In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.
This week I had one of the more satisfying creative experiences I’ve had in a while. It involved about a half dozen people and a few giant sticky notes.
No, I’m not setting up a punchline.
Without revealing too much, I’ll say that several of us from different functional areas are up against a shared -- and short -- deadline. We had to come up with a relatively detailed plan in a short time.
We had done some preliminary discussions over email, and some subsets of the group had met previously. But this was the first time the entire group was in the same room at the same time.
We put two giant sticky notes -- maybe two feet high and a foot-and-a-half wide -- on the wall, and drew a very basic chart. (My handwriting has been described as “distinctive,” so I can’t take credit for that piece.) We were all standing, probably nobody more than four or five feet from the wall. Knowing we were under time pressure, and knowing that we had a common interest in getting this done well, we were all constructive. Each suggestion built upon, refined, or improved upon something that was already there. As happens in the best conversations, people actually put aside their own suggestions when a better idea came along.
It was one of those wonderful cases in which somebody’s suggestion would either trigger a thought in someone else, or solve a dilemma in which someone else had been trapped.
The particular case is all well and good, but I’ve been thinking about how to generate more moments like that.
Some of the elements are at least partially external. There was a tight, non-negotiable deadline that was out of our control. The stakes were significant. The problem was real.
But others were internal. The size of the group was big enough to generate worthwhile exchanges, but small enough that everybody could stand within a few feet of the sticky notes. It wasn’t the usual mix of people. A couple were my direct reports, but others were not. One was from a university in another state. This was not an established group with well-worn grooves. It had some rapport, and a healthy sense of mutual trust, but had never worked as a single unit before.
Since there wasn’t much choice but to get right to it, we did. We’re not done yet, but the progress on a great idea in a short time has been amazing.
The Boy figured out a while ago that he’s most effective as a pitcher when he doesn’t always throw the same pitch. Follow something fast with something slow, then change locations, and each pitch will be more effective than it otherwise would have been. The contrast is the key.
I’m thinking there may have been a similar lesson here. Mixing the membership, changing the format, and replacing the usual protocol with standing in front of sticky notes energized the interaction. If that became the new normal, it would lose its effectiveness; sticky notes can become as hackneyed as anything else. But as a change of speeds, it worked wonders.
Wise and worldly readers, have you found equivalents of the giant sticky notes?