How to Go Fast With Sticky Notes

Agile teams and innovators use sticky notes in group meetings to share ideas, organize thoughts and get to consensus. I created some guidance on using sticky notes to help people just getting started or for those who want to go faster. Here are some simple guidelines to go fast.

Optimize for Reading, not Writing

Do we want to optimize sticky notes for reading or writing?

For many common usage patterns, each sticky note will be read hundreds of times for even a small group of people. With this much reading going on, it’s common sense to optimize for reading. So, it’s a good investment to create quality sticky notes so that your group can communicate fast. This is especially true for retrospectives, but even more critical for Product Backlog/Story Map Boards and Iteration/Kanban boards.

FYI, this is also true for software code – it is a big win to write readable code for the same reasons as above.

One Idea Per Sticky Note

One Idea

There is a lot of value in writing one idea per sticky note. It gives us more space to write each idea. But more importantly, we can move each idea around independently when it’s on it’s own. This is really useful for clustering and other activities that allow us to look for patterns and relationships between ideas.

Few Words

Few Words I like to write with the fewest words that capture the essence of what I am trying to communicate. Fewer words means each concept can be understood faster (less reading time) and therefore the group can process things quicker. Fewer words are also much more effective since we can remember them easily. Long sentences requires us to do work to create our own summary. Let the sticky note be the summary.

Where are the details? Well, it turns out that talking to each other is much more useful for details. We can use the sticky notes to act as visual anchors for the conversation. We don’t need it all written down.

Easy to Read

Easy to ReadIt is important that sticky notes are easy to read so that we can read them quickly so that we can go fast. Writing in cursive usually makes sticky notes slower to read. Writing in pen (see bottom of orange sticky) also makes it slower to read than marker.

To summarize: no cursive, no pens

A well-written sticky note can be read from 15 feet away so that everyone can participate in the activity.

Use CAPITAL LETTERS

Capital Letters

There are some tricks that I would like to point out:

1. Print.
2. Use CAPITAL LETTERS to increase legibility.
3. Make the first letter of each word bigger. Look at the word CAPITAL – notice that the “C” is a bigger font than “APITAL”. This trick is courtesy of Jeff Anderson.

Following Guidelines

Most people will start writing better sticky notes right away. For a variety of reasons, there will be sticky notes that are poor or just completely unreadable.

Here is a  test & recovery procedure.

  1. Hold up the questionable sticky note
  2. Ask: Can someone please read what this says?
  3. If people are struggling, ask the author to read it.
  4. Ask someone to volunteer to re-write it.

Sticky Note Neurosis

It could be argued that  anyone paying this much attention to writing sticky notes has either an obsessive-compulsive disorder or is on Asperger’s spectrum or perhaps an out-of-control perfectionist. It could be argued that I have been all three at times in my life. One team I worked with had fun with me by intentionally moving stickies out of place and waiting for me to notice.

My attitude now is that this is like code. Some teams aspire to have clean code. Similarly some teams aspire to have great looking Sprint or Kanban boards. It’s a team decision.

Slidedeck To Explain

The next time you need to explain this, here is a slide deck you can download and show.

 

Acknowledgements

I have for sure been greatly influenced by Xavier Quesada Allue who has an awesome visual management blog. As well to Llewellyn Falco who contributed a photo and inspired the slide deck for quick explanations.

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6 Comments »

  • Alistair McKinnell Said,

    October 1, 2013 @ 7:04 pm

    Another useful technique for sticky notes is remembering to detach the topmost sticky note by pulling sideways near a top corner rather than pulling up from the bottom. Pulling up from the bottom tends to create a bent, curved sticky note. Instead, grip an edge of the topmost sticky note near a top corner and pull sideways to detach a sticky note that lays flat. Am I perhaps also suffering from sticky note neurosis?

  • Shyam Kumar Said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 11:01 am

    Excellent Post, Michael.

    Thanks for this.

    I too have gotten addicted to sticky notes thanks to being around the folks in Agile community. I too have been getting a lot of grief and ribbing from my colleagues because of my reaching out to post-its instinctively.

    I found a couple of reference regarding the use of sticky’s useful:

    1) The first one is Garr Reynolds book – Presentation Zen
    2) The 2nd being “Rapid Problem Solving with Post-it Notes by David Straker

  • Jason Yip (@jchyip) Said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 9:15 pm

    Cool! I find myself sharing the same tips often.

    Re: Small Caps
    My graphic facilitation instructor told me that mixed case (focusing on vertical strokes) is more effective than small caps (which I thought was better from observing comic books) because it’s easier to visually distinguish the characters

  • Michael Sahota Said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 10:23 pm

    Thanks for your comment.

    I think it depends on the context.

    Some people have very neat printing and mixed case is fine.

    Many people do not and the use of upper cases ends up with much more legible sticky notes since they go slower and tidier. So it may be less readable with upper case characters, but the sloppiness impact of mixed case tips the scale.

    But now I am curious. Maybe we can all do A/B tests on this with different groups and report back with results. I think I will.

  • Stephen Wise Said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

    Michael:

    You didn’t mention size of sticky notes. I like to use sticky notes that are double the width you have pictured. Although it increases the probability that I’ll get more than one idea per note and that it uses too many words – the facilitator or team recovery process will likely help the original author better articulate/emerge the one or more original ideas which otherwise may have gone unnoticed.

    Also, I always try to post notes on sheet of paper rather than a board so it is easy roll-up and transport or store if the location has other purposes than just for our team.

    After completing a planning process and prior to rolling up my post-it notes as above, I run scotch tape over the notes to hold them in place. I realize this breaks the sprint iteration planning model of the movable notes, but it works for me and I use other methods which are more effective for me to make and communicate changes to the plan once we are executing.

  • Michael Sahota Said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

    Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for your comments. I mostly use 3″ x 3″. I just scored some large hexagonal ones so looking for a chance to play more with those.

    Thanks for sharing your suggestions – there is probably another blog post that could be written around “sticky note management”.

    - Michael

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