Improve Performance with Effective Notetaking for Federal Employees
A Naval officer opens a green memorandum book and jots down action items at the morning officer’s call meeting with announcements to relay at division quarters. The contracting officer looks back to the notes from contractor communications while writing a memo. A data architect scans action items from the last team meeting to map out the next sprint.
The Information Technology Investment Management Framework
Teams cannot succeed if important ideas, action items, and solutions are not remembered. Future success is built on accumulated intellectual capital. If not recorded, the essential thoughts and aspirations of our team and stakeholders (perhaps the customer) may be forgotten. Leaders listen actively and ensure notes are taken to facilitate success.
Organizational notetaking maturity can be described in terms of a 5-stage model. Each level describes increased competence leading to more predictable and replicable success:
- Level 1 – Notes are sporadic and inconsistent
- Level 2 – Common tool and process has been established
- Level 3 – Tools and process are understood and required
- Level 4 – Metrics on the process are reported into a central repository
- Level 5 – Continuous improvement is enabled by assessment of metrics
Cornell Notetaking Method
A common tool can be taught across an organization. As an example, the Cornell Notetaking Method was developed in the 1940s and today is used in many universities and businesses. A common format throughout an agency enhances data retrieval and clarity. Focusing on notetaking can improve individual, team, and organizational competence while building intellectual capital.
Memory vs. Notes
Memory can be difficult and elusive. Research has shown that people have long-term, short-term, and working memory, each with different longevity and brain location. In 1885 a German researcher, Hermann Ebbinghaus, described the “forgetting curve,” a theory of how people forget. The science of notetaking has battled Ebbinghaus’s curve ever since. When stakeholder memories diverge, notes can de-personalize contention, “my notes say…” Or contemporaneous notes can be used in court to refresh a witness’s memory.
Logging every word is called verbatim, notetaking, or transcription. Such notes may be useful in requirements-gathering interviews or when a topic may be under litigation. Common applications like Microsoft Word for Web now have AI-enabled transcription tools.
Verbatim notes, if not reviewed later, do not help the note-taker retain ideas. Transcription should be discouraged for internal team use. Studies show that people taking notes with computers slip into transcription rather than the processing, reframing, and synthesis that comes from summarization. Such notetaking makes the note-taker a conduit of data from the ears to the laptop without sinking into memory. Devices will not be wrestled from future digital natives’ hands, so synthesis tools like Cornell method templates appear in apps such as Evernote and OneNote.
Notes from meetings ought to summarize, synthesize, and sometimes illustrate the essence of the meeting. In private notes, one can mention body language, emotions, and impressions. Sometimes a diagram can be drawn while taking notes that can be shown to the speaker to verify understandings. If notes are not taken during a meeting, they can be created immediately after capturing as much as possible before the forgetting curve sets in.
During meetings, listeners can capture their transient inspirations without derailing the speaker. The Cornell Method leaves space in its matrix for questions popping into the mind of the listener. Notes allow individuals to shelve their thoughts so that they can listen rather than just waiting for a turn to talk. Daniel Kahneman used the term “cognitively busy” for distracted people trying to remember something other than the topic at hand. Kahneman noted that the cognitively busy might be “more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations.” Team meetings become more effective if the participants are listening.
Managers prioritize to keep important ideas in their long-term memory. As a researcher in the utility of forgetting (transience) put it, “the goal of memory is not the transmission of information through time, per se. Rather, the goal of memory is to optimize decision-making.” The first step of optimization is to decide what to record and review while Ebbinghaus’s curve clears away the mundane and superfluous.
Improving Notetaking Skills and Consistency:
It may not be possible to drive the entire organization, but it is always possible to build an island of competency on your team. The process of improving notetaking skills and consistency:
- Assess and document the starting position for the effort
- Find a sponsor or champion for the effort
- Discuss potential tools, applications, templates, or techniques for taking notes
- Create a pilot program with core team members who will champion the solution
- Train the pilot team
- Run the pilot notetaking effort
- Revise the training and implementation based on pilot feedback
- Train the greater team
- Incorporate notetaking metrics into personnel reviews
- Continuously monitor compliance and lessons learned
Bill Dannenmaier, PMP, MBA, is CEO of BlackBox Partners and an instructor for Management Concepts. Bill has a broad background that crosses industries, functions, and cultures. He enjoys helping organizations improve processes and systems to maximize their performance and profits through training. A retired US Navy Veteran, Bill is also an experienced consultant with thirty years of post-MBA experience in training, consulting, project management. Bill earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Austin Peay State University, a master’s degree in history from The College of William & Mary, an MBA from Cornell University, and is PMP® certified.