Stuck for Ideas? Start with Sticky Notes

By Association Adviser staff • January 20, 2015

Stuck for ideas? Not sure how to kick off your next brainstorming session? Some of the sharpest innovators in the business suggest not overthinking it.

Tom Hood, CEO of MACPA
Tom Hood, Maryland Association of CPAs (MACPA)

Even at IBM, they start with good old pens and sticky notes according to Phil Gilbert, GM of IBM design, who described Big Blue’s innovation process in The New York Times recently. In brainstorming meetings, everyone spends 10 minutes writing their thoughts on sticky notes. One idea per note. No talking allowed. Then idea by idea, team members post their anonymous sticky notes on a big white board. It doesn’t matter what you job title or role in the organization is. Everyone posts. Then the team leader or meeting facilitator groups the notes into overlapping and logical areas so the team can later vet the (anonymous) ideas and select which ones to run with. “It’s difficult to quash a good idea if it’s shared. “When you give voice to more people, the best ideas win, not the loudest ones.”

Tom Hood, CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs (MACPA), agrees with the sticky note approach. As CEO or ED, your main job is to be chief innovation officer and chief collaboration officer, said Hood. “Make sure your members, your volunteers and your staff are aligned with you and engaged with you. It’s not ‘my project’ anymore. It’s ‘our project.’ It’s very important that people can see your thinking process clearly and buy into it. I’m a tech guy by nature, but nothing seems to beat good old fashioned MBSN (management by sticky note),” said Hood.

“You know. You write your goals and objectives on a big sheet of butcher paper, stick it on the wall, and encourage everyone at your organization to put sticky notes on the quadrants or circles where they think their ideas belong. It doesn’t take long before some sectors look like skyscrapers and others look like sparsely populated ranch houses.”

Pamela Hemann
Pamela Hemann, FASAE, CAE, Association Management Services, Inc.

The key, said Hood, is collaboration. Get everyone involved in the process and make sure they can see the results of their input very clearly. It doesn’t get any easier than stacks of sticky notes on a wall to elucidate your organization’s vision. They’ll get the picture, even in the heat and humidity.

Pamela Hemann, FASAE, CAE, President of Association Management Services, Inc. and Executive Director of Leadership California, said there’s no lack of ideas at most associations. “What they need is someone who can say how they’re going to execute those ideas. It’s great to start something but keeping it going and devoting the resources to it is the challenge.”

And that’s worth posting above every conference room and cubicle in your office.