to the reports, we have four P1 blockers on the release, Jake what’s the status?”

 
Bob’s eyes half flicked up from his computer screen before registering that “Jake” sounded nothing like “Bob”. The two Tech Writers were splitting their attention between a marked up manual and their open Macbooks, while James, the intern, was sitting up in his seat hand poised over a notepad ready to capture something important.
 
Jake, on the other hand, was at the far end of the table head down at this open laptop and fingers screaming away. It seems in the time it took me to find the data I was looking for Jake had decided to recode the entire database architecture.
 
“You know,” Hogarth drawled leaning over my shoulder to look down the table.
 
I waved off Hogarth without looking up. “Hang on, Hogarth.” I tapped furiously at my computer, hitting enter to the satisfying sound of <ping>.
 
At the far end of the room, my computers little voice was answered by a corresponding <ping> emanating from Jake’s computer. Jake’s fingers paused.
 
Hogarth looked at me, “You did not just Facebook chat that engineer!?”
 
I looked up at Hogarth, trying to give him the stare that said ‘Do you have two heads, cause you make no sense?’.
“Yes, I did. I wanted to make sure I got his attention.”
 
At this point, Hogarth made sure he had my attention. <SMACK>
 
“Ow! What was that for?” I demanded of my gorilla.
 
“For gross idiocy in the running of your meeting.”
 
“Me?” I exclaimed. “I am not the one rewriting the codebase to the Library of Congress in the middle of the meeting!”
 
Hogarth gave me ‘the look’. The one that told me he thought I’d just said about the stupidest thing in the world.
 
And he was right…
Notepads, not Notebooks (Or close the computer and write)
 
As the project manager, the way the meeting runs is your responsibility and yours alone. And how you conduct yourself is the first and most important thing you need to focus on.  I don’t know if it is a Mark Horstman original or a re-quote, but he has often been heard to say “When looking for the source of a problem, start by looking in ever increasing circles about yourself.”  In other words, the examples you set will be the examples your team follows.
Computers in meetings is a major area of contention. The Manager Tools team make no bones about it, if they are coaching you and you insist on taking a computer to meetings, they’ll drop you as a client. Hear that sound? That’s the keening wail of protest coming from Silicon Valley. “But I take notes, I have data, I, I, I…” I could go on. Heck, I’ve said most of the excuses myself, and as much as I hate the concept of taking my hands from my precious keyboard, Horstman is right in so many ways. No matter how professional you are, the minute that screen flips up, a small part of everyone’s brain assumes you are doing something else. And come on folks, we all have been guilty of doing just that. “Oh well, I’ll just check that one email,” “Hey look, there’s that error in the code,” “Ooh, Diane updated her Facebook with photos from last weeks beer bash,” and so on.
Now Manager Tools makes a lot of good points and I admit to not being as good as I could be. When I am attending a meeting that someone else is running, I try very hard to leave the laptop at my desk. Taking notes on paper is really much more efficient. Yes, it requires you to copy it into the computer later (Edit 2017- These days I use the Evernote photo feature and take pictures of all my notes), but you have more flexibility with the Mark I pen and you are being more professional and more focused on the meeting, not your technology. Heck, the act of transposing to the computer will lock the meeting in your mind all the more.
The biggest argument I hear to this is “I have information on my computer that I might need”. I can’t argue with that, but I can argue that you don’t need to have your computer open the whole meeting. Need to give an exact answer on the sell through rate of the NewCo Gizmo? Then open your computer, look it up and then close it again.”What about when I’m running the meeting? I am the project manager.” Right you are, but there are rules here as well.
  • If you are not presenting, then close the computer! The reason to have a computer in the meeting is to share data with the whole team. If you are not sharing, then you are shutting out your team with the lid of your laptop.
  • If you’re not typing, close the lid. Many times the information on the projection screen is just for reference and the main talking happens in the room. Close the lid and engage in the meeting.
  • Take notes on paper. Keep your notebook open and ready, jot your notes in the notebook, not on the computer. Update the power point slides after the meeting, not in the meeting. If you’re not in presentation mode, something is wrong.  There are some exceptions to this, but very rare and focused mostly on real time updating. Using a MindMap to create a Work Break Down structure? Then type on the computer. Need to note a reminder to schedule a meeting next week to follow up? Put that on your notepad.

A final note on taking notes.  This isn’t college, this is work. You are not trying to document everything that was said in the meeting, you are capturing action items, follow ups and critical points. Manager Tools recommends the Cornell Model note taking (Yes, they even have a podcast dedicated to it). I have been using it to good effect for more than a year now (Edit 2017- seven years and going strong).

Edit 2017- Since I first wrote this, in Jan, 2011, there has been scientific studies to support just how much more effective the written note is over the typed note. The 30,000 foot summary is when you type, you’re transcribing and when you write, you are summarizing. You end up with more context and remember more when you write. Dan Pink released this short video in Aug, 2017 and in April, 2016 NPR ran an article on the research paper by Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles that definitively dove into this controversial topic (Hint, the laptop loses).
Joel BC
Veteran, the Project Manager wars
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP