ECG Principal Michael Vivion, PhD , discusses how teams can use Post-it ® Notes to create, explore, and revise messages .

Teams charged with working together to prepare a presentation or a document often turn to a computer capture of messages as one of the first steps in the preparation process. Using the computer, perhaps even using a piece of brainstorming software, certainly makes such a complex collaborative task easier.

But if they want to use a process that has maintained its power over decades, they should make a stop to buy a few pads of Post-it® Notes. This accidental discovery by a 3M scientist can help transform a group of people faced with a potentially onerous task into a team of energized, focused creators.

How can these small pieces of paper, a creation that took 12 years to get from prototype to product, become so transformative?

Let me count the ways.

ACCOMMODATE DIVERSE TYPES OF THINKING

Sticky notes appeal to almost every kind of thinker. They're visual and tactile. They can be arranged linearly to show sequence or in a scatter plot design to create a more visual gestalt for those who need to mull over the big picture. They allow those disposed to thinking aloud to talk themselves through points or ideas. Then, during the critique and revision periods, it's easy to get members of the team walking around and adding further thoughts and clarifications to those already posted.

Using the computer limits this ability. Even using a computer with a projector reduces broad appeal to different kinds of learners. The visual appeal remains; however, the sense of getting physically involved in the problem is more difficult. How many times have you seen a group of people gathered around a screen touching the items projected on it? Sticky notes capture and separate abstract thoughts into discreet, concrete pieces that can be manipulated easily.

CAPTURE ALL VOICES

Another advantage of using Post-it® Notes is that they include even the quietest person in the group; they don't automatically privilege the loudest voice. A brainstorming or prototyping process can begin with everyone creating a collection of their ideas, one idea per note, and thus help participants to be concise and clear. As the process continues, each member can continue to contribute as the sticky notes are gathered and sorted, often by posting their responses on a community space such as a flip chart.

You can create a version of this connectivity by having everyone sit at a keyboard and send ideas to the computer operator. Then the group can share screens and examine the collected ideas. But the borders of the computer screen impose severe limitations when compared to posting sticky notes on all four walls of a room.

FACILITATE REVISION

Team members delay judgment as they examine Post-it® Notes. Revising them, rearranging them, even deleting them, provide opportunities for thoughtfulness, for revisiting ideas, structures, and evidence. Intrinsically dynamic rather than static, sticky notes help teams reach a fire-tested consensus. They offer the possibility of creating prototypes or annotated outlines that are open both to challenge and to instant revision.

One of the problems with computer-generated drafts is that they look so good, so finished. Once something is typed neatly, it's emotionally hard to change it in significant ways. It's also difficult to move large chunks of text, compare them with previous versions, and modify them. With sticky notes, this feeling of openness remains until noted thoughts become printed text.

As more people interested in the creative process explore ways of using the computer for collaborative brainstorming and prototyping, it's likely that one day someone will develop a technology that allows team members to work with sufficient tactile and intellectual involvement.

But until then, praise the humble Post-it® . . . and put it to work.