A group of blank sticky notes

Preventing Interruptions with Sticky Notes

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In software production, there are all kinds of techniques that utilise sticky notes.  Whether it’s in a physical Kanban board, example mapping, risk storming, or just general reminders, we seem to like them a lot.  At the Open Space day of TestBash Germany last year, I decided to use sticky notes in a different way.



The Need


Inspired by Katrina Clokie’s talk on Volunteering to Lead at the conference the previous day, I decided to host an Open Space session called “My Name is [Name] and I Fucked Up”.  It was to be a safe space for participants to share their past failures, what they’d learnt from them, and what they did / were trying to do to make it better.


With such a personal and sensitive theme, I knew that I wanted participants not only to feel safe enough to share, but to have the space to do so.  I wanted speakers to be able to take a pause in their story to find the right words, or prepare to share something difficult, without either being spoken over, or having another eager participant jump in with a question or another story before the original speaker had finished.


An idea popped into my head before the session, and that was to use sticky notes.  I’d never heard of them being used for this purpose before, and this was the first time I had the idea, so I didn’t know how it would turn out.  In the end, I think it worked really well, and so I want to share this technique with you.



The Tools


To use sticky notes to prevent interruptions in meetings, you’ll need stacks of sticky notes in two different colours.  It doesn’t matter which colours you choose, but we used pink and green, simply because they were available.  You should have enough for all attendees to write their name once on each colour.


You’ll also need a few pens or pencils for people to write their names.



The Method


Naturally, this is the most important part, and you’ll need to make sure that everyone in the meeting understands it.  The method is based on one important principle: the person who brings up the topic in discussion (the speaker) is in control.


As the speaker is introducing the topic, describing a scenario, detailing their concerns, etc., anyone else in the meeting (audience) is not allowed to speak.  If they have questions, comments, or suggestions about what the speaker is saying, they should pick one colour of sticky note (we used pink for this), write their name on it, then place it in the centre of the table, within the speaker’s view.  Then they wait.


If an audience member has another topic they want to talk about that is either unrelated to the previous topic, or related but they want to speak about it independently from the previous speaker, they should take a sticky note in the second colour (we used green) and do the same thing.  Even if the speaker pauses or sounds like they are finished, the audience should not speak yet.


By the time the speaker has finished everything they wanted to say, there might be four pink sticky notes and two green ones in the middle.  The speaker can then take one pink sticky note at a time and invite the person whose name is written on it to share their question or comment, and have a short exchange with that particular audience member.  If others think of things they want to say during this time, they can continue adding their own sticky notes.  Once the exchange with one audience member ends, they can take back their pink sticky note and keep it for the next time they want to comment.


This continues until there are no more pink notes in the centre.  If the speaker has nothing more to add and is ready to close the topic, they then pick one of the green sticky notes and invite that person to be the new speaker, who is now in control.  The first speaker is now part of the audience and can add their own sticky notes.


If, at any point, someone has their sticky note in the middle of the table but their question is answered, their comment becomes irrelevant as details emerge, or they change their mind, they are free to take back their sticky note(s) without speaking.


Since the speaker is in control, I asked attendees to be conscious of the time constraints (45 minutes) and number of people in the room (six) at the start of the session, so there would be enough time for everyone to be the speaker, if they wanted to.


I wouldn’t recommend writing the actual question or comment on the sticky notes, as the speaker might become distracted and read them before they are finished saying what they initially intended to.  Writing only names also allows sticky notes to be reused.



The Results


The purpose of this technique is to have only one person speaking at a time.  The following scenarios should be noticeably reduced, if not completely eliminated:

  • People talking over each other and fighting for talk time
  • People not having the chance to finish what they wanted to say, or share a complete idea or opinion
  • People being more interested in having their own point heard than listening to others
  • People’s opinions being misinterpreted because they weren’t able to finish what they were saying
  • Allies thinking of ways to help the original speaker finish what they were saying


At the Open Space, this worked incredibly well, especially for having been thought up on the spot, shortly before being used.  I could have explained it to the session attendees better, but I’m really pleased with the way everyone responded and self-moderated if anyone forgot to wait for the speaker’s invitation to share, which was rare.  It really helped that everyone there was so kind and patient.

Another good thing about this technique is that the speaker gets to choose who speaks next; it doesn’t necessarily have to be “first come, first served”.  This means that if one person is continually adding sticky notes to the centre and has already had a lot of talk time, the current speaker can choose to let someone else speak for the first time, even if they added their sticky note last.


Upon considering the benefits of this technique, I was reminded of an article I read about “Inclusive Collaboration and the Silence Experiment”.  I thought about how using sticky notes to prevent interruptions in meetings might have similar benefits, such as less distractions and creating an environment that allows people time to process before sharing their thoughts.  I hope that using sticky notes in this way can help us to be more inclusive of people who appreciate the time to process information.



In the Workplace


I understand that this might sound a little too good to be true, and that circumstances at the Open Space were a little different to those we might face in the workplace.  The dynamics are different, and the topics in the office are likely not so sensitive or personal.


On my current project, I have the opposite problem to people interrupting each other in meetings, so I unfortunately haven’t been able to try this method in the workplace yet.  However, anticipating some of the potential challenges, here are some additional things you might want to consider implementing if you try this out yourself:

  1. Appoint a moderator (which could be you) if you think there might be issues adapting to this method, or that attendees won’t self-moderate
  2. Set a time-box for each topic / speaker in case there are lots of pink sticky notes for questions and comments, or there are lots of topics to discuss
  3. Assign a different speaker to each topic on the agenda in advance to avoid having only one speaker for the entire meeting, and add them all on green sticky notes at the start of the meeting
  4. If the purpose of the meeting is to brainstorm or gather ideas about something, ask attendees to think about this in advance, so the meeting is more about sharing ideas than waiting for people to come up with them
  5. If this method works well and you use it frequently, switch to using different coloured cards that you can reuse to avoid waste and care for the environment



As mentioned, I’ve only used this method once so far, so I’m really interested to know how it works for other people, and in other situations.  Please try this out and comment below to let me know how it went.  If you have any other thoughts or suggestions, feel free to share those too.

3 thoughts to “Preventing Interruptions with Sticky Notes”

  1. This is very similar to the method of moderation I became very used to in a previous life as a trade union conference delegate; your system is a lot easier to set up and can be more easily and quickly applied to informal sessions or discussions.

    (The following description is based on my particular union. There may be variations in this technique, but we found that it worked fairly well to manage a conference where there could be anything up to a thousand delegates in the room, all of whom are entitled to speak.)

    At Conference, various (pre-defined) motions are up for debate. The mover and seconder of the motion have set times for delivery of their speeches; five minutes for the mover, three minutes for the seconder. The conference Chair then selects speakers from the floor of the conference to step forward and speak either in support or opposition to the motion before taking a vote on the motion.

    The Chair can identify speakers and their stance on the motion because part of the pack that each delegate receives includes an A4-sized card which is blank on one side and has a large letter ‘A’ (for “against”) on the other. Delegates wishing to speak for the motion hold up the card showing the blank side; those wishing to speak against hold up the card with the ‘A’ showing., The Chair then has the option to call forward as many speakers as time permits as they wish, and it is the job of the Chair to achieve a suitable balance in speakers for and against. If time is short and no opposition to a motion can be seen in the room, the Chair may only call a few speakers – or even one – or even decline to take any speakers at all. Speakers are allocated two minutes for their speeches in support or opposition.

    (This allows the Chair to achieve one of the things that you identified as an issue: one person continually getting a lot of talk time. One of the Chair’s objectives at Conference is to allow as many different voices to be heard as possible, and so they have the discretion not to select speakers who they know have already spoken a lot in earlier sessions if there are others asking to speak who have not spoken already.)

  2. really like this Cassandra – for some many reasons, including allowing people to have a voice, uninterrupted, getting people to think about what is being said very carefully, and also making a space where those with opinions but who like to think for a while before speaking to have time to cogitate. Good work – and I look forward to seeing you carry it forward into other conferences and venues, as well as back into work.

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